Cheating is the norm. Plan your course with this in mind.


If you make it through the upcoming semester without having busted any students for cheating, then the odds are that you failed to detect the academic misconduct that happened in your class.

Cheating is pedestrian and commonplace. The bulk of tests and assignments are probably done honestly, but cheating, plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct are super-duper common. Academic dishonesty happens far, far more often than we detect. Most students arrive into college from a “culture of cheating.”

There’s no shortage of peer-reviewed literature indicating that most college students cheat, and that cheating happens all of the time, and that situations when nobody cheats are the outliers.

I always start my courses telling my students that I have no expectation that any individual will violate the academic integrity policy. But I also let them know that nearly every semester, one or more students have received an F course that I teach because they were found to intentionally violate the academic integrity policy. And I spend time with my class on the topic so that it is wholly clear what constitutes cheating and plagiarism. There can be no valid cries of ignorance once academic misconduct is detected.

Most important: I show students how to do their work honestly. I don’t know how much of this lesson takes, because at the start, most of my students have no idea how to do non-plagiarized written assignments. This is a sad truth.

Aside from plagiarism, lots of students just flat-out cheat on exams and quizzes. Using old-school cheat sheets, notes on their bodies, looking over at their neighbors, peeking into their notes, and looking stuff up on their phones. This is not an oddity. This is the norm. I realize that I miss most instances, but I also detect it once in a while. I set up the situation in my classroom to minimize these incidents, but it still happens. And I recognize that more students get away with it than get caught.

When designing my syllabus, I aim to minimize the benefit of cheating as well as the opportunity to do so. I also make it so that when it happens, it’s more readily detected. And I make sure that people know what happens whenever I discover academic dishonesty.

There’s no shortage of information to find out about how to design a course to dissuade cheating and plagiarism. Some of these measures are more onerous than others. Everybody needs to chart their own path, but the journey should start with understanding the fact that cheating is pervasive.

By the way, how should you handle the situation when students do cheat? Here’s a previous post of mine about what I do after detecting academic misconduct. Your mileage may vary.

7 thoughts on “Cheating is the norm. Plan your course with this in mind.

  1. I always allow my students to bring a cheat sheet into the exam, and I plan the exam accordingly (no questions that simply ask for recall of facts). That levels the playing field and means one less thing for me to worry about when it comes to academic dishonesty.

  2. What are some ways you design your syllabus to minimize the benefit of cheating? Do you mean by putting more weight on graded activities where collaboration is allowed?

    • This should be a whole post of its own! Definitely what Claus wrote is at the top of the list. And other stuff. [added to the queue of posts that I’d like to write someday]

  3. Your post strikes near and dear to my heart :)

    I teach mostly online courses for my regional university & local community colleges. As you say, cheating is an endemic part of the learning ecosystem; probably always has been, really. Students don’t really see societal penalty for lying, when respected authors like Stephen Ambrose plagiarise.

    A few semesters ago, I told a student to stop plagiarising her essays. A Junior, she told me I was the first faculty member at my university to call her on her cheating in over two years of college. She admitted to me she knew she was cheating. She was also an Education major. In some cases, you can report a student to their advisor. Some programs have penalties for cheating and will keep a record. The record is then used to prevent student-teaching, for example, to drop people from certificate programs. Those kinds of penalties help. Another Education major told a friend of mine, also an Education major, he had “never written an honest paper in my entire college career.” He bought them, or paid someone to write them. I wonder how many faculty simply turn a blind-eye because the effort to combat cheating is often greater than the consequences. A year ago, a high school student taking my college course submitted easy which were 100% plagiarised. In fact, I learned from her principal, the principal had been helping her. The principal did not know the difference between “reporting on research” versus “research.” The student had been cutting & pasting from magazines without citation and the principal had called this “her research.” I spent time on the phone trying to explain to the high principal this was not really research and her student needed to follow my instructions or face failing the course.

    My local community college VP told me not long ago that any student who challenges a grade for an online exam will win the appeal. Thankfully, most students do not know this. But, the comment told me that making students happy was more important that delivering a quality learning experience. In tough fiscal times, admins are willing to also turn a blind-eye.

    Some people know precisely what they are doing and should pay the price. Some people, adults, have a mistaken idea of what cheating is and when confronted with appropriate information, won’t accept their error.

    I try to appeal to their personal ethics in comments placed in homework assignments throughout the course, e.g. “As an employer, would you hire someone who cheated their way through college? As an alumni, how would you feel if you knew people with the same certificate/degree as you cheated to obtain that degree?”

    In the end, I give them a zero on the first evidence of cheating. The second case is failing the course. But, like I said earlier, admins are more interested in keeping students in classes and enrolled for fiscal reasons.

    Good post!

  4. During my (3hr) final exam last quarter, a student nearly went berzerk on me because I didn’t let him go to the bathroom. He was utterly shocked that it was unacceptable, even though this is upper division. The compromise that I made with myself was to let him go, but all future classes would have a clause in the syllabus explicitly preventing bathroom breaks during any exercise (exam, quiz etc.) in-class that would be assessed for a grade.

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