Online courses may not increase cheating, profs find

Posted December 11, 2020

With the end of fall semester in sight at UW-River Falls, a concern facing some professors is how to discourage cheating on final exams, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic has forced courses online.

But the move to online learning doesn’t necessarily correlate to an increase in cheating, according to research conducted by two professors at West Virginia’s Marshall University. George Watson and James Sottile found that students are more likely to cheat in live classes than they are online.

“One possible explanation is that classroom social interaction in live classes plays some part in,” Watson and Sottile wrote in 2010. Researchers propose that interaction and familiarity with students creates a higher moral obligation for academic integrity.

Sierra Howry, an associate professor of agricultural economics at UW-River Falls, shares the concern of other professors about students cheating on exams. Howry has implemented students turning on their computer’s camera and showing her the room they are in during exams to reduce cheating.

“I expect students to be honest because it is a concern of mine,” Howry said. She said several students have told her that they appreciate the accountability that her method provides. Howry added that it is a university expectation that students have the technology and stable internet connection to do exams and other online class material, but for some students this has meant using cell phones to fulfill their coursework.

Although she is not aware of any cheating, Howry said this does not imply that it is not happening. She tells her students that cheating is only going to impact them in the long run. In her experience, she said, this is typically enough to keep her students from cheating.

English Professor Greta Gaard says that she is not at all worried about cheating in her courses. Gaard said that in writing classes, she quickly learns her students’ writing voice and style, and it would be easy for her to tell if a student was submitting writing that was not his or her own.

Gaard also finds it beneficial to allow students more than enough time to complete any quizzes she assigns. This gives students enough time to look up answers if needed.

“Only students who care about their scores will look up information and learn from it,” Gaard said. She added that her approach to exams both disallows cheating and encourages learning.

“Teachers and students are not adversaries, but rather co-learners. Overemphasis on cheating creates hostility and adversity, I prefer this different approach,” Gaard added.

Cyndi Kernahan, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) and a professor of psychology, said she finds cheating has less to do with the delivery of the course, and more to do with course content. Kernahan said that as a professor, her method to reduce cheating is to focus on the content and assignments she is presenting to students.

“What we know from the cheating research is that cheating is less about the modality, and more about how the course is structured,” Kernahan said. High-stakes tests and assignments that put students under pressure make cheating more tempting.

From her viewpoint of director of CETL, Kernahan said that because cheating is a concern for other professors, it becomes more of a concern for her.

“The folks that it’s the hardest for is those who teach classes like physics, math and chemistry,” she said. More resources are available for students in these courses to find answers to homework and tests, such as Chegg Inc., a company that specializes in online textbook rentals, tutoring and homework help.

Kernahan recommends professors assign more low-stakes assignments and tests, make questions as application-based as possible, or ask students to read and sign an integrity pledge ahead of time.

“What it all comes back to is asking yourself as a professor what do I care about, what is my objective and what do I want them to learn?” Kernahan said.