SAGE Musings: Minimizing and Dealing with Academic Dishonesty

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Mar 6, 2017

If it seems to you that academic dishonesty is rampant, and has gotten worse over time, you're not imagining it. "Research in high schools shows that two thirds of students cheat on tests, and 90 percent cheat on homework. The figures are almost as high among college students. Furthermore, it is clear that rates of cheating have gone up over the past three decades" (Stephens, 2004). Of course, that doesn't mean that each of those students cheats on every test or homework assignment. And there are degrees of academic dishonesty, some more galling than others. But, statistically speaking, chances are that many of your students will cheat on assignments or exams this term and every term (e.g. McBurney, 1996; Stephens, 2004).

That's disheartening, isn't it? Dealing with academic dishonesty is the thing I miss the least, now that I am no longer teaching. Fortunately, there is some good news. There are ways to decrease students' motivation to cheat. Here are several strategies that have emerged from the research on this topic:

Strategies for minimizing cheating

  • Put academic dishonesty into ethical context. Help students think about the bigger picture. For example:
    • "Give students images of people who don't cut corners: scientists who discover things they don't expect because they approach their work with an impeccable respect for truth and a genuinely open mind; business people who exemplify integrity even when it seems like it might cost them something. But don't preach. Take seriously the fact that, in some contexts, being consistently honest can be hard" (Stephens, 2004).
    • Communicate your policy for dealing with academic dishonesty; put it in your syllabus (McBurney, 1996; Michael and Williams, 2013). I used to make a point of reviewing it in class, early in the term, and mentioning it again before exams and major assignment due dates. Make sure that your policy is consistent with your institution's. In addition, let students know what you think about academic dishonesty, and why. What values are behind your policy?
    • Remind students that academic dishonesty hurts the person who is cheating. It sabotages their own efforts to learn information, concepts, and skills that they are paying a lot of money to learn.
    • If you college has an honor code, incorporate it (Pope, 2014). One college I taught at had students write it on major assignments and sign them; we also printed it on exams and had students sign them.
  • Take away students' incentives to cheat. For example:
    • Make explicit connections between your courses and students interests, so that they understand why they should learn the material (Stephens, 2004; Gooblar, 2014).
    • Structure bigger assignments so that students get feedback on early stages of their work -- that is, formative assessment (Michael and Williams, 2013; Pope, 2014). In addition, you might consider allowing students to re-do smaller assignments on which they don't earn a passing grade, or to correct mistakes they made on tests, to earn back some of the points they lost (Pope, 2014). This ensures that assignments are learning opportunities, and re-focuses the students' attention from grades to learning.
    • Consider whether to lift restrictions on collaboration, particularly for homework assignments, since research indicates that collaboration supports student learning (Stephens, 2004).
    • Let students know that you think they can succeed in your class, without cheating (McBurney, 1996). Sometimes students are motivated to cheat by a fear of failure.
    • Consider assessing student learning via a variety of different mechanisms, so that students have many ways to show you that they have learned the material (Gooblar, 2014; Pope, 2014).
    • Make assessments fair and well-aligned with the assignments in your courses (Stephens, 2004).
  • Clarify what constitutes academic dishonesty.
    • Not every faculty member has the same policies; for example, some encourage collaboration of homework assignments, while others forbid it. Let your students know what you expect from them.
    • This is important for every student, but can be especially important for international students. Cultural norms vary about what "counts" as academic dishonesty; behavior that is completely acceptable in some countries may be unacceptable to you, in your classroom. But how will international students know that, if you don't tell them?
    • I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of college students know they shouldn't plagiarize. But I have had some very illuminating conversations with students about just what exactly "counts" as plagiarism. If you have writing assignments in your courses, teach students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Even better, structure writing assignments so that they are personalized, making it very hard to plagiarize (McBurney, 1996). I used to give my students a plagiarism exercise at the beginning of the term. It had 10 paired examples of source text and how it was incorporated into a writing assignment. Students had to identify which examples were plagiarized, and fix the ones that were. Some were pretty blatant -- copied word for word -- while others were more subtle. Jack Dougherty, at Trinity College, has a different approach: he gives students an assignment requiring them to plagiarize a text several different ways (Gooblar, 2014).
  • Make it harder to get away with cheating.
    • Take control of the testing environment, and keep your eyes open (McBurney, 1996). There are all kinds of ways to cheat on exams.
    • Use or similar programs to catch plagiarism.

Nonetheless, some of your students will commit academic dishonesty. I won't say I did everything right, but I followed most of these practices when I taught, and I still had obvious cases of academic dishonesty almost every term. How should you respond when that happens? I know some faculty choose to just let it go -- after all, the student really is cheating himself or herself out of an opportunity to learn, and there will eventually be natural consequences for that. But that approach never sat well with me. Assuming you plan to penalize students for academic dishonesty, here are the recommendations I gleaned from the literature on this subject:

Strategies for dealing with students who have cheated

  • Be consistent with your stated and written policies (Michael and Williams, 2013).
  • Document what happened. If there are witnesses, ask them to give you a written account of what they saw (McBurney, 1996).
  • First try to settle the matter informally. Talk with the student outside of class, show them the evidence you have that they have violated your policy, and tell them what penalty you will apply. If the student owns up to his/her actions, consider having the student sign a document describing what happened and how the two of you have resolved the situation. Keep a copy of this for your records. You might even give a copy to your department chair or dean.... If the student is in the habit of committing academic dishonesty, having multiple cases documented can lead to disciplinary action by your institution (McBurney, 1996).
  • Be prepared to follow your institution's guidelines for more formal action, if necessary.
Share your best strategies

Have you found ways to cut down on the incidents of academic dishonesty in your classes? Do you have a favorite way of dealing with academic dishonesty? Tell us about it!


Gooblar, David. Why Students Cheat -- and 3 Ways to Stop Them. February 19, 2014. Retrieved from, March 3, 2017.

McBurney, Donald. January 1, 1996. Cheating: Preventing and Dealing with Academic Dishonesty. Association for Psychological Science Observer. Retrieved from, March 3, 2017.

Michael, Timothy B., and Melissa A. Williams (2013). Student Equity: Discouraging Cheating in Online Courses. Administrative Issues Journal: Education, Practice, and Research; v.3, n.2. Retrieved from, March 3, 2017.

Pope, Denise. April 11, 2014. Academic Integrity: Cheat or Be Cheated? Retrieved from, March 3, 2017.

Stephens, Jason. May, 2004. Justice or Just Us? What to Do about Cheating. Retrieved from, March 3, 2017.

SAGE Musings: Minimizing and Dealing with Academic Dishonesty -- Discussion  

I, and many of my colleagues at Highline, have made this an explicit course, department and programmatic outcome. For me, one of the student outcomes for all my courses is "Demonstrate ethical behavior in the acquisition, reporting, and use of data and information in the sciences." To me, this is part of being a scientist. There are some advantages to having this be an explicit outcome of my course - one is that I can grade students on how well they demonstrate that they have met (or not met) this outcome. After years of having student services undermine my attempts to make academic dishonesty have a significant consequence, I now am in the position of evaluating them on whether they met this outcome and, if they have not, being able to evaluate them appropriately. Since I, as an instructor have sole discretion on evaluating how well students have met my course outcomes, the grade penalties are not subject to other's interference.


Share edittextuser=57 post_id=31139 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=11660

Carol, your message reminds me of the extra effort that we take on my campus to explain academic dishonesty to our international students.

At the beginning of each new semester, we hold a week’s worth of orientation sessions for our new international students. I represent the faculty’s perspective at one of those orientation sessions. I meet with the students to go over some of the typical day to day interactions that occur between faculty and students within the University of Wisconsin System. Included in those sessions I discuss academic misconduct. I go over the “official” UW system academic misconduct guidelines (we have a brochure that is handed out to all students, as well as a copy of it on our campus webpage); I explain what is typically considered “cheating” and “plagiarism” in U.S. colleges/universities and students have a chance to ask questions that they may otherwise be too shy or embarrassed to ask of their professors once a class is in session and the student is being “graded” by that professor. Of course I also tell the students that they need to talk with their individual instructors to make sure they (the students) understand what each professor considers to be “cheating” in their own courses. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from the international students on how helpful these sessions are.

As for plagiarism, a member of our English department put together a powerpoint presentation explaining what plagiarism is. This powerpoint is available to all students through our course management system (D2L) as well as being posted on many individual course webpages. As Carol described in her musing, the powerpoint includes example sentences where students can practice identifying which examples are plagiarized and how to fix the sentences that were. I use part of this powerpoint set during the international student orientation as well.


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In this era of hybrid instruction (high school) the amount of academic dishonesty has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, with outcomes not well for students and/or instructors. My assignments for attendance checks have become short and brief to the point they can be easily found on the Internet. I am not sure what students know due to lack of building relationships and knowing students. I am so disheartened. I am not sure how to structure assignments to alleviate students academic dishonesty. The topic seems to be taboo.


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