Why Do Students Cheat In Online Courses


Cheating on exams isn’t new. From carrying elaborately written cheat sheets to writing formulas on the wrist, academic dishonesty has always been around. The problem with cheating is not the many students who cheat a little, but the few who cheat a lot. There’s plenty of bad press about online learning being conducive for cheating. The platform makes it easy for students to cheat, say critics. Do online students really cheat more than their counterparts? If so, why do so many students cheat?

• Perceived Distance:

In an interesting TEDTalks video, Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, explains an experiment he conducted, wherein he paid students to solve a set of Math problems. While some were paid in cash, others were paid in tokens. Students with tokens were more likely to cheat than those who were paid in cash. When students do not interact with their teachers on a daily basis, they are more likely to cheat, i.e. academic honesty becomes less significant when the distance between the teacher and student increases. This distance leads to a lax in moral standards.

• Cost-Benefit Analysis:

In the same video, he explains the economic rationale behind cheating, i.e. people evaluate the probability of getting caught, how much they stand to gain, and the extent of punishment if they are caught. They weigh the cost vs. benefits before deciding to cheat. It is the same situation when students decide to cheat in an online learning course. A majority of students who take up online learning are working professionals who cannot afford to spend time on assignments. On the other hand, online instructors are reluctant to enforce academic integrity rules. In a paper published by the Northwest Missouri State University, researchers found that while 9 of the 24% instructors they interviewed considered academic dishonesty to be their number one concern, 40% of 200 instructors have never enforced academic integrity rules, whereas 54% reported that they have done so, but very rarely. With little to lose and too much to gain, what’s stopping an online student from asking ‘can I pay someone to take my online class?

• Most Instances Of Online Cheating Are Innocent:

A common mistake that online students make is failing to read instructions. Without face to face interaction, colleges have to rely on written instructions to communicate. Instructors often give out detailed instructions for every task. This includes information on citations and references. But students seldom read them. A lot of students accused of plagiarism do it unknowingly, i.e. quotes used in their assignments are not referenced properly.

• The Assessments Are Meaningless:

The ultimate aim of education is to enable a student to understand a concept. But most online programs are designed towards grading students, rather than giving them the chance to apply their material to a situation. No wonder students cheat more in online quizzes than essays and discussion boards. Students who see exams as meaningless or too hard are more likely to cheat and seek online class help. Online course designers are now paying attention to this drawback – they are increasingly using a technique called authentic assessment, a concept where students have to submit work that shows a correlation between the theory learnt and personal experience.

But Is It True That Online Students Cheat More Than Students in Traditional Classrooms?

While there’s a general consensus that it is far easier to cheat in an online class than in a traditional learning environment, there are conflicting results. Some studies found cheating to be rampant in an online environment as compared to classroom learning, while some studies found cheating to be more or less the same in both environments. And some other studies found cheating to be less in an online class.

Cheating, albeit worrisome, is a minor issue. There are far more real problems about online learning that need immediate attention. For one, has anybody asked why completion rates in online courses are abysmally low?