Posted by: Gregory Linton | 07/21/2009

How to Discourage Academic Dishonesty

In the last post, I described the problem of student cheating and the complications this causes for the teacher-student relationship. Now let’s look at the research to see what factors can discourage students from cheating. We can boil down these findings to two keys to reducing the incidence of cheating: Educate students about what constitutes cheating and remind them that it is immoral. This statement addresses two fallacies about student cheating.

One fallacy is that students who cheat always do so knowingly. If even notable scholars commit plagiarism unintentionally, how can we expect undergraduates to understand all the nuances of what constitutes plagiarism? When students pass through a public school system in which most of their assignments were completed in collaboration with others, how can we assume that for every assignment they understand whether or not they are allowed to collaborate? Professors need to make clear what their expectations are. They need to spell out explicitly what constitutes cheating.

The second fallacy is that students who cheat possess no moral standards or values that would prevent them from doing so. Certainly, there could be a few sociopaths in our classes whose conscience is so stunted as to be nonfunctional, but the truth is that most students who cheat would identify their actions as cheating if they saw someone else doing it. Somehow, they rationalize their actions in the stress of the moment or ignore the accusations of their conscience. The key is to remind them about what they already know to be right and wrong.

An example of research that supports these observations is described in chapter 11 of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT. First, he describes an experiment about cheating that he and his colleagues conducted at Harvard Business School. You can read that chapter for details of the experiment, but let me summarize here the conclusions and implications. First, “we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little bit” (Ariely, 2008, p. 201). Second, the experiment showed that even when students know they can be caught cheating, they still cheat at about the same rate as those who know they cannot be caught. This might suggest that letting students know that you are going to check their papers with a program like Turnitin may not actually deter much plagiarism.

If the fear of getting caught does not deter cheating, then what does? Ariely and his associates conducted another experiment at UCLA in which students were given a simple math test on which they could easily cheat (except for the control group, which could not cheat). They found that students who were asked to write the Ten Commandments before taking the test had the same number of correct answers as those students who did not have the opportunity to cheat. Students who were asked to write the names of 10 books they read in high school scored 33% higher than the non-cheating control group. In another experiment at MIT, students who were reminded about the MIT honor code (which does not actually exist) did not cheat. In these experiments, the reminders of moral benchmarks caused the students to regulate their behavior and resist the temptation to cheat, even when they knew they could get away with it.

Donald McCabe’s extensive research on cheating supports these views also. He has found that, on an institutional level, honor codes reduce the amount of cheating. He has stressed that colleges must inculcate an environment of honesty where both students and faculty buy into high standards of conduct and the penalties for violating those standards are severe. He has discovered key strategies for faculty members to adopt on the individual level, “including clearly communicating expectations regarding cheating behavior, establishing policies regarding appropriate conduct, and encouraging students to abide by those policies” (McCabe, 2001, p. 229). On a practical level, he also promotes removing opportunities to cheat and providing deterrents to cheating such as severe penalties.

How do we put this knowledge into practice? A place to begin is by spelling out in the syllabus what constitutes cheating in class. If an assignment is supposed to be completed without help from anyone else, make that very clear. But then students need to be reminded about that policy when they complete the assignment. For example, in one of my classes, I have students write answers to study questions over the assigned readings. They are supposed to complete these without help from anyone, but if they avoided using identical wording, it would be possible to get the answers from someone else or work together on the assignments without my knowing it. To discourage that, I require them to include a statement that affirms that they did the work themselves without help from anyone else. I have no way of knowing whether this actually discourages cheating, but I have joked that at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that the cheating students will burn in hell for lying about it.

It seems to me that it is impossible to make every learning activity so airtight that no one could possibly cheat. There are times when we have to turn the responsibility over to the students to manage their own behavior. We can act as moral guides by reminding them of right and wrong and encouraging them to live consistently with those standards. As we have learned, however, this does not mean that we can naively and irresponsibly open the door to cheating, trusting that every student is goodhearted and would refuse the temptation. There must be a balance, but in the end we want students to learn to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.


Areily, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York: HarperCollins.

McCabe, D. L., Trevino, L. K., and Buttefield, K. D. Cheating in academic institutions: A decade of research. Ethics & Behavior, 11(3), 219-232.


The Center for Academic Integrity

International Journal for Academic Integrity

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