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Curbing cheating in assessments and protecting student wellbeing

Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer, Turnitin






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What comes to mind when you think of students cheating in an assessment or exam setting? Has it changed since the pandemic and resulting shift to remote and hybrid learning? Previously, educators could rely on certain assurances afforded by in-person, classroom learning, but online and hybrid learning environments have complicated the detection of cheating, and affected student attitudes and willingness to participate in cheating behaviours. Both secondary schools and institutions of higher learning are coming to terms with what this means for the accuracy and fairness of assessments moving forward.

Assessment is a critical intersection between teaching and learning. It enables educators to understand what it is students have learned, plus gain insight on the efficacy of their teaching practices and exam design. When student cheating occurs, it undermines the process and measurement of learning. As assessment evolves globally to equip students with 21st century skills, institutions in the Asia Pacific must invest in strategies to reduce the risks of cheating. One way is through purposeful assessment design, in what some have called ‘assessment security’ .

In his book ‘Assessment Security in a Digital World’, Professor Phillip Dawson, an authority on assessment security from Deakin University in Australia, defines assessment security as: “Measures taken to harden assessment against attempts to cheat. This includes approaches to detect and evidence attempts to cheat, as well as measures to make cheating more difficult.” Of course, when making assessment harder to cheat in, we can’t overlook student wellbeing and equity. Let’s explore what educators and institutions as a whole can do to balance these priorities.

An underlying framework to tackle cheating

A helpful way to understand what’s needed to overcome student cheating is recognising the solution as two different sides of the same coin. Phill Dawson makes the distinction between assessment security measures as “punitive and evidence-based” and academic integrity as the “positive, educative, and values-based” side of things. In other words, institutions first need to educate students on the perils of cheating by building a culture of academic integrity that discourages them from cheating (think honour codes, lessons in class, and peer and educator feedback).

At the same time, they also need to design assessments that reduce students’ opportunity to cheat and have a system in place to reliably detect cheating when it does occur. In fact, it’s this duality that drives Turnitin products; unfolding in the use of our Similarity Report that helps educators flag potential plagiarism, while empowering students through feedback and writing guidance tools that offer formative learning opportunities for achieving honest, authentic work.

A final piece of the puzzle for educators in curbing cheating is to recognise that student wellbeing is intrinsic to academic integrity. Think of it this way: if institutions seek to graduate only those students who achieve grades of their own merit, then fostering learner confidence is of critical importance. An empowered student ready to tackle the assessment to which they are assigned, doesn’t just emerge from studying the subject matter. It’ s influenced by positive student-teacher relationships, realistic assessment expectations and deadlines that don’t overwhelm, and an understanding of how each assessment ties into their learning objectives - all of which reduce the desire or perceived need to cheat.

Student motivations to cheat

It’s important to note that forms of cheating such as plagiarism can be accidental and the result of a student knowledge gap, but for the purpose of this blog, we focus on deliberate or intentional acts of academic misconduct. In their research review of academic integrity in online assessment published in 2021, Holden, Norris and Kuhimeier explore 4 key dimensions of student motivation to cheat,

  • Individual factors - refers to students’ opportunity, incentive, pressure or perceived need, and justification of cheating behaviours.
  • Institutional factors - refers to how an institution’s formal or perceived culture of academic integrity influences cheating behaviours amongst students.
  • Medium of delivery - refers to how the means of assessment delivery (ie. online versus in-person modes) contributes to systematic patterns of cheating
  • Assessment-specific factors - refers to how elements of an assessment’s design (ie. essay versus multiple choice) affects opportunity and frequency of cheating amongst students.

You may be wondering how online learning has actually affected rates of cheating. Holden et al.’s research seems to support the idea that cheating occurs more often in online settings compared to in-person - and particularly in the context of high-stakes, summative assessment. It reveals that “approximately 42–74% of students believ[e] it to be easier to cheat in an online class.” The possibility that students can be emboldened to cheat in an online environment due to a belief they will not get caught, means institutions must improve online assessment security and shape student expectations.

When addressing student motivation to cheat in this changing education landscape, an institution’s policies and standards must also work in harmony. Students will inevitably model the values and behaviours endorsed by an institution, and if it sidelines academic integrity in favour of grade performance at any cost, then students’ commitment to academic honesty in their assessments will suffer.

For instance, in her research on plagiarism and academic integrity in Japan, Osaka University professor Paola Cavaliere notes: “upon entering university, Japanese undergraduates receive very little stimulus to develop an understanding of intellectual property as they are immediately confronted with the GPA race and the peer-pressure.” Similarly in Indonesia, what’s been described as a ‘winning is everything’ mentality amongst students appears to underpin academic misconduct that occurs during assessments.

It prompts institutions to ensure that their education model is not excessively centred on final grade performance and to communicate to students at every level that ‘winning’ through methods of cheating equals shortcomings of knowledge mastery and potential failure in their future profession.

Designing for assessment security

Since the pandemic turned education delivery upside down, there’ s been a push to make assessment more relevant, effective and secure. Professor Phill Dawson warns us that no assessment is ‘cheat proof’, and that a multilayered approach to assessment design that anticipates cheating from different angles is required. He identifies seven standards for assessment security that institutions ought to consider.

  • Coverage across a program - how much of a degree should be secured?
  • Authentication - how do we ensure the student is who they say they are?
  • Control of circumstances - how can we be sure the task was done in the intended circumstances?
  • Difficulty to cheat metrics - we need to know how hard tasks are to cheat in
  • Detection accuracy metrics - we need to know if our detection methods work
  • Proof metrics - we need to be able to prove cases of cheating
  • Prevalence metrics - we need to know approximate rates of undetected, detected and proven cheating

The South East Asia region in particular, is making big changes to learning and assessment models that confront such factors. In a recent Jakarta Post article titled ‘The roadmap toward a better education system for Indonesia’, they reflect on the continuation of Indonesia’s national assessment protocol that replaced the National Examination system back in 2020, focused on improvement of learning outcomes and the school experience. Taken by 6.5 million students thus far, it’s a far cry from the previous high-stakes exam environment, offering a more distributed grade weighting. It’s an example of an assessment approach that sacrifices one form of assessment security (invigilation of test-takers) to focus on a more holistic measurement of student progress, which may well reduce an underlying pressure to cheat.

Vigilance of student cheating - even where you might not expect it - is still important. The Philippines' Department of Education (DepEd) discovered this last year when they launched self-learning modules (SLMs) to support students’ formative, self-paced learning. Although these tasks were not graded, an ‘Online Kopyahan’ emerged, where students leaked answers from online learning tests, exams, and modules, thereby removing the benefit of the SLMs to prepare students for summative assessment. DepEd has since issued recommendations to curb the behaviour, including more student education and transparency around assessment and grading systems “to ease the pressure on competition among learners and cultivate a healthy classroom environment.”

Bringing it all together

Academic misconduct in the form of cheating in assessment is a matter of education, planning and detection. Proactive measures such as building a culture of integrity within an institution’s ecosystem that prioritises knowledge mastery over final scores, is a better deterrent for cheating, as is evaluating assessment design to make it harder and less desirable and/or possible to cheat. A system of detection as a last line of defence is also crucially important to make sure students’ assessment achievements are earned. And tying it all together is the student experience. If student wellbeing is not considered - realistic assessment deadlines, a relationship of trust between students and teaching staff, equitable access to learning tools, etc. - then cheating behaviours will persist.

As per Phill Dawson’s advice, here’s a selection of tools and tactics at the disposal of educators to make assessments more secure and deter cheating.

  • Maintain a dialogue with students on the risks of cheating
  • Design ‘authentic’ assessments such as student self reflections and personalised tasks, plus nested tasks that make external help unnecessary or harder
  • Develop a system of cheating detection to show consequences for students
  • Audit your assessments regularly to check for holes in security
  • Evaluate use of anti-cheating software to help educators make cheating a learning opportunity

Looking to uphold integrity in assessment and boost learner experience?