We are two barristers who form part of a much larger group of lawyers at Alpha Academic Appeals, an organisation helping students to challenge unfair university decisions.
This year, we received a record number of queries from students accused of “academic misconduct”. Many students told us that, in this age of online assessments, cheating was rife.
To explore the prevalence of academic misconduct and associated issues, we commissioned research from the Schlesinger Group, a reputed research company.
We originally approached another research group, who declined to assist for fear that universities – their major clients – would frown upon their involvement in the study. This attitude reflects the taboo nature of the subject for universities, who have vested interests in protecting their academic reputations.
The research sought current undergraduate students’ views on a range of issues relating to cheating in online assessments. The questions included:
- Have you cheated in any online/‘at home’ assessments this current academic year? (examples of cheating methods were provided to ensure a common understanding of ‘cheating’, such as use of unauthorised material during exams)
- For those who answered ‘yes’, Please briefly describe how you have cheated in online/‘at home’ assessments this academic year.
- Do you know of anyone who has cheated in online/‘at home’ assessments this academic year?
- If you have cheated before at university, have you ever been caught?
- Do you believe it is harder, easier or the same to cheat in online/‘at home’ assessments compared to ‘in person’ assessments in exam halls?
- How morally wrong, if at all, do you believe cheating in online/‘at home’ assessments is? (with options ranging from ‘not wrong’ to ‘very wrong’)
Prior to data collection, the survey was reviewed by an academic subject matter expert and two barristers who regularly deal with academic misconduct cases. One of the barristers (Daniel Sokol) has experience of research, having obtained a PhD using survey-based methods in 2006 and sitting as Chair of a Research Ethics Committee. The survey was also reviewed by the researchers at the Schlesinger Group, who administered it and invited respondents to participate. Respondents were surveyed between 8th June 2022 and 3rd July 2022.
The researchers initially conducted a pilot (“soft launch”) to test out the survey and identify any problems before the main data collection. None were noted.
Since the subject matter was sensitive and the respondents were current students, we guaranteed anonymity and did not seek any identifying details. The survey header explained that the research was conducted by an independent organisation not affiliated with any university.
Quality checks were performed to remove from the data respondents whose answers raised doubts on the value of their responses. For example, those who had completed the survey extremely quickly or those who had selected the same response for each question, such as the first option for every question. As part of this quality control, the answers of 71 respondents were removed, leaving 900 valid surveys remaining.
What did the research reveal?
The most striking findings from the research are as follows:
16% of respondents admitted to cheating in online assessments this academic year (140/900).
The reported methods of cheating were mostly mundane, unsophisticated and show the ease with which cheating occurred. Examples included:
- “asking for help from friends and family”
- “taken closed book exams with notes open, collaborated with classmates”
- “answers were consistently posted in shared chats by students, whole year groups had access to pooled knowledge”
- “messaging friends on text”
- “using the internet in cases that the internet shouldn’t have been used”
- “reading other people’s work and letting them read mine”
- “me and friends facetimed while we took the test”
- “big groups of around 15 would do them [answers] at once in a kitchen and all share answers. I don’t know anyone who didn’t at some point do an online test with others.”
- “I paid a former student to tell me the answers for an online assessment”
- “I have asked other students to complete assignments for me”
- “answers on my desk out of eyesight of laptop”
Only 5% of those who admitted to cheating had ever been caught.
52% of respondents knew people who had cheated in online assessments this academic year.
79% of respondents believed it was easier to cheat online than in exam halls (707/900), with 42% saying that they would be less likely to cheat in an exam hall (378/900).
37% of respondents reported that their university took no measures to stop cheating in online assessments (334/900).
33% of respondents believed cheating in online assessments was either ‘not wrong’ or only ‘mildly wrong’ (299/900), with 37% believing it was ‘very wrong’ (329/900).
The full results, including raw and tabulated data, are available online.
What does this mean for academic integrity?
With no more than 5% of cheaters caught, and the importance of good grades in an increasingly competitive job market, it is unsurprising that many students believe it is a risk worth taking.
As well as dissuading students from cheating in the first place, universities should consider ways to increase the detection rate. It is reasonable to assume that students would be less likely to cheat if the chances of being caught were higher. In order to reduce the burden on respondents and increase participation, the research did not ask students for their views on how to reduce the rate of cheating but this would be a valuable topic for future research.
Based on the comments of those who admitted to cheating, we surmise that this would involve preventing students from seeking help, either in person or via electronic devices, from friends or family and stopping access to unauthorised resources, such as the internet or revision notes. It is difficult to see how this could effectively be achieved if students take assessments at home, especially if those are taken over several hours or days and without video proctoring.
Given the common methods of cheating and the fact that 42% of respondents said they would be less likely to cheat in an exam hall, universities that are serious about maintaining the academic rigour of their degrees should reconsider whether the advantages of online assessments outweigh the disadvantages. There is a significant risk that the integrity of degrees will be undermined if universities fail to protect themselves against the threat of cheating.
For certain subjects, like medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, law, and engineering, allowing students to cheat with impunity could lead students to pass exams despite deficiencies in their skills and knowledge, with potentially serious consequences to others in the future.
The research, in particular the revelation that most cheating methods are simple, also suggests that the intense focus of universities on essay mills (i.e., students paying or commissioning assessments from others) may be misplaced and that greater attention should be placed on the more mundane but seemingly far more common methods of cheating.
Finally, the facts that 1/3 of respondents believed cheating was either not morally wrong or only mildly so, and that over half of respondents knew people who had cheated in online assessments, raise the possibility that cheating is becoming ‘normalised’. Any erosion of the moral unacceptability of cheating must be halted to preserve the integrity of academic degrees and prevent a further slide into academic lawlessness.
In our view, the wrongness of cheating must be communicated to students in a meaningful way not only at the start of their university journey but throughout. In our experience, current students are exposed to a dull session on academic integrity at the start of their degree and then provided with written documents and links to the relevant rules on academic misconduct in subsequent years. Some also have to sign declarations at the start of their assessments. All this is of dubious effectiveness.
In addition to setting types of assessments where cheating is more difficult, we suggest there should be dedicated and compulsory teaching sessions on academic misconduct, including the ethics of cheating and the potentially serious consequences of a finding of academic misconduct on a student’s record. Academic staff should also discuss this issue in lectures with their students prior to assessments. This greater focus on explaining the wrongs and consequences of cheating will certainly not eliminate cheating – some moral compasses are broken beyond repair – but it may reduce it.
The main limitation of this research is that it is based on the self-report of respondents. As the respondents had not graduated at the time of completing the survey (and so could, in theory, still be caught), they may not have been entirely honest about engaging in academic misconduct. This was mitigated by an assurance of anonymity and the fact that the research was conducted by a third party rather than their university, which probably allayed the fears of some but not all. For this reason, the findings are likely to be an underestimate of the true prevalence of cheating.
The survey comprises the answers of 900 undergraduate students who have signed up to the research database of the Schlesinger group. This represents a small proportion of the undergraduate student population in Britain. The sample size was primarily driven by budgetary limitations.
For the purposes of this report, only descriptive statistical analysis was performed. It is hoped that making the raw data publicly available will allow any interested researchers to conduct further work on cheating by university students.