From Cheating to Authentic Learning

By Judith Giering, A&S Learning Design & Technology Director, and Michael Palmer, CTE Director


"The opposite of cheating is authentic learning."

David Rettinger, Professor of Psychological Sciences and Director of Academic Integrity Programs at the University of Mary Washington


Over the past year, nearly every higher education publication (as well as the mainstream press) has taken a renewed interest in student cheating. This is fueled by reports citing significant increases in reported cheating cases since shifting to mostly online teaching and learning during the pandemic. Though complex and entangled, several reasons may explain this trend: instructors who believe students are more likely to cheat in online environments have heightened awareness; students who already feel pressure to perform are struggling to manage the physical, cognitive, and emotional stresses that have upended their lives, short-circuiting their decision-making processes; students’ opportunity to cheat as a result of learning mostly from home has increased; and disreputable companies that profit from student cheating are proliferating and supporting a culture that in many ways legitimizes and destigmatizes cheating. Additionally, instructors who have less experience teaching online often struggle with developing effective ways to assess learning.

Despite increased attention, cheating is not a new phenomenon and has been a topic of concern for decades. A 2015 study by the International Center for Academic Integrity, one of the most extensive studies on cheating in higher education, found that 68% of the approximate 71,300 students surveyed admitted cheating on written assignments or tests. Prevalence isn’t correlated with institutional type or course modality, meaning students at elite schools are just as likely to cheat than those at other places and students learning in person are just as likely to cheat as those learning online.

We know that students cheat for a variety of reasons, including confusion about what constitutes cheating, lack of motivation for the course or assignments, lack of academic preparation, fear of failure, poor time management, and peer pressure (Lang, 2013). We also know that the type and degree of cheating varies considerably, including occasionally soliciting help from friends or online resources, plagiarizing parts of an assignment, wholesale copying of another’s work, or purchasing solutions from individuals or for-profit companies. The latter is particularly vexing in that these companies endorse, enable, and incentivize cheating. Though they often claim their purpose is to provide academic support options for students, these services have become in practice a hub for students to freely share and find answers to exams and other assignments, often within minutes of when instructors announce assignments or post tests.

To combat cheating, some institutions have resorted to remote proctoring solutions. Companies that sell this technology surveil students' activities electronically during online exams. While on the surface this offers an attractive quick fix, these solutions come with a complex set of practical and ethical challenges, including a range of privacy concerns and biases in how the underlying algorithms flag student behaviors. Because the concerns with remote proctoring outweigh whatever advantage these tools might offer, the University has decided not to license any of these platforms.

Just as there is no singular reason students cheat, there is no singular solution to higher education's cheating problem. Curbing cheating ultimately relies on attending to institutional culture, student culture, policy, and pedagogy. Here, we focus on the latter, believing that, as David Rettinger suggests, "the opposite of cheating is authentic learning." In other words, we believe you can reduce student cheating in your courses—or make it difficult enough so that it's a less attractive option to students—through your pedagogical decisions and practices. We share some ideas below for how to do this. While it can be tempting to want to pick and choose from our suggestions, you’ll have better success if you consider them holistically. In the end, you’ll see the best results if you help students better understand what constitutes cheating; help them discover value in what they are learning; help lower academic risk and fear of failure; and consider alternative ways to assess student learning.



Further guidance is available for instructors who want to learn more:

  • The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) offers consultations to instructors who are interested in reimagining their course assessments. 
  • The A&S Learning Design & Technology group supports College faculty who are trying to incorporate technology into their teaching and assessments.
  • The UVACollab Help site provides simple and direct "how-to’s" for tools that are integrated into the learning management system. 
  • The Learning Tech site provides information on each tool mentioned in this post and further options for assistance.



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