6 Tips for Creating a Culture of Honesty, Integrity and Accountability in Your Online Course

Are you an online instructor who is concerned about students cheating in your course?  Here are six tips.  None of these will stop cheating, but they will help you cultivate a culture that discourages cheating and empowers students to reflect upon their online course behaviors.

1) Define Cheating – Do not assume that online learners know what does and does not constitute cheating.  The lines are blurred in the digital world.  In a world where the answer to a factual question is one click away, it doesn’t necessarily feel like cheating to Google an answer to a quiz question.  The same is true with it comes to collaborating with classmates.  From a student perspective, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between what one teacher calls cheating and another one calls cooperative learning or digital age collaboration.  This is a fundamental lesson for the effective online teacher.  When in doubt, be painfully explicit about your expectations.   Defining cheating as it relates to specific assignments (context) is important as well.  The fact is that certain behaviors are acceptable on one assignment and not another.  If it is important to you, then explain it to the students.  By the way, there is no need to do it in all caps or with multiple exclamation points.  Just put it in a place where they are sure to see and read/hear it.  You can say/write it calmly, firmly, but respecting them as a fellow lifelong learner.

2) State Your Case – Once you define your expectations and what does/doesn’t constitute cheating, it is now time to defend your reasons.  I know that this bothers some teachers because they expect students to accept it on authority, or they long for some past day when such explanations were unnecessary.  If there was such an era, we are not in it now.  Regarding the idea of accepting things on authority, consider this point. A critical survival skill in the digital world involves questioning all sources, analyzing them, and deciding for yourself.  Students are likely to bring that same skill to their interactions with the online instructor, course, and assignment.  This means giving the reasons behind the rules, considering the reasons that would be compelling to many students as well.  If a certain rule exists to help the student with a future task (in the course, program, or life), let them know about that.  You can even use a concise story or example to illustrate your point.  Again, avoid the “because I said so” rationale and use this as a chance to help them see the gears inside the design of the rules, assignments and the entire course.

3) Question Your Definitions of Cheating as well as Your Rules for Assignments – Yes, some definitions are clear and hard to question.  Most can agree that buying a paper and submitting it as your own work is cheating.  Not all behaviors are that clear.  Whether or not a certain behavior is cheating often depends upon the stated rules and instructions for the assignment. You often have the choice as to whether or not a quiz is open book or closed book.  Take the time to revisit the rules that you have established.  Making things harder for the students does not, in and of itself, increase the academic rigor.  Instead, focus on what makes sense to help as many students as possible learn as much as possible.  Do your assignment rules really help the student learn what is needed?  Are you grading them on their practice?  If so, why not make it worth zero point quiz, an open book quiz, something that can be retaken multiple times, or worth limited points.  You can even make the quiz worth zero points but students must get an 80% or higher before proceeding to another part of the course.  it becomes an entrance ticket.  Similarly, you can use zero point quizzes as exit tickets that allow students to check their understanding before later moving on to the big quiz or test.  Such options allow students to get feedback without penalty.  It gives them a chance to study more, and then later take the higher stakes test.  These strategies allow you to cut cheating by reducing the test anxiety and increasing the student sense of fairness in the class.  Students who feel and know that they are well-prepared through incremental checks for understanding will be less likely to cheat on the higher stakes exam.

4) Let the Students Catch and Correct their Behavior –  Rather than being the person who catches the students cheating, give them a chance to catch themselves and then change their behavior. Yo can do this by building mirrors in the course that help students see their behavior.  For example, if you are using plagiarism detection software, why not let students submit their work to the software, get the results, and change the problems with their paper before submitting it for a grade?  Yes, some students may use this as an extra lever for cheating.  Many others will honestly and appropriately use it to make sure that they didn’t make unintentional mistakes in the writing process.  Another simple mirror is to have students verify that they adhered to each of the stated rules for a given assignment as they are submitting it or taking it.  It can involve statements like, “I verify that I wrote this paper on my own and that I gave proper credit to all sources.”  That is just an example, but you get the idea.  The same can be done with quizzes and other graded activities.  This will not prevent cheating, but adding mirrors like this can help students self-monitor.

5) Invite student input on the rules. This isn’t going to work for all assignments.  However, sometimes, it can be powerful way to co-develop the rules and expectations for an assignment.  This may or may not actually minimize the cheating, but at least it gives them a sense of ownership.

6) Make Cheating Difficult – Dwight Moody once noted that, “Character is what you are in the dark.”  That may be true, but it is equally true that people are more likely to cheat if it is easy, no one is watching, and there is little to no chance of getting caught.  If you make it easy, then more people will do it.  Simply posting an online quiz and telling students not to use notes will not work for many students.  If you really think it is important that they not use notes, then use some sort of feature that makes it difficult.  Some course management systems allow you to restrict cut and past features during a quiz and don’t allow opening a second browser window.  It will not make it impossible to cheat, but it will make it harder.  This is also where some schools use a variety of Online Proctoring software packages.  Or, you can require that certain exams be taken with a face-to-face proctor.  Perhaps these are not reasonable in your context.  In that case, is there a different type of assignment  or assessment that would be an equal or better measure of student learning?  Why not use that instead?  When you have students submit papers, how about having them submit it in portions; drafts that invite feedback from peers and/or you?  This will improve the quality of the paper and increase the difficulty of cheating.

As I noted at the beginning of the post, these will not make it impossible to cheat, but they are strategies that help you create a culture of honesty, integrity and accountability in your online courses.


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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.