Another piece in the cheating jigsaw

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					     Another piece in the cheating jigsaw

     Helen Smith
     Northumbria University

     Jim Ridgway
     University of Durham


     The issue of cheating in higher education is not straightforward, not least because it

     is neither easy to define nor to eliminate. In recent years there has been increasing

     awareness in the UK of the potential for plagiarism and other forms of cheating in

     student assessment. Technological advances and access to the internet have provided

     greater opportunities than ever for students to access materials that may be used by

     some to gain unfair advantage, as well as also providing improved means of

     detection. Technology is though only one piece of the cheating jigsaw.

     This session will be relevant to all academics engaged in the assessment of students.

     It will be interactive, lively and informative, drawing on current literature and

     including emerging results from the presenters‟ own research. It can be presented in a

     number of ways but our first choice would be to facilitate a one hour workshop,

     which is planned to enable a greater level of delegate engagement than would be

     possible in a shorter session.

     We will begin by presenting a summary of current literature on plagiarism and other

     methods of cheating in assessment: this will include discussion of the difficulties

     inherent in trying to define plagiarism. Delegates will be involved in exploring

     issues associated with achieving a common understanding of acceptable and

     unacceptable assessment practice.

Corresponding author: Helen Smith, School of Health, Community and Education
Studies, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE7 7XA.

The session will move on to discuss the results of a recent exploration of academic

and student attitudes towards cheating, focusing on twenty one interviews conducted

in one university in England which has resulted in the creation of a „cheating scale‟

from participant ratings.

A return to unseen examinations is frequently proposed as the only way to eliminate

cheating. Recent research indicates however that (probably small numbers of)

students will cheat even in invigilated examinations. The session will conclude with

discussion of, and recommendations for, simple changes to assessment design that

would enable the engagement of greater numbers of students with their own learning

as well as contributing to the integrity of higher education awards. It is not suggested

that there is only one solution to the issue of reducing student cheating but it is hoped

that ongoing academic interest and debate will enable the addition of additional

pieces to the cheating jigsaw.


The first major study of undergraduate cheating in the UK was undertaken by

Franklin-Stokes and Newstead (1995), who found that, in anonymous

questionnaires, more than 60% of students admitted to cheating in some way.

A separate study in another UK university reported 74% of undergraduates

identifying as common practice „copying a few paragraphs without

acknowledgment‟ and 76% admitting „collaboration on “individual”

submissions‟ (Dordoy, 2002). These findings echo the large number of reports

from the USA and elsewhere indicating that the extent of student cheating is

either increasing or being increasingly detected. The distinction between

actual increase and increase in awareness is itself important and is frequently


This paper discusses the preliminary results of a research study exploring staff

and student perceptions of attitudes towards, and reasons for, cheating in

undergraduate programmes. Methods of research included questionnaires and

interviews; this paper reports the results of the interviews.

The research used a convenience sample of student volunteers in one post-

1992 UK University. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter students were

reassured not only that their anonymity would be protected but also that no

results would be published prior to the conclusion of their studies. The

researcher was not known to the students1 or connected to their programmes.

The research questions included:

- To what extent do students think their peers will cheat? (explored in
questionnaires, confirmed in interviews)

- To what extent will students admit to gaining unfair advantage/cheating
themselves? (explored in questionnaires, confirmed in interviews)

- What assessments most effectively result in student learning?

- What assessments most easily lead to student cheating?

- Are there some cheating behaviours that are more or less acceptable to
students and academics? To what extent are their views similar?

- What would discourage cheating?

- Are students as informed on matters of academic integrity as academics
believe them to be?

- To what degree do students confirm the early findings from the
questionnaires? (see first two questions)

Methods of investigation

  with only one exception – one student who completed a questionnaire made

herself known as a former student of the researcher. She did not participate in

Anonymous questionnaires were distributed to undergraduate students

studying on three separate programmes at the beginning of their third year of

study. Distribution to cohorts was undertaken only by the researcher at

prearranged times, resulting in 159 responses, representing 64% of the total

number of students invited to participate. Questionnaires were analysed using

SPSS software. Volunteer participants for interview were drawn from the

same sample. For reasons of confidentiality and sensitivity of some

information the disciplines have not been identified.

The questionnaire incorporated a list of twenty seven so-called cheating

behaviours expanded and derived from the work of Franklin-Stokes and

Newstead (1995). The aim was to explore student perceptions of the extent of

cheating in „students like them‟ and the extent to which the same students

admitted using the same behaviours. In addition, students rated as major or

minor a list of potential reasons why students like them would choose to cheat

or not. Students were not to be asked in interviews about their own

behaviours, and were made aware of that in advance; the purpose of

interviews was to explore attitudes to cheating per se as well as to validate

early findings from the questionnaire.

Individual interviews were conducted with volunteer students (n=10) at the

end of the academic year and with academics (n=12) from the same

programmes shortly afterwards. All student volunteers were female.

Silverman (2001) proposes that an effective interview is a result of the skills

of both the interviewer and the interviewee. Given the sensitivity of the

subject matter and the presence of a tape recorder, it was important to „rapidly

develop a positive relationship‟ and to „get the interviewee talking‟ (DiCicco-

Bloom and Crabtree, 2006:317) in order that the discourse be as effective as

possible in exploring student attitudes in particular. With the exception of one

student whose responses were brief, the resulting dialogues were open and

frank, the length of all responses being determined by the respondents


Following transcription of audiotapes, the resulting narratives were analysed

using content analysis. Themes are presented in this paper along with

verbatim quotes and indications of the representativeness of the quotes (Seale,


Discussion of findings

What assessments most effectively result in student learning?

Eight students out of the ten interviewed identified practical assessments,

conducted both in the university and in the workplace, as having contributed

most strongly to their learning. Three students identified the necessity of a

link between theory and practice and the importance of the assessment in

focusing their learning.

         I think the assessment process made me really focus on learning the
         skills and I think if I hadn‟t been assessed on it I wouldn‟t have
         necessarily gone out and researched all the evidence behind learning
         so I think it was essential to have the assessment.

This student identifies the research element as integral to promoting learning

from practical assessment, a factor not explicitly raised in other participants‟

responses, but of note in responses from three other students who, instead of

placement assessment, identified the research element in preparing for oral

presentations, experimental work and accompanying reports as having the

greatest potential to aid their learning:

         essays... I learned far more I think from the assignments... and the
        research might be specific to a certain topic but it can be used in other
        areas, you know, like government publications

These student attitudes to learning are supported by Bourne (2003:271) in his

discussion of students‟ „orientations to study‟ and the distinction between

„surface‟ and „deep‟ learning traits. Perhaps then the distinction drawn

between the three students who identified underpinning research as being the

key to their learning (irrespective of the assessment design) and those students

who did not, is in fact an indication of the difference between surface and

deep styles of learning.

Do any assessment designs predispose to student cheating?

Academics identified essays or other written submissions such as project

reports as the most likely assessments in which students would cheat. This

was confirmed through student interviews where students spoke of (and

admitted) common writing practices such as pasting in sometimes numerous

small to medium sections without acknowledgement. Students also spoke of

widespread falsification and fabrication of data and references. Only one

student of the ten did not agree with falsification being acceptable and

described the waste of her time on one occasion in searching for an apparently

useful reference she had discovered quoted in a library copy of a dissertation.

Further to extensive searching she discovered that the reference had been


        it was the reference of a journal and the title of the article and I just
        couldn‟t find it, and I ended up getting that year‟s whole journal out
        and scowering through it thinking, I know that sometimes when you
        look at them online and look in the library, sometimes they don‟t have
        the same numbers, so I ended up doing it by hand in the library and
        couldn‟t find it at all.
Interviewer: so they‟d made up such a good reference that you wanted to get it
and it wasn‟t there?
        Yes (laughing).

Are there some cheating behaviours that are more or less acceptable to
students and academics? To what extent are the attitudes of student and
academic groups similar?

There was a clear line identified by students between acceptable and non-

acceptable behaviours, and as part of the interview all participants were given

a list of the cheating behaviours used in the questionnaire and asked to colour

code each according to their perception of its seriousness, from „not really

cheating‟ to „cheating but not as bad as others‟ and „worse than the other

forms of cheating‟. A simple scoring system enabled the creation of a scale of

the seriousness of cheating behaviours, where similarities and differences in

student and academic attitudes became apparent.

The most serious cheating rated by both students and academics was that

related to cheating in examinations through, for example, copying,

personation, communication with others through texting or other means, and

use of a pocket personal computer to access stored information.

       I think anything to do with exams, because everyone is in the same
       environment … that to me is the worst kind of cheating because
       everyone is stressed and you are blatantly cheating, lying to get better

In other forms of assessment, students and academics were in agreement that

procuring work from essay banks or other students as well as gaining

advantage through bribery or seduction were also serious, although the last

two were rated as less serious than examination-related cheating. In addition,

in unsolicited comments, a few students revealed personal attitudes that,

despite the majority of students condemning the procurement of assessments

from internet sites, nonetheless confirmed their attraction:

        I must admit, I‟ve had a look through some of the internet sites just to
        see what was on offer but they don‟t really do (name of course
        deleted) work. There was one but it was quite expensive. I mean when
        you are stuck for deadlines and you‟re up to your eyes I can sort of see
        how people are tempted to do it. But I don‟t know, personally, whether
        or not I think it‟s cheating. I‟m not really sure. Yes, it‟s not your work
        but em ….. if you can get away with it and it‟s an original piece of
        work, just because you didn‟t write it yourself, you haven‟t copied
        somebody else‟s, somebody‟s done it for you – is that as bad as
        blatantly copying an assignment and handing it in as your own without
        somebody‟s knowledge?

        I hadn‟t thought about that (laughing). You could buy essays from an
        internet site? I wish I had known that

The light-hearted manner of student K was in contrast to the more


        I know it‟s cheating but I have a dilemma between thinking, well if
        you can get away with it and it‟s an original piece of work, just
        because you didn‟t write it yourself you haven‟t actually copied
        somebody else‟s, somebody‟s done it for you – is that as bad as
        blatantly copying an assignment and handing it in as your own without
        somebody‟s knowledge?

There were two differences in student and academic ratings of seriousness.

The first was that academics (n=12) rated the invention and alteration of data

and references much more seriously in second place, than did students (n=9)

who rated it fifth. In interviews students perceived falsification and fabrication

to be widespread and accepted. Several, without prompting, freely admitted

that it had been their practice:

        and I think making up data, you know, is it really cheating if you
        change a 7 to an 8, that kind of thing? … it all gets cloudy again when
        you talk about references, sometimes you can‟t find a reference so you

       think you might make up a couple of dates, you are not really cheating,
       you‟re just kind of expanding the truth I suppose.

        Well the one about making things up on bibliographies, I‟ve done that,
        added a few extra.
Interviewer: Oh, I‟m not asking what you‟ve done.
        Student: But (pausing) yes, I don‟t think that‟s really cheating. But,
        em ….. mmm it‟s difficult isn‟t it?

What would discourage cheating?

There was no obvious consensus amongst academics, but three themes were

identified, each by a different range of participants:

1) Four of the twelve academics identified the need for academics to better

educate students. Elements of necessary education identified were: that their

learning suffers if they cheat, the importance of academic integrity, and the

existence and purpose of university academic misconduct panels.

2) Four academics suggested that more consistent use should be made of

existing information technology such as electronic submission and plagiarism

detection software.

3) Four academics believed that there should be greater enforcement of

penalties and that that fact should be communicated to students as a deterrent.

One single comment from an academic stood out as an impossible but

reflective notion that, although open to the accusation of anecdotalism, was

nonetheless linked to the first theme of educating students about the loss of

learning that resulted from cheating:

       It would be impossible to do but would be the most beneficial thing to
       do I think, would be to have a time machine so that you could take
       students five years down the line and then they might actually think

       well, I actually wish I had done that work for myself now because the
       benefits that you actually gain from doing the work yourself, and
       having done the work, being able to think back on it, can only really
       be felt after the facts, and at the end of the day, that‟s what we are
       really all here for.

The only consensus amongst students was that it was very difficult to

discourage cheating. There were however three themes that emerged:

1) that universities and academics should take a firmer line, investigate their

suspicions and inform students of outcomes. The following quotes are typical

of the majority:

       „Cos I think there is a lot of, kind of false threats made a lot of the
       time, and nobody bothers following it through because it is too much

       I think if university penalties were enforced, or people saw them being
       used more often, they would be a big deterrent. But I don‟t think you
       do very often, well I certainly haven‟t heard of anybody who has been
       accused of, and followed through for cheating. … But because it is so
       hush hush if it is happening, I don‟t know how much it is happening,
       then it‟s not going to put people off, it‟s a risk they are prepared to
       take obviously.

2) that there was insufficient checking of all assessments: that invigilators in

examinations should be more vigilant and rigorous, and that academics should

build in formative checks on the progress of essays as well as dissertations.

        .… the written exams, having people, more people in the exam hall
        might put people off a bit more.
Interviewer: more invigilators?
        Yes….and in coursework essays maybe have things checked more
        often, people‟s references properly checked, and make people aware
        that people are doing that.

       Provide a certain amount of information so that you can see a natural
       progression between ... [drafts] ... to your final draft kind of thing ...
       Maybe ten percent could be chosen at random … the threat almost of
       that would make people think that they‟d better do that one properly. It
       would make me more organised and much more careful of references
       as you go along rather than wait until the end.

3) that awareness of cheating should be raised across both the student and the

academic communities:

       kind of educate people what cheating is more ... I think there should
       definitely be more education on what is gonna happen if you‟re
       cheating and what is cheating, that the University classes as cheating.

This last advice is in line with recommendations from Carroll and Appleton

(2001), although it is unlikely that the student quoted would be aware of that.

Carroll also advocates consciously designing assessments that do not facilitate

cheating. This principle was substantiated by another student who reflectively


       I think the key, I think something that I have learned from this course
       particularly, is that there are certain types of assessment in which
       cheating is made really difficult and I think rather than attempting to
       abolish cheating, because I think in certain situations, certain people
       will maybe cheat, I think for this particular course the fact that the
       practical assessments make it really, really hard to cheat shows that
       there is a way of assessing people without having to worry about
       cheating because it‟s not really possible to cheat …. the best way
       would be to have deterrents for the cases where you can‟t design out
       cheating but other than that design assessments where cheating is

Are students as informed on matters of academic integrity as academics
believe them to be?

Despite a range of measures adopted by all programmes to inform students of

the need to avoid so-called „academic misconduct‟ and of the relevant

regulations and penalties, students were largely unaware of the information or

where it could be located. The following student comment was typical:

        We are all aware that there are rules and regulations, but I think if you
        ask any student on campus I don‟t think you would get many that have
        read the rule book or read the regulations or know exactly what they
        say… I think if you are at the point where you are considering
        cheating I don‟t think it makes any difference what the rules and
        regulations say, you‟ve still got to do it.
Interviewer: would you know where to look for regulations and penalties?

They are in the student handbook that you get in first year.
       I just use it as a door stop.

To what degree do students confirm the early findings from the

Statistical analysis of questionnaire findings is ongoing at the time of this

paper but early analysis using Wilcoxon paired tests demonstrates significant

differences beyond the 0.05 level between student perceptions of the

frequency of cheating in „students on a course like theirs‟ and the extent to

which the same students admitted to using cheating behaviours. These

findings were confirmed by students in interviews who saw two reasons for

the difference:

   i)       that some students would not recognise their behaviour as

            cheating, this attitude being further influenced by an increasingly

            blasė attitude to the apparent extent of cheating in the student


   ii)      that others would not risk alerting academics to the ease with

            which cheating can take place in case greater rigour resulted

The following student comments were typical:

         Nobody is going to, even in strict confidentiality, people won‟t admit
         they‟re cheating or what they‟re doing they won‟t see as cheating. It
         depends where you draw the line.

         I think they wouldn‟t admit to it, I really do, yeh, even anonymously
         because if… isn‟t a university lecturer going to validate those
         questionnaires then they are going to change or may become more
         rigorous with their exam procedures. So if they aren‟t admitting to it
         are they thinking ahead, thinking if I don‟t admit to it can I get away
         with it again?

Students‟ reasons were puzzling given the design of the questions. Firstly, the

questionnaire at no point asked students if they or their peers had cheated, but

instead asked them to rate the frequency of use, or not, of the list of

behaviours in „students like them‟ and then in themselves. Thus, even those

who „don‟t see it quite as cheating‟ saw the behaviours in others but

apparently not in themselves. Assuming that the extent of perceived cheating

as reported by students did indeed reflect reality, it is impossible to determine

the reasons for the differences identified, but it is possible that the difference

in perceived and admitted extent of cheating is due to normative influences

(Eysenck,    1998)    whereby    students    preferred   even    in   anonymous

questionnaires to conform to what they thought would be the positive

expectations that others may have of them, and not admit to gaining unfair

advantage, although they would perceive their peers to be doing so.

Secondly, strong reassurance was personally given by the researcher that the

purpose of the research was for reasons related to personal study, registered at

another University, and that the results would not be communicated to their

lecturers or programme staff in any way. Despite this, it seems that there may

have been a perception in a few students that their responses would in some

way be communicated to their own lecturers and that „they (the lecturers or

the University) are (then) going to change or may become more rigorous with

their exam procedures‟. This could have resulted from the students neither

having listened to the researcher‟s explanations nor read the accompanying

information. Alternatively it is possible that students, having no previous

knowledge of the researcher, decided simply not to take the risk.

This difference in perceptions and self-reports was not found in other reports

of similar studies (Franklin-Stokes and Newstead,1995), where both student

perceptions and self-reports of the frequency of cheating were high. The

discrepancy is difficult to explain. The Franklin-Stokes student sample was

smaller (n=112) but was drawn from a single discipline across two institutions

using second year students. For the purposes of this paper it is not possible to

determine the effect of normative influence on different cohorts, even if that

were found to be a relevant factor. It is proposed, however, that the findings

from this study have internal validity due to the confirmation in interviews of

questionnaire findings.

One reason for cheating behaviours being relatively widely accepted by

students could be that their perception is that very few students are

investigated for cheating.

          There just aren‟t enough stringent checks, so if people can get away
          with doing it then they are going to.

Interview conversations with academics confirmed the student view that

cheating was more frequent than the published figures of those who were

investigated would imply. All students accepted that cheating was a part of

student life - ‘People think that it‟s alright if they get away with it‟ - and that

very few students would even consider reporting their peers who were known

to have cheated. Several referred to an „honour code‟ amongst students

„unwritten and unsaid‟ whereby to report student cheating would be perceived

by the student community to be a more reprehensible action than the cheating


        I think it‟s just … quite a normal thing and it‟s gone on for three years.
        And the general consensus is well I got away with it in the first year,
        so I‟ll do it for second and third year. So I think they see it as being a
        normal part of doing the degree, it‟s a normal part of em I‟ll just do it
        to get a higher mark, ... it‟s just an assignment.
Interviewer: this is very subjective, but what is your perception about the level
of cheating, what percentage of people on a course like yours in a year like

yours do you think would engage in practices that would be generally seen as
       I could probably say a little over half the year, I can honestly say that,

This student view of the extent of cheating was typical of more than half the

students interviewed differing only that this student identified the extent as a

perceived percentage of her cohorts.

Many academics believed that at least 50% of their students were cheating in

some way,

       I would guess that most students do something (laughing). I don‟t
       know how refined their consciences are but I would guess that you
       would get almost one hundred percent if people were really, really

This view is of course extreme, and moderated by the inference of degrees of

cheating behaviour. Two other academics adopted what they referred to as a

humanist stance and believed that any cheating in their students was largely as

a result of ignorance or a „learning curve‟.

Academics consistently demonstrated that in their experience it was the less

academically able students who were invariably found out. Those students

who had well developed writing skills were felt to be able to integrate

unacknowledged sources into their own work so that they were frequently not

detected. The following quotes from academics are typical:

       I think they (students) are a bit wilier than they are given credit for at
       times, and there‟s probably quite a lot of cheating goes on but it‟s
       carefully done so it‟s not picked up on.

       The students particularly write and can copy very cleverly. I think
       those are overlooked, it‟s the ones who aren‟t as sort of bright that
       don‟t get away with it because it‟s quite obvious that they‟ve copied or
       that it‟s not their own work.


The findings from this convenience sample can not be generalised to other

student groups or institutions. Accepting this limitation, and the specific

differences already identified in the paper, it should be noted that perceptions

of the scale of cheating in undergraduates, and student attitudes to acceptable

behaviours in assessment are in line with other studies (Ashworth et al, 1997;

Pickard, 2006).

Students and academics alike repeatedly referred to „the line‟ between

acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and the extent of the grey area that

was currently ill defined and not always understood by students or academics.

It was clear that students suffer from „information overload‟ throughout the

first semester, and that even at the end of their studies are not always clear on

the difference between acceptable and unacceptable writing and referencing

practice. The students in this study did not know the penalties for academic

misconduct and there was no consistent practice across or within programmes

for ensuring that students were reminded of the need to avoid cheating in

assessments, and what that meant in practice. Where there was ongoing

education for students on how to avoid cheating, that education frequently

focused only on plagiarism and collusion and ignored discussion of the need

to avoid other means of gaining unfair advantage.

Common forms of cheating are accepted amongst the student community but

student perceptions of the seriousness of many forms of „bending the rules‟ in

assessments do not always coincide with those of academics. Those students

who are tempted to cheat rate it a risk worth taking as they are not aware of

many students being investigated for cheating and believe that the academic

workload and timescale for marking are factors mitigating against being found

out. In addition, there is an honour code amongst students „unwritten and

unsaid‟ that ensures that very few students would report their peers for known


When measures are taken to reduce opportunities for cheating through either

electronic detection systems or through redesigning assessments, the effects

are significant. A study of the use of TurnitIn software conducted by the

University of Melbourne found that, over two semesters, plagiarism decreased

by more than 50% following the introduction of detection software

(Beauchamp, 2006). A strong and repeated theme from this study indicated

that students, if they „cheat‟, are simply taking advantage of the perceived

weakness of university systems of detection. Electronic detection is only one

solution. Until the academic community reaches agreement on the

fundamental issues it can be no surprise that some students will continue to

make use of opportunities to achieve with less effort.

Notes on contributors

Helen Smith is a Principal Lecturer in the School of Health, Community and

Education Studies, Northumbria University, Coach Lane Campus, Newcastle

upon Tyne, NE7 7XA.

Jim Ridgway is Professor of Education in the School of Education, University

of Durham, Leazes Road, Durham, DH1 1TA


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