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Do Students Cheat More in Online Classes?

Oct 7, 2009 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 3 Comments

Say you’re a university intent on building up its stable of star athletes. Schools have a financial incentive to do this—hugely successful college sports teams are big earners for universities. So you go out and find the best star athletes, and you recruit them. They’re not being recruited for their study skills—many are below-average students—but even so, you give them a “scholarship.” Athletes get to attend your university for free or at very low cost, because after all, they’re bringing so much to the school when they win games.

Of course, athletes have to meet minimum scholarship requirements to stay in the game. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in intense pressure on professors, colleges and coaches to pass students and to look the other way when cheating occurs—or even to encourage cheating.

At Florida State University, a particularly large cheating ring was exposed in 2007. Almost two-dozen student athletes were found to be cheating on tests.  The interesting thing about this case?  The tests were administered online, and a student tutor was taking the tests on behalf of the athletes. This is a type of cheating that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional classroom.

So the question is this: does the online classroom make cheating easier?
And are online students more likely to cheat as a result?

Are Virtual Classrooms Designed for Academic Cheating?

Student Cheating
You would think so. There are plenty of reasons why it seems intuitively probable that students in online classrooms would cheat more. These include:

A weaker rapport between students and teachers - If a student really likes a teacher, he or she will be less likely to cheat on tests and assignments—right? If your professor is an email message that shows up in your inbox from time to time, it’s less likely you’ll feel that bond—and possibly more likely that you’d be inclined to cheat.

Less on-site supervision - As an online student, you do almost all of your assignments—and sometimes your tests—unmonitored. Who’s to say it’s really you sitting down to take that test?

More online savvy - It’s possible to argue that online students are even more at home in the virtual environment than traditional students—and that they know exactly where to find materials to plagiarize.

Online Cheating: Not as Common as You’d Think

Friends University ran a 2009 study to test the question of whether students actually do cheat more in online than in traditional classrooms, and the results were surprising.

According to their findings, both students and teachers perceived that cheating was more frequent in virtual classrooms. But self-reported instances of actual cheating were significantly higher among traditional students than they were among online students. This is despite the fact that the number of online students interviewed for the study was almost three times as many as the number of traditional students.

The study’s scope didn’t include reasons for these findings—but the researchers speculated several possible causes:

Student Cheating

Self-reported instances of actual cheating were significantly higher among traditional students than they were among online students.


Online students are older - Online learning typically attracts older nontraditional students, who may be more mature and thus less likely to cheat.

Online students get more preparation time - The researchers speculated that many traditional students engaged in “panic” cheating—in other words, they decide to cheat on the spur of the moment rather than planning it out. Online students [may cheat less because they have more time to prepare.

Online faculty is perceived as more savvy
- There is a perception that online cheating is more prevalent—so perhaps online students are dissuaded from cheating because they believe their professor is more likely to be on to them. In addition, professors may design assignments and tests that are
tougher to cheat on because they believe their students are more likely to try.

Online students are more motivated
- Nontraditional students, for a variety of reasons, are seen as more motivated than traditional students. Perhaps that motivation and increased engagement in the learning process cuts down on cheating.

No matter whether you’re learning online or in a traditional classroom, nobody is hurt more by cheating than the cheaters themselves. When you cheat, you not only put yourself at risk of serious repercussions, including expulsion—you also cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn. 


InnovationsOnlineEdu Over a year ago

Assessments have to be revisited -- project based learning which encourages collaboration; open e-resources exam which tests critical thinking skills rather than memorized information: professors must adapt and re-think assessment for the 21st century.

Jill Silos, Ph.D. 0 Months ago

The Friends University study is inherently flawed. The researchers only studied 250 students at a Christian University. Students who attend a religious institution are far more conscious of the daily rules of their faiths than students at secular colleges. This informs their daily behavior and choices. In effect, the researchers could not have produced a more skewed sample if they had consciously tried to create specific results. The subject group hardly represents the typical college student today.

@RedelJones Over a year ago

As an online student I know that in my own experience online learning is designed in a manner that requires you to posses the ability to apply what you have learned, and each lesson builds on the last. This makes cheating useless due to needing at least some understanding of the materials to be ultimately successful in the course. If you think you can out smart someone that has applied their life's work to teaching you, then you obviously don't need the education you seek 'wink'. - Support #distancelearning - Follow Me @RedelJones on twitter

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