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  • Harri Candy

Why your learners cheat

Cheating is a sign of a fundamental flaw in the course delivery and assessment.


Every year thousands of students cheat. This number is rising year on year. It isn't just GCSE and A level students who are cheating either, university students are guilty too. They find ingenious ways of sneaking formulae, notes or answers into exam halls; use mobile devices during closed book tests, copy (read plagiarise) someone else’s essay, portfolio or coursework; and sometimes they even pay people to take exams or write essays on their behalf.


If this is how people behave towards assessment during their academic studies it explains why we as learning and development professionals are concerned that these behaviours will continue throughout their careers.


Whether your learning intervention is online, face to face, instructor led, synchronous, asynchronous or any other delivery method, the data shows that a proportion of your learners will cheat.


At this point it must be noted that most students won’t cheat. Most will respect the rules and submit only their own work, accept their performance on exam day and not attempt to further their achievement by leaning on someone else for answers. However, it is undeniable that any level of academic dishonesty undermines the integrity of the assessment and can erode the achievement of passing for everyone involved.


It is easy to dismiss the circa 1% of students who are caught cheating as simply lazy people who couldn’t be bothered to study or work for their grades. But this just isn’t true. Even hard working, high achieving students have been found to cheat.


So why do they do it? And more importantly, what can we do to stop them doing it?


Below are three common reasons why people cheat, this list is by no means exhaustive and each individual student will have their own drivers and motivations.


Reason 1 : There is no perceived value in the learning


Whether the student is someone working through a GCSE subject they have no intention of continuing with after the exam or someone taking a mandatory product knowledge course at work, if there is no perceived value to the learning they are more likely to struggle to intake the information and be tempted to cheat in the assessment.

That cheating could be writing down the answers to use in the final exam or, especially if the exam is not face to face, asking someone else to supply the answers for them. In these scenarios the learner is thinking of the subject and the exam as just a barrier to progression along their chosen path and not appreciating the value of what they are learning and how it will help them in the long term. What they are looking for is a quick fix solution to bypass the uncomfortable position they are in.


Solution 1 : Make the content relatable

It isn’t desirable or even possible to resolve this by allowing people to opt-out of any learning or training they don't see the value of. Therefore, the most effective approach is to make the learning directly relatable. When that student asks “when are we ever going to need to know the radius of a circle” give them a real world example that matters to them. When the employee asks why he needs to know which region the grapes for Pinot Grigio come from, explain to him how it can make the sale easier by making him sound more knowledgeable and that will in turn make it easier to hit sales targets and earn commission.

Not only will this solution help the learner see the value of the activity they are undertaking but it will also make it easier for them to remember the information therefore the assessment should be easier for them and they are more likely to pass.


Reason 2: The stakes are too high



Being caught cheating risks being stripped of your grades and your qualification. But risking failing your assessment can be just as damaging to your learners’ futures.

In many situations the result of the assessment has an impact on the student’s life and this can be an incredible source of stress and lead to people to seek out a “guarantee” of success. Think about the message students hear at school : good grades lead to a good job and happiness, and by omission the inverse message is also transmitted, poor grades lead to unsatisfactory jobs and unhappiness. Add to this the increased stress of thousands of pounds spent on tuition and it becomes easier to understand why students are trying to secure their grade.

Thinking now about how this relates to people who have already secured their post education jobs, consider the mandatory compliance training imposed by companies. Some companies include “pre-employment” or “Day 1” training to ensure that their employees have met the minimum standards of health and safety compliance before stepping foot on site. The implied message with this training is clear : if you cannot pass the assessment, you cannot work.


Solution 2: Create the “guarantee”

Just as software developers carry out incremental testing of each element as they complete in order to ensure the end product works, create an environment where students can “guarantee” their grade. Ensure that the course does not culminate in an “all or nothing” style assessment but instead allow students to earn and bank parts of their grade throughout the course. This might be through coursework that is sufficiently weighted to make it meaningful or incremental assessment exams which contribute to the final. No one single piece of work should be weighted so it can determine a grade by itself. Imagine being able to walk into the final exam hall knowing that 80% of your grade was already in the bag.

Additionally, create a series of self assessment diagnostic activities that allow learners to test their own knowledge and reveal the gaps so they can take affirmative action and seek help in areas they are unsure of.

With these measures in place, not only can students better prepare for exams but they can see their progress towards their desired grade in stages and make adjustments to their studies early on if they see they are likely to fall short of what they want to achieve.


Reason 3 : Unclear expectations



Particularly with coursework or essays when students are unsure of how to achieve their desired results they are more likely to look to someone who has been successful for support. Imagine being told you have to answer the question within 500 words but you don’t know how many marks are available or how to get them. Some exams only award 1 mark for stating factual information and the rest of the marks are based upon analysis and exploration of the facts. However, some grading rubrics are the complete inverse. An otherwise high achieving individual could fail an exam, piece of coursework or other assessment type simply because they don’t understand what they are being asked to do.


Solution 3 : Provide templates or examples

The best way to combat this is to be open and transparent about the grading rubric being used for the assessment and provide some clear examples of what good and bad look like. Keep the critique as factual and non-subjective as possible when explaining why the good example is good and the bad example is bad. Is the good example better because it draws on cold hard facts and figures, whereas the bad example uses general and vague terms for example. Or is the quality of the piece based upon the use of different grammar constructions? If so, name them so students can identify the constructions more easily in their own and other people’s works.

When issuing assessment tasks be clear how many marks are available and what they are for. Some institutions use a system where a question might be worth 5 marks which are made up of 2A and 3B. The students know that A is factual information and B is analysis because it is written on page 1 of the assessment for them and the same structure is used across all of their exams.


Unfortunately there will always be instances of academic dishonesty and there will always be some aspects of the course delivery or assessment that are beyond our individual control to change. However, the more we strive to create an environment where learners can see a value to their studies and understand how they can achieve their desired results, the fewer people will be tempted to risk it all by cheating.


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