Study Helps Explain Why Students Cheat
Situation: Academic dishonesty—using cheat sheets, copying from other students' work, plagiarism or buying term papers on the internet—is often attributed to students' attitudes and characteristics, including an unwillingness to study or having low respect for the course teacher.
In fact: Teaching methods and delivery style really matter. Cheating is more likely to occur when students are expected only to memorise their textbooks and less likely when active engagement and discussion are encouraged.
Evgeniia Shmeleva and Egor Sagitov of the HSE Institute of Education examined the relationship between how study sessions are designed and the likelihood of students’ cheating. They found students more inclined to cheat when expected to learn by rewriting and retelling the study material and more likely to be honest when engaged in interactive learning activities such as debates. The paper is based on a sample of 17,300 bachelor's and specialist students from 291 Russian universities and published in Educational Studies.
What Is It All About?
Academic dishonesty, from using cheat sheets to downloading papers from the internet and passing them off as one's own, undermines the quality of education. Sadly, cheating persists and has even become worse during the COVID-19 pandemic; most universities switched to distance learning, which makes it more difficult to monitor students’ honesty.
A 2021 study reveals that 40% of Russian students have cheated in a test or exam at least once during the academic year. A third of respondents admitted to completing individual assignments together with classmates when it was not allowed, and one in four students reported having photocopied other people's lecture notes. In Sagitov and Shmeleva's study, more than half of the students practiced copying other's homework with varying regularity. According to several papers, Russian students generally appear to be more accepting of academic cheating than students in Western countries.
Meanwhile, social acceptance of dishonest behaviour can encourage its spread. Cheating cannot be attributed only to students being lazy, seeking results with the least possible effort, or avoiding failure in an exam. Contextual factors also matter, such as peers' behaviour (cheating is contagious), a lack of transparency in the academic environment, students' attitude towards the teacher, and the teacher’s behaviour.
Thus, faculty’s response to cheating—whether or not they warn students against it and explain the potential consequences—is a significant factor, as are the course teacher's requirements and performance. Students are more likely to cheat when they have low respect for the teacher; on the other hand, cheating is less likely when the teacher engages constructively with the students.
The goals set in the course also play a role. When mastery and authentic learning are a priority, cheating serves no purpose. In contrast, cheating is more likely where academic performance (eg maximising scores) is the goal.
Various strategies and methods have been used to address academic dishonesty, but whether common approaches really work is an open question. For example, the use of proctoring during tests and exams reduces the opportunities for cheating but is expensive to implement. Universities have been adopting honour codes and teaching courses on ethics, but studies show their limited effect on cheating.
Another option is to impose strict punishments for dishonesty, such as reporting cheaters to the university administration, but few teachers are prepared to do so.
Among other options, international studies suggest that preparing different questions for each student and active student engagement with assessment can be effective. Cheating is less likely when tests are individualised, when classes involve student presentations, and when cooperative learning and assessment approaches are used.
Based on these findings, HSE University researchers formulate the main hypothesis of their study: is it true that active teaching and learning practices discourage cheating, while a passive approach can encourage dishonesty? They tested these hypotheses on empirical data.
Passive teaching and learning means that students are expected to memorise and then reproduce the content shared by the teacher, eg by taking notes from dictation and retelling what has been studied.
Active teaching and learning, in contrast, aims to engage students in the learning process, with a focus on independent completion of assignments, and involves discussions, presentations and case studies.
Passive teaching is common in Russian universities. As many as 70% of students of economics and management were found to spend most of their study time taking notes from oral lectures or copying content from a blackboard or projector. A 2021 survey of Russian universities found such practices to be dominant, with 90% of students having been asked to copy content from slides, take dictation or memorise lecture notes in at least some classes. In contrast, active teaching and learning appear to be far less common.
How Was It Studied?
The study is based on data from HSE's Monitoring of Education Markets and Organisations (MEMO) Project. In the spring of 2020, the project surveyed 17,316 full-time students in different years of study at 291 Russian universities. Most respondents majored in social sciences (25%), mathematics and natural sciences (18%), and engineering (17%). The universities ranged from leading to lesser-known ones. The students were asked about their experience with online and offline classes in the 2019/2020 academic year.
The researchers assessed the risks of cheating by analysing the data using a series of binary multilevel logistic regressions with sequential addition of individual and group-level variables.
Cheating in the form of copying other students' homework was used as the dependent variable in the study. Students were asked how often they had engaged in such copying in the 2019/2020 academic year, with responses ranging from 'almost never' to 'almost daily'. The variable was then converted to binary, with zero assigned to non-cheaters (47%), and one to cheaters (53%).
Additional individual-level variables included the use of passive and active teaching practices during seminars and practical classes, and the control variables included gender, year of study, subject area, the proportion of seminars attended, and the frequency of asking questions and participating in discussions—the latter variables indicated student engagement and were used to distinguish its effect from that of the teaching methods. The university's status was added as a group-level variable.
The first model included the average predicted odds ratio of cheating, taking into account the grouping of student responses by university. The second model included individual- and group-level control variables, and the third model also included the prevalence of different teaching practices. Each of the models reflected the odds ratios of cheating in relation to the independent variable values.
What Was Found?
The vast majority of students attended more than 75% of all classes, but only 29% asked their teachers questions on a daily basis. ‘Rewriting’ and ‘discussion’ were the most frequently used study methods, according to the respondents. About a third of students (36% and 32%, respectively) reported that these practices took up more than 70% of time during seminars and practice classes. Less common was the practice of retelling: according to half of the respondents, it took up less than 30% of the class time.
The first model showed that the proportions of cheaters and non-cheaters were about the same across the surveyed universities, indicating that this behaviour is typical irrespective of the school’s status.
The second model revealed an inverse relationship between learning engagement and cheating. Other significant factors included attendance and asking questions of the teacher. In other words, the more engaged a student, the less likely they are to cheat.
Students who attended more than 75% of classes cheated less than those who attended fewer than half of the classes. Students who asked the teacher questions during classes two or three times a week were also less likely to copy others' homework than those who did not ask questions. The observed inverse relationship between cheating and active learning is consistent with findings from similar studies in other countries.
The third model showed that respondents who were mainly exposed to passive forms of teaching such as rewriting or retelling the course content were more likely to cheat. 'Statistically significant differences were found between groups of students who spent less than 30% of their study time engaged in passive learning and those who spent between 30% to 70% of the study time in the passive mode, with 1.11 odds ratios for those taught through rewriting and retelling,' the researchers report.
This finding confirms the hypothesis that students are more likely to act dishonestly if passive learning prevails in class.
In contrast, active forms of learning such as discussion are associated with relatively low odds of cheating. Students with extensive experience of discussion in class (70% and more of the study time) cheated less than those who spent no more than 30% of study time in discussion (0.78 odds ratio).
No significant correlation with cheating was observed for teaching methods such as case studies and student presentations. Thus, the original hypothesis that active teaching and learning practices reduce the likelihood of cheating has been only partly confirmed.
In fact, the variables describing different teaching practices have a limited contribution to explaining why students cheat. Thus, the method of instruction can hardly be considered the main factor in academic dishonesty.
Why Should We Care?
This study identifies certain teaching practices which can contribute to academic dishonesty. Based on these findings, faculty can be made aware of the link between student cheating and passive teaching methods and encouraged to focus more on active teaching and learning formats, which are associated with a higher quality of education.
'There is a need for investment in retraining faculty so they may upgrade their teaching repertoire, including by adopting practices which are suitable for distance and hybrid learning,' say the study’s authors.
Potential future research could focus on the incidence of cheating across study-related activities taking place at home, in class, and at exams, Sagitov and Shmeleva conclude.