Preventing Cheating; or, Self-Perpetuating Incentive Systems

I sat on a panel presentation today about how to prevent cheating. My wonderful colleagues talked about the tips, tricks, best practices and technologies that could be used to subvert cheating on quizzes and exams. My turn was up, and I offered some sheepish disclaimers that what I had to say was a complete departure from the previous speakers because I had woken up at 4am with these strange Jerry MacGuire-esque thoughts about motivation and assessment.  Here is what my half-awake brain produced on the topic of cheating:

The “I Don’t Know Any Better” Argument


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Let’s go back in time a little bit to 1993. What happened in 1993? The World Wide Web was unveiled. Within just a few short years there were millions of users and millions of web sites on the Internet.  Today, these numbers are in the billions. Some interesting things happened as use of the web increased and evolved; what was originally used as a tool to present information or to foster communication in an alternative mode, the Internet began subsuming other industries. Think about how nearly every news, information, and entertainment industry has been completely shaken by the rapid growth of the Internet. So now, we have a convergence of content accessible through a single portal. This is a good thing right? It also blurs the lines between public and private, scholarly and non-scholarly, formal and informal.

Another pattern that challenged basic assumptions about ownership and attribution is the blurred line between stealing and sharing. With the click of a button, one can “share” a song, a video, some text, etc. Many web-tools even encourage sharing, remixing, and collaborative contribution. And, unlike in the past when physical media impacted the costs and incentives for production; today, bits and bytes have an almost negligible material cost. Also, in an increasingly globalized world, there are alternative perspectives about copying. In some Asian countries, for instance, quoting others is a form of flattery, and Western concepts of attribution are relatively new.

So, do these online media environments impact students’ understanding of cheating?

The Motivation Factor


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Although Harvard and Yale began experimenting with recorded test scores and performance ranking systems in the early 1800’s, the first letter grade system that resembles the ones that are so common today was implemented by Mount Holyoke in 1897. Just over 100 years ago. Before that, grades didn’t exist (Durm, 1993).

The number of A’s given to college students rose from 15% in 1960 to just over 50% in 2010. So, students are getting smarter, we’re getting better at teaching, or grade inflation is a real thing. I like to think it’s the first two, but it is probably mostly the last one.

A recent ECAR study showed that one of the top reasons students use a Learning Management System was to immediately see their grades (Dahlstrom & Bichsel, 2014).

What is a grade, anyway? It is a form of summative assessment. Summative assessment is only useful for learning if it is used as part of formative assessment strategies. By itself, summative assessment is valueless to the student in terms of development, except that it serves as an external motivator.  With the increase of A’s and the increasingly speed at which students are getting their grades, are we simply feeding a behavioral reward stimulus? Is it an addiction? Will people do unethical things to feed addiction?

Incentive Structures


More concerning than just the motivational element, are we feeding self-perpetuating incentive systems; super-structures of summative assessment? What happens when students feel not only the rush of endorphins when they log into the LMS and see that A, but also the panic of not maintaining a 4.0 in an increasingly competitive world?

So do we continue to perpetuate the importance of grades because they are easy ways to measure student learning?

. . .are we feeding self-perpetuating incentive systems; super-structures of summative assessment?

To truly subvert cheating, yes, we must educate students about proper citation and attribution. That’s the low-hanging fruit. I would also suggest that as educators we model this behavior and make sure we give attribution in all our lecture notes, PowerPoint images, etc. I would also make a case that well-designed assignments and activities can make it more difficult to cheat. Consider creating assignments that promote creativity, personal reflection, or original research. The more canned or common the questions, the more likely it is students can Google the answer.

The Case for Cheating

When so much information is available to us online, we should encourage the use of this resource to find answers to questions and to solve problems. Good questions can lead to some deep thinking and exploration. Also, working in groups to solve problems can actually lead to better working memory retention than solving problems in isolation. Research from an Indian educator named Sugata Mitra has shown the potential of students working in groups and using the Internet to solve problems together. In a post-test compared against a control group, the students who worked in groups and were able to talk and use online resources, scored better than those who could only study in isolation (Mitra & Dangwall, 2011).

So, should we consider letting students take tests in groups? Maybe. Should we de-emphasize grades in our courses? Perhaps.

Final Thoughts

There may be examples where de-emphasising grades can be effective. Consider Finland, where pass/fail systems are more common, yet they rank highest on international standardized tests. In my own class, I use a three-scale model where assignments are either non-existent, partially complete, or complete. I also use multiple choice tests for ungraded self-check tools only. And I offer assignments that are completely ungraded, yet many students complete them.

Imagine for a second that we go back in time 150 years, before letter grade systems were created, before compulsory education was diffused across the world, and with it the concept of grades. Would we design assessment systems differently? Would we focus on learner development rather than superficial measures?


Dahlstrom, E. & Bichsel, J. (2014). Study of students  and information technology. Educause.

Durm, M.W (1993). An A is not an A is not an  A: History of grading. The Educational  Forum, 57, 3, 294‐297.

Mitra, S. & Dangwal, R. (2011). Limits to self‐organisng sytems of learning—  the Kalikupam experiment. Britsh Journal   of Educational Technolgy, 41, 5, 672‐68.


Why I don’t write

My dad once told me that for him, the problem with making art was that the artist must strive to create a piece that captures the entire world and gives it back in a meaningful way. This is both impossible and the greatest aim.

I don’t write because I know it will be largely unread, pedestrian, and straddling the line between self-deprecation and narcissism.

But maybe we should all try to capture the language that makes sense to us and our situation in time and place. Camus implores us to rail against torpidity. Rorty reminds us the language will change anyway. Vygotsky assures us that a multitude is a good thing. And maybe it gives something back.

I don’t write because I am so humbled by and in awe of the people I admire.

But, the ethos that has been a constant thread in my life is that everyone has an important voice if their message is told with sincerity, passion, and clarity. The cacophony of real human voices, of individuals revealing themselves in a morass of media that is otherwise dominated by the dominant, might just paint an authentic picture of humanity, and, one hopes, add meaning to all of them and to each of them.

So while I do not write, I do think everyone should.