Plagiarism and Cheating

Some of the biggest concerns faculty have about assessing online students are outlined in Assessing the Online Learner: Resources and Strategies for Faculty by Palloff and Pratt. (2009, p. 4).

  • “Is the student who is enrolled in the course the student who is participating, taking the exams and quizzes, writing papers and so on?”
  • “How do I, as the instructor, know that students really understand and can apply the material I’m teaching if I can’t see them?”
  • “How can I ensure that students won’t cheat on exams or other assessments in my online course?”
  • “How can I deal with plagiarism online?”

Dealing with Plagiarism and Cheating

1. When creating an online test there are ways of reducing the temptation to cheat. Scare tactics don’t work because most students are sophisticated enough to know that you can’t really tell who has cheated.  More effective methods include:

  • Randomizing questions so that each student encounters a different order of questions from another student.
  • Randomly pulling questions from a large test pool makes it less likely that any one student will have the same questions on the test as another student.
  • Limiting the time available to take a test makes it more difficult for students to collaborate on test questions or to look up every answer.
  • Open-book format gives all students an equal chance.  If you claim that you are giving a closed-book test online, you never know if someone has looked up an answer in the book or on the internet.  By creating an open-book test, you give all students the chance to look up an answer.  These tests are often a bit harder than the traditional closed-book tests and usually require students to use information at a higher level.  The advantage is that all students have the opportunity to look up information they might need, and you are not penalizing the honest student nor making ‘cheating’ an attractive option.

2. Verifying that the student is taking the test.

  • Multiple smaller tests and assignments are helpful when you want to make sure that students are doing their own work.  It is unlikely that a student will be able to recruit someone to take a complete course for them or do their work on multiple occasions.  Smaller tests also give students the chance to become familiar with content every few weeks so they won’t have to “CRAM” for a particular test all at once.  This should facilitate learning.

3. Multiple ways of assessing the student

  • Using a variety of assessment measurements helps you learn individual students’ abilities.  If a student turns in a paper that is markedly different from his/her other work, it can raise a red flag that this may not be their paper.  Assignments that are related to real-life experiences such as case studies, discussion boards, blogs, and wikis force students to think on their own and submit their own work.

4.  Plagiarism is always a possibility in online as well as face to face classes.

  • The best way to prevent plagiarism is by not putting students in a position where they feel they have to cheat.  Give students time to write their papers and remind them often about the proper way to reference their work.  It can be very tempting to cut and paste something from the internet onto a discussion board.  A simple reminder that this is plagiarism and a warning that it is against school policy usually stops the problem.  By keeping assignments student-centered, asking them not to quote but to give their own opinion can help set the stage for original work.
  • There are resources that can be used if you suspect plagiarism.  Web sites such as Google, Turnitin, and My Drop Box can preview written assignments and compare them to documented papers already published.


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Ariely, D. . (2009, March 18). Dan Ariely: Why we think it’s OK to cheat and steal (sometimes).  18:23 YouTube video of TED talk. Retrieved from

Ariely, D. (2012, May 26). Why we lie, Wall Street Journal, p. C1.   Includes text, brief video, and interactive graphics. Retrieved from

Harmon, O. R., Lambrinos, J., & Buffolino, J. (2010). Assessment design and cheating risk in online instruction. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(3). Retrieved from

Kostina, M. V. (2011). How to avoid plagiarism online? Retrieved from Wired@Heart: Transcending Distances in Online Learning website:   Kostina’s webpage includes a 4-minute video summarizing strategies for deterring online plagiarism.

LoSchiavo, F. M., & Shatz, M. A. (2011). The impact of an honor code on cheating in online courses. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(2). Retrieved from

McCabe, D. L. (2009). Academic dishonesty in nursing schools: an empirical investigation. Journal of Nursing Education, 48(11), 614-623. doi: 10.3928/01484834-20090716-07

Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K. (2009). Assessing the Online Learner: Resources and Strategies for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stuber-McEwen, D., Wiseley, P., & Hoggatt, S. (2009). Point, click, and cheat: frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(3). Retrieved from

Varvel, J., Virgil E. (2005). Honesty in online education. Pointers & Clickers:  ION’s Technology Tip of the Month, 6(1). Retrieved from

Watson, G., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the digital age: do students cheat more in online courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(1). Retrieved from