An ongoing study from Missouri State University suggests that the pandemic-era move to virtual instruction led to an increase in cheating — a result that surprised MSU faculty member James Sottile, who conducted a similar study in 2010 that yielded different results.
In the previous study, Sottile, a professor in educational psychology, analyzed responses from 635 undergraduate and graduate students, finding little difference between the self-reported cheating behavior during online and virtual classes. At the time, the survey responses indicated students who did cheat were slightly more likely to receive answers from a friend during an online test than one conducted in a physical classroom.
But as the pandemic hit, and courses shifted online in 2020, Sottile says he and his research partners wondered if the dynamic had changed. In February, he surveyed 698 college students with questions about their cheating behaviors since the pandemic.
"We found that about 20 percent more students admitted to cheating during the pandemic, which is very surprising, and kind of scary," he explains. "When you look at the moral development research, what we find is that people cheat for a reason. 'Will it benefit me?'"
It's more than that: Sottile notes that whether a student cheats is also a matter of opportunity — and that's what he believes has changed the most in the last decade.
"When we started getting into it, I was surprised by how there's been a huge industry in cheating through tech. There's a lot of resources that students now have the opportunity to use in order to cheat, and that has greatly changed within the last ten years."
It's not just Googling answers on your phone during a test, or asking a friend for previous years' assignments: Sottile points to the popularity of homework-help websites like Chegg, which allows students to pose questions to the site's experts, or the industry of ghostwriting services that provide unique papers and assignments in specialized courses, offering paying cheaters the opportunity to avoid being spotted by anti-plagiarism programs.
Earlier this year, in a separate study published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, researchers at Imperial College London found a nearly 200 percent increase in the number of questions posted to Chegg. The study's authors noted, "Given the number of exam-style questions, it appears highly likely that students are using this site as an easy way to breach academic integrity by obtaining outside help."
Sottile points to several possible variables that could increase cheating. Along with the expanded access to online resources and quick-searching internet speeds, universities struggled to pivot to online classes, leaving teachers overworked and lacking familiarity with the tools meant to aid in busting cheaters and plagiarism.
On the other hand, students may simply feel safer about taking the risk to cheat when their teacher isn't actually in the room.
Sottile and his researchers are in the midst of analyzing data from the third set of survey responses from students about their cheating behavior. He's hoping the results provide more specific insights into how students' moral behaviors have changed as their opportunities to cheat have expanded — and with educational institutions weighing blended classrooms and hybrid models of instruction, those opportunities won't simply disappear with the end of the pandemic.