In online courses, catching cheaters can be more effective than warning them

Image credit: Daniel Dench and Theodore Joyce / Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Paper caption added to image.

Posted on June 10, 2022

Telling students you have a method to detect cheating doesn’t prevent it, but identifying perpetrators after they’ve cheated does, according to new research by Assistant Professor Daniel Dench of Georgia Tech’s School of Economics.

In the experiment, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and OrganizationDench and co-author Theodore Joyce report that warning undergraduate students after their first offense reduced subsequent cheating attempts by at least 65%.

Their findings are important as online courses and degrees expand and classes remain virtual amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Students may be tempted to cheat in an environment with less supervision than a traditional classroom, but “before going nuclear, you can discourage them from trying to do so in the future,” Dench said. “If there is knowledge that we actually know who is cheating and when, then people are much less likely to do it.”

To conduct the experiment, Dench and Joyce collected data from four finance, management, and accounting courses at a large public university outside of Georgia in 2019. Students completed assignments in Microsoft Excel, where researchers have integrated a unique identification code into each student’s software. which could mark work copied and pasted from another’s file. Unlike classes with assignments or exams where plagiarism can be harder to detect, Dench said, this was a tough measure of cheating that was hard for students to deny.

Still, the researchers found that reminding students early in the course that the software could detect cheating had little effect on cheating rates. Just reporting plagiarism after it happened by emailing the student directly and letting them know they were on a watchlist dramatically reduced cheating – not just in this class , but also in the following classes.

For example, in finance and management courses, cheating dropped by 80% to 90% in subsequent semesters. Another notable aspect, according to Dench? “Rates dropped over the next several semesters before we even started policing,” he said. “It’s an indication that we’ve changed the culture around cheating.”

The experiment has some shortcomings, the researchers reported. The software could not identify students who cheated from an outside source rather than copying from another student in the class. Dench and Joyce also could not determine the extent to which cheating was reduced by the email warning compared to word of mouth from a friend or classmate. Finally, although the instructors sent each student the first warning that the software could detect plagiarism, they were unable to confirm whether the students had read it or not.

Even so, “the takeout looks clear,” the researchers wrote. “Boilerplate messages in programs about academic integrity seem to be largely ignored. Even email messages delivered a week before an assignment’s due date are ineffective. It’s only when students are caught and risk serious disciplinary action as cheating decreases in later work.”

The article, “Information and Credible Sanctions in Curbing Online Cheating Among Undergraduates: A Field Experiment,” appeared in the March 2022 issue of Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. It is available at

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