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The Skills Agenda

Students and academic misconduct: why it happens and possible solutions

Understanding the reasons for cheating provides instructors with a starting point to address the issue.


Academic integrity is critical to the legitimacy of universities. When academic integrity is not upheld, the value of academic credentials is diminished. Further, learning and maintaining academic integrity serves as a foundation for ethical behaviour in graduates’ work and personal lives. Yet while academic integrity is critical to universities’ missions and reputations, individual instructors often struggle to manage issues of academic misconduct when they occur.

In this special Skills Agenda three-part series, I am delighted to bring in my colleague, Susan Bens. Dr. Bens is an educational development specialist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning. In this first column, she and I cover reasons why students may cheat, plagiarize, and engage in other forms of academic misconduct in their courses. In our second column, available next week, we explore how ChatGPT and other technologies play into questions of academic misconduct. And in our third column, available in two weeks, we discuss how instructors can use an understanding of academic misconduct to design courses that promote academic integrity.

Why students cheat: what the research says

Understanding of why students commit academic misconduct, including in Canada, has expanded over time from focusing on student traits to considering how the academic environment, at multiple levels, influences student behaviour. While research has not found a single cause-effect relationship, it has identified multifaceted correlations that point to ways universities and individual instructors can shift the teaching and learning environment to be more supportive of academic integrity and more effective at deterring academic misconduct.

So why do students cheat? The simple answers are that they are human and they can make bad decisions. Students are like other people: they strategize and prioritize as they handle multiple pressures and interests. They balance risks and benefits of the various actions available to them. And, sometimes, they leave things too late or succumb to social pressures or feel worried about revealing shortcomings to others. They may try to hide these from view, especially from the view of powerful others like their instructors. The following are six common reasons for academic misconduct:

  • Lack of connection to material: The student has disregard for or disinterest in the course – and uses academic misconduct to avoid or minimize effort.
  • Skill gaps: The student has academic skill gaps — and uses academic misconduct to disguise or cope with their skill deficiencies.
  • Misunderstanding: The student has an incorrect or confused understanding of what is expected — and engages in academic misconduct due to unintentional errors.
  • Lack of connection to instructor: The student feels invisible to or disrespected by the instructor — and engages in academic misconduct because the relationship doesn’t matter.
  • Tolerance of academic misconduct: The student believes or knows that other students are engaging in academic misconduct — and uses academic misconduct to “level the playing field”.
  • Student stress: The student is experiencing considerable stress due to time and/or academic performance pressures — and uses academic misconduct to alleviate stress.

The good news is that it is possible to use awareness of common reasons for academic misconduct to identify remedies.

Addressing reasons for student academic misconduct

Review the above list of reasons for academic misconduct and ask yourself which ones are most likely to come into play in your own courses. With this insight, you can identify possible remedies to incorporate in your classes.

Reason for academic misconduct Possible remedies to academic misconduct that instructors can use in their courses
Lack of connection to material
  • Explicitly explain why the course content matters
  • Use active learning to engage students in material
  • Use assessments that are close to real-world application
  • Allow for more choice and voice in classroom activities and assessment
  • Connect what is to be learned to students’ futures
  • Use reflection activities or assignments that require students to connect the course material to their own lives
Skill gaps
Lack of connection with the instructor
  • Share your enthusiasm. Build rapport with students. Make an effort to speak with individual students before and after classes
  • Normalize help-seeking. Remind students about your office hours and let them know you welcome students to come to your office hours
  • Share your personal approaches to the subject material, to completing academic work, and to maintaining academic integrity
Tolerance of academic misconduct
  • Respond to suspected academic misconduct in a proportionate and consistent way
  • Talk with individuals and groups of students for exploration purposes – “let’s talk about how you approached this”
  • Engage with more formal policy and procedures even with the barriers that exist to reporting
Student stress
  • When possible, coordinate assessment deadlines within programs to reduce coincidental overlap or overload
  • Stage submission of components of larger assignments over the term
  • Consider appropriately flexible extension policies
  • Reinforce academic integrity expectations when students are most vulnerable to the temptations of academic misconduct (e.g., just before the due date or exam)

Of course, the issue of academic integrity becomes more challenging in the face of rapidly evolving technologies. We will be back next week to discuss that issue! In the meantime, please forward this column to your own colleagues to foster discussion about these issues on your campus.

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

What is your own experience with issues of students and academic misconduct? Please let me know in the comments below. I also welcome the opportunity to speak with your university about skills training. Please connect with me at [email protected], subject line “The Skills Agenda”. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy). Susan Bens is an educational development specialist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning.
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  1. Sarah Elaine Eaton / June 9, 2023 at 12:55

    Thank you for this article and for referencing so much of the Canadian literature on academic misconduct. Too often, Canadians turn to research from elsewhere, and you’ve highlighted some work done right here at home. Really appreciate it!