“Low-Effort” Interventions Can Combat Student Cheating


According to a new study from the University of California, Riverside, and zyBooks, a digital college courseware platform operated by Wiley.

The study looked at six ‘low effort’ interventions – each of which took less than an hour for the teacher to prepare and could be easily adapted to other lessons – aimed at reducing cheating in an online section an introductory computer course in which about 100 students were enrolled.

These interventions consisted of: discussing academic integrity at the beginning of the course; requiring students to score 100% on an academic integrity quiz; allow students to withdraw assignments they may have doubts about handing in; reminding students of the midterm cheating policy; demonstration of anti-cheating tools, such as software that identifies similarities in completed student assignments; and standardizing academic help and support.

Researchers measured how long it took students to complete assignments and how many students turned in a particularly similar code — two metrics that may indicate cheating — compared to students in another section of the course. .

Smita Bakshi, Wiley’s senior vice president for academic learning and co-founder of zyBooks, said checking for similarities is the most common method for detecting cheating, but she noted in an email to Inside Higher Education that the similarity and time “suggest only potential violations of academic integrity. An instructor should always conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether actual violations have occurred.”

Collectively, the six interventions appeared to increase the time students took to complete their assignments, indicating that they weren’t just copying and pasting code from another source, and decreased instances of multiple students turning in assignments that were strangely similar.

“Results show substantial improvements in student behavior when applying these low-effort methods,” the study found. The median time students spent on a programming assignment increased by 60%, from six minutes and 56 seconds to 11 minutes and six seconds. And the proportion of students who followed programs deemed too similar fell by 45%, from 33% to 18%.

David Rettinger, director of academic integrity programs at the University of Mary Washington and president emeritus of the International Center for Academic Integritysaid several interventions in the study have already proven effective, including talking to students about the definition and importance of academic integrity.

Still, he said, the research shows promise for its ability to assess effectiveness using time and similarity measures at a relatively large scale; Because it’s so difficult to measure actual cases of cheating, most academic integrity studies are self-reported surveys by students, he said.

“Detect cheating is difficult. What they did was a good first-order approximation, in my opinion,” he said.

Individual interventions

Rettinger said his biggest criticism of the study was that the researchers bundled the six interventions into a single experiment, rather than disentangling them to assess the value of each.

The researchers acknowledged this shortcoming in the study, writing that measuring each intervention independently would not have been practical, requiring them to conduct dozens of different experiments. They also hypothesized that clustering actually improved the effectiveness of interventions.

“We believe that collection is more likely to have a more powerful impact on the mental model of the student’s classroom, with the sum being greater than the parts. Moreover, since the application of the six methods did not require although a few hours of effort in total, there is no compelling reason for us to prune any of the methods,” the study states. “However, learning about the impact of each method is a area that others might wish to study.”

Rettinger’s concern was that one or more of the interventions might be virtually useless – or, even worse, detrimental – but the positive effects of the others obscure that fact.

“Some of these things can backfire on you,” he said. “And there’s no way of knowing if you’re throwing them all in one class.”

The study also acknowledged a concern that some instructors have expressed about implementing anti-cheating interventions: placing a heavy emphasis on academic integrity will impact their course evaluations. Indeed, the evaluation score of the course of the computer science teacher who participated decreased slightly after the realization of the experiment; as one student noted, “The professor put more effort into trying to find ‘cheats’ than actually teaching the class.”

“In any case, these assessment data suggest that teachers concerned about assessment scores may need to think carefully about how to maintain their higher assessment scores when applying interventions. We hope do future work in this area,” the researchers wrote.

Ultimately, the study found that teachers don’t need to spend a lot of time and effort fighting cheating; Low-effort tactics like those described in the study, which the researchers said took the professor a total of five hours to prepare and implement, can also be effective, and not just in computing.

“In any area where students have to do something outside of the classroom that is hard to do (circuit design, essay writing, etc.), these techniques can bring about improvements,” Bakshi wrote. “A key is that students need to know that the instructor is doing their part to ensure the class is run in a way that is fair to students who put in the hard work required.”


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