Problems and Pitfalls: Academic Integrity

According to the University’s Code of Conduct, academic integrity is “the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner.” Concerns about violations of academic integrity are certainly not unique to the online classroom!


Any faculty member who has ever required a writing assignment has likely encountered problems with students plagiarizing the work of others. While a small number of students may copy the work of others knowingly (and hope to not be caught), most acts of plagiarism are simply due to a lack of education about how and when to attribute someone else's work.

Penn State's Teaching and Learning with Technology group has put together an excellent set of resources on plagiarism for both students and faculty. I encourage you to look through these closely and to make the Student Tutorial available to your students, as well...perhaps even as a required activity at the beginning of your course!

  • Plagiarism Links
    Links to plagiarism policy pages, guides, quizzes, citation guidelines, basic copyright


In 2008, the office of Student Affairs Research and Assessment conducted a PULSE survey of Univerity Park students to reveal their perceptions and the prevalence of academic dishonesty violations (see the PULSE Academic Integrity Report). More than half of all Penn State students admit to cheating at some point in their college career. According to a report by the American Psychological Association, national statistics, "two-thirds of students admit to cheating on tests, homework, and assignments" (see Beat the Cheat). Keep in mind, these are reports concerning residential students. Online courses see the same problems, often facilitated with technology.

Some simple strategies can help reduce cheating in online courses:

  1. Create banks of questions from which tests and quizzes can be created randomly. That way, not every student gets the same test.
  2. Limit the time in which a student can complete an online assessment. If you do not want a quiz to be "open book," then setup the online quizzing tool so that students have a limited time frame in which to take the assessment. Make sure you give them adequate time to take the quiz or exam, but not so much time that they could look up every answer.
  3. For high-stakes assessments like exams, consider requiring students to have a proctor. The University has had an approval process in place for many decades to govern the use of proctors in distance education courses. See Finding a Proctor for more information.
  4. Utilize the reports available in systems like Canvas to analyze suspicious test results. For example, you can easily see the exact time and date when a student took a Canvas-based exam. If you contact Canvas help, you can even see the IP address they had. If you see two similar test results from the same date/time and from contiguous IP addresses, you might surmise that the two students were sitting next to each other in a computer lab!
  5. Use a wide variety of assessment strategies to assess students' grasp of course materials. As we discussed earlier, sometimes a paper or project will give you a better idea of whether a student is "getting it" or not!
  6. Compare a student's "voice" on a writing assignment with his/her discussion postings and e-mail messages. If the voice is dramatically different, you might want to examine the written assignment more closely.
  7. If a student's wording is "too good," try simply copying and pasting a sentence into a Google search to see if it came from another source. (See the plagiarism resources listed above for more on this topic.)

Communicating an Academic Integrity Policy

Whether teaching face-to-face or online, Penn State faculty are required by University policy to include a statement on Academic Integrity on the course syllabus. Colleges and campuses typically have a specific policy they require their faculty to use. To locate the right policy for your course, see Campus Policy Statements.

An important part of any policy on Academic Integrity is a clear communication of the penalties associated with each infraction. Some of these might be determined by a college or campus, while others may require the instructor to determine penalties unique to his/her course. See an example of violations and sanctions from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Share Your Strategies

Have other ideas or experiences in this realm to share? Post them to this week's "Problems and Pitfalls Discussion Forum"!