Academic integrity expert, Dr. James Lang spoke to educators today at Cambrian College about the cheating problem in academia. If you are hoping to find his recommended technological solution to solve this problem you won’t find that here. Instead, he suggests that we address the environmental factors within our locus of control that encourage or enable cheating.


He argues that focusing on the endless cycle of using new technology find cheating then being beaten by other technology is not an effective use of our energy as educators. While technology does play a role in detecting cheating, it should not be the only thing that educators rely on. Instead, if we need to think about addressing the root causes of cheating and work as a team.

Is cheating on the rise?

My immediate thought was yes, which reflects his interpretation of the general anecdotal narrative. We, as educators sure talk about it a lot. However, according to Dr. Lang, the research that we have access to shows that self-reported cheating behaviours are actually not on the rise. They were quite high to being with! Of course, these results are not conclusive for several reasons which he acknowledged.


Dr Lang's slide showing high cheating rates in 1963, slightly higher in 1993, then lower in 2002 to 2010

Dr Lang’s slide showing high cheating rates in 1963, slightly higher in 1993, then lower in 2002 to 2010



In 1963, 83% of students surveyed self-reported that they had engaged in cheating behaviour (Bowers, 1964). This is a high historical baseline! In 1993 similar research in the same institutions indicated cheating had slightly risen (McCabe as cited by Lang, 2018). McCabe, Trevino and Butterfield (2001) discuss how prevalent cheating is and conclude that it was rising at the time the article was published. Lang (2018) points out that larger studies, later on, showed that the self-report was decreased, but these results need to be interpreted with caution as there are a lot of confounding variables. We could debate the validity of the findings, but I don’t think that really matters. In his talk, Lang makes two really important main points:

  1. We have no conclusive evidence that cheating is getting worse since we started measuring it. It was pretty bad to begin with. He argues that it is not a contemporary issue.
  2. Secondly, “there is a lot of cheating going on.” Cheating is, therefore, an important issue to address.

geralt / Pixabay

Why do students cheat?

There are a number of reasons people may cheat. Lang (2018) selected a few to address today based on the factors that we have some power to change.

Individual or group characteristics?

A lot of demographics have been measured across the research. This data is useful at an institutional level to help us plan interventions. Business consistently has the highest rates of cheating. First year and larger classes have higher rates. Lang states that this is good to know, but not very relevant for the everyday class.

Failure of communication?

Maybe we don’t do a good enough job communicating what cheating is. Maybe … but I do a lot! Sure, we do the traditional policy, have a statement in the handbook, do a presentation at orientation, remind students, and it is traditionally in my syllabus.  I have also done games, lecture, video and given them scary examples of what I have done when I have caught it. These tactics definitely helped by the way. A lot of students came to me for help up-front to make sure they didn’t plagiarize. However, still, I usually catch about 5 cases per term. My theory is that all of my efforts were targeting the wrong subset of students – those that were listening and understand. Most of the cheating I catch is arguably unintentional. I really think my problem lies in the lack of opportunity to learn from failure in past semesters. (Gradeless solves this problem by the way)


Plagiarism and unauthorized collaboration are the most frequent forms of cheating. These are the areas with the fuzziest rules according to Lang (2018). Professors disagree on what counts as plagiarism. We also have different rules on how much “collaboration” is allowed.

Dr. Lang talking about different definitions of cheating

Dr. Lang talking about different definitions of cheating

These assertions definitely reflect my experience. We sit around meeting tables and try to quantify how many words constitute plagiarism and it is hard to agree. Students want a black and white answer that is consistent across our faculty. Lang (2018) stated today that he would argue that in some contexts one word could be considered plagiarism. I thought about it … and yes, if you define it like I do … but I bet many of my colleagues would label that an APA error. Some would not even count an entire sentence copy/pasted as plagiarism. That is the challenge … where do we draw that fuzzy line?

Then there are people who want to encourage plagiarism as a learning tool …

As a lucky hub team member, I got to talk with Dr. Lang the night before the keynote. He didn’t give away any spoilers but our team was able to discuss how fuzzy that line can be sometimes!

Then there is the issue of self-plagiarism. We didn’t get to talk about that today, but I have seen that in my career (yes, I did the paperwork). How clear are we on if that is acceptable? That is another area I think clarity is needed for each individual class. While I did warn my students, they get bombarded with so much information I definitely think we need to rethink our approach. I could write about plagiarism until I have written a book too so I better move on …

Bottom line: Each educator needs to clarify their expectations (Lang, 2018).


The environment?

The teaching and learning environment plays a role in if students will cheat. According to Dr. Lang (2018), researchers have found that under the right conditions, most people are willing to cheat a little bit. Have you ever not made a full stop at a stop sign in the middle of the night on an empty street. Dr. Lang (2018) talked about Dan Ariely’s research on the Fudge factor, which is discussed in the article below.


Dr. Lang (2018) asserts that the role of the environment is important in determining the amount of cheating students are willing to engage in. For those of you that are thinking – wait a second, when did it become our fault – don’t panic. That isn’t what he (or I) think. Dr. Lang (2018) looks for intersections between environmental factors that relate both to academic integrity and learning. Are there features of the learning environment that we can influence that can improve learning (and academic integrity at the same time)? He looks at things that can improve learning for people that would never cheat, and at the same time reduces the chances of cheating. I think that is brilliant.

Dr. Lang focusing the discussion on 5 main areas

Dr. Lang focusing the discussion on 5 main areas

The five factors he focuses on are explored in more depth in his book. I will be reflecting on the briefly here (and likely more in the future). If you want a free copy and you work at Cambrian join our book club!

If you don’t work at Cambrian you can get it on Amazon.

Dr Lang’s (2018) five factors make sense and can be influenced by our choices as educators:

  • Motivation is Extrinsic (external).
    • How can we emphasize intrinsic motivation?
  • Orientation toward performance (likes to do well on the things)
    • Grading on a forced curve emphasizes performance
  • Infrequent high-stakes assessments
    • Increased pressure when there are fewer assessments
  • Low self-efficacy
  • Cheating is perceived as common (other students are doing it)
    • When they see other people get away with it


Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation

The video below talks about the definition of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Basically, extrinsic motivation is working for the grade, degree, badge, chocolate bar, or something else external. You aren’t really wanting to learn the thing. I teach classes where I would say the majority of my students are only taking the class because they are forced to. In nursing, I tend to teach research classes. Most of my students do not want to be researchers so they see this class as an obstacle in their way of graduating on time (I have been told that). I try to sell them on the importance of the class to get buy-in but that is a topic for another day.


I found the example in the video below interesting too.

Students are less likely to cheat if they are intrinsically motivated (Lang, 2018). What do we emphasize in class? If we emphasize extrinsic factors we may actually be promoting cheating. A little light bulb went on for me when Lang (2018) said that. One of the findings of our small study on badging was that students were cheating to get badges. In a discussion with one of us, “One student reported that they completed work for another student to earn badges in one course” (Killam & Timmermans, 2018). There isn’t much context on that website because we haven’t written anything up, but I can tell you that the course they cheated for had high stakes, low buy-in, and other factors I am unsure if I should blog about were present. I am willing to bet that I did not catch all the cheating that happened in that course.

Infrequent high-stakes assessments

In the past, I have been unable to change this environmental factor, but now I can. Yay! The more opportunities students have to be successful the less likely they are to cheat. That makes perfect sense. Higher stakes assessments lead to more pressure to cheat, especially if students have low self-efficacy or have done poorly on an assignment already. Why do we have assignments woth 60%?

Ok, let me explain, I have that right now to cheat the eGrades system. Wait a second … I am proud of “cheating” the system here … that is ironic. Our institution has rules. Rules that faculty sometimes dislike because they seem arbitrary but that are in place for good reasons. These rules prevent giving a student 100% of their grade at the end of the course. In many traditional situations that is a good thing because it limits high-stakes assessment and, by extension, cheating. However, for innovative approaches to grading like mine (and others), these limitations can pose challenges. I am not really cheating … or am I?  I presented this plan to my dean, wasn’t told no. Then I accepted a position as Cambrian’s innovation champion to push the boundaries like this. Going “gradeless” (ps. I don’t like the term) and open was part of my pitch … so am I breaking the rules or working within the confines of systems to do what my institution wants me to do?


To be continued …

Sorry for the abrupt ending. I am not even halfway through my notes yet and I can’t stop writing because I am passionate about this topic. But I need to stop for tonight to do the topic justice and meet my goal of trying to get enough sleep so I can be more productive overall. I also need to hit publish so this post does not go into the list of way too many PD session reflections that are in draft mode. I will leave you with this …

And this …

Are you working at Cambrian?

Consider joining our book club. Visit this website for more information or just come down and grab a coffee with me. I would love to hear what you are up to in your classes.


Main Reference

Lang, J. M. (2018). Cheating lessons: Learning from academic dishonesty. Cambrian College: Sudbury, ON.


Laura Killam is an experienced nursing educator from Northern Ontario with a keen interest in improving student learning through innovation. For more information please visit


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