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What does a cheater look like? How to help at-risk students

As instructors, we welcome a new cohort of students into our classrooms, whether they are virtual or in-person with each passing cycle. The last thing we want is to start off with suspicion. That said, students can be vulnerable to academic misconduct. How can we as teachers identify and support at-risk students?

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager


As instructors, we welcome a new cohort of students into our classrooms, whether they are virtual or in-person with each passing cycle. Each term starts with a clean slate; the students are new to us and we are new to them. We make clear learning goals and expectations. We set a clear tone for communication. The beginning of a new classroom is full of hope and anticipation, both nerve wracking and thrilling.

The last thing we want is to start off with suspicion. But some of us come with battle scars, and we can’t help but wonder who the “trouble makers” might be and we may, whether unconsciously or consciously, adjust our classroom management to our preconceptions.

And some of us come with battle scars specific to academic misconduct. Life can intervene and send students off course. It’s easy to be lured by “essay bots” or finding shortcut “work arounds” and as instructors, we understand these realities. But sometimes, we can’t help but ask who is prone to plagiarism or vulnerable to contract cheating? Who are the students engaging in collusion? Googling for test banks? Using word spinners to evade similarity?

The reality is that cheaters are struggling students, whether the struggle is psychological or academic. The reality, too, is that these heartbreaks can be mitigated by instructor intervention and curriculum.

Cheaters look like high-achieving students, they look like struggling students, international students, domestic students, as well as historically marginalized students. They are straight-A students and they are students on the verge of failing. They are students under pressure coping with lofty expectations, multiple languages, and other headwinds.

It's important to ask why students are engaging in shortcut solutions.

The motivations behind cheating are often internal. And additionally, the drivers for cheating are many. Some students engage in academic misconduct:

  • When they don’t see the value of work they’ve been assigned.
  • When they feel pressure to attain perfection and have a fear of failure.
  • Because they don’t know the next steps in learning.
  • Because they’ve received so much praise for being smart, they feel their grades should match expectations (Simmons, 2018).
  • Due to a cutthroat pressure environment and school culture where “everyone does it.”
  • Because of overload due to personal stress or a personal crisis (Subin, 2021).
  • Because they have a lack of knowledge around academic integrity.

The above are just some of the more common reasons students engage in academic misconduct.

According to leading academic integrity researcher Dr. David Rettinger, students don’t want to see themselves as immoral; in fact, they may often rationalize their cheating as legitimate behavior–for instance, if they find little value in the assignment (Simmons, 2018). They don’t think they are cheating, even if instructors do. Consequently, a clear knowledge of academic integrity is very important to ensure that students value learning and avoid misconduct. More importantly, aligning definitions supports learning. Having foundational knowledge of academic integrity makes it that much harder for students to rationalize shortcut solutions. Additionally, when instructors understand the student perspective, we have insights into how to help students in their learning journey.

This lack of knowledge is what makes students vulnerable to cheating; and because academic integrity is aligned with Western ideals, international students, for example, may have a difficult transition when traveling overseas for an education. Additionally, cultural context regarding individual reputation when it comes to academic performance may increase pressure and make learning very very high-stakes for someone struggling with multiple languages.

Providing scaffolding support for vulnerable students is critical to academic integrity. Figuring out what our students need to connect with the learning materials is distinctly different from having suspicions, which is adversarial and punitive in nature.

What are the benefits of supporting at-risk students and how can we help them get back on track? As stated above, at-risk students aren’t always obvious; but the risk factors, such as disconnection from learning, stress, and pressure, are. Mitigating these factors is part of supporting students and their relationship to learning academic integrity. Moreover, supporting at-risk students can prevent serious misconduct issues and punitive outcomes; this benefits both students who can then graduate embracing original thinking and institutions who can safeguard reputations and—let’s face it—not suffer financial attrition.

Research from the Harvard School of Education states, “Our youth informants describe a type of vertical support that centers on listening and responding to students’ needs. They want teachers to enable ethical behavior through holistic support of individual learning styles and goals” (Goldman, 2016).

These methods are proactive in nature and more holistic, rather than targeted to specific individuals.

  • Cultivate a sense of belonging for students within your classroom. Cutthroat environments and a perception of “instructors who don’t care” are factors in academic dishonesty. On the other hand, students who feel seen and connected to a classroom community develop greater intrinsic motivation and persistence.
  • Provide explicit definitions of academic integrity and academic misconduct. Some students don’t know what constitutes misconduct, and this is one way to mitigate inadvertent cheating. Additionally, providing explicit instruction shows that instructors are aware of, and care about, academic honesty. Resources like Turnitin’s Plagiarism Spectrum 2.0 can help promote awareness.
  • Design assessments that connect students to the learning. This includes frequent, low-stakes assessments that allow students to “fail safely” and receive direction on next steps in learning. These kinds of assessments also provide insights into student learning for teachers. A variety of assessment formats, too, measures different kinds of learning and is inclusive to different learning styles. In an ICAI panel on proctoring, Jennifer Lawrence, the Program Director of Digital Education at the University of New England, Australia summed up her findings with, “One of the overarching things that we found is it really comes back to assessment design; you can design your assessments in such a way that the issues around privacy respond to their concerns. If you have a whole bunch of students who are really stressed about a particular assessment format, that's probably a red flashing light” (ICAI Conference, 2021).
  • Promote a culture of academic integrity. Students can be vulnerable to peer pressure; an “everyone does it” mentality towards cheating is detrimental to learning, and one way to combat such an environment is to embed a culture of academic integrity within an institution and in classrooms. Whether included in a classroom syllabus or at multiple points throughout a student’s learning environment, structures of academic integrity such as honor codes, aligned definitions, and software to mitigate plagiarism, should be visible.

Cheaters aren’t obvious. They can be everywhere. But there are solutions. With the right support structures and a culture that helps students feel seen, educators can ensure that learning is the goal of students. And that shortcut solutions like cheating don’t feel accessible or viable.