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3 Methods to Help Prevent Cheating

My students are laser focused: the class’ first exam is approaching and the class review has turned into a series of rapid-fire questions:

“How many questions will there be?”

“Can we use a formula sheet?”

“Is it open notes? Please! Can it be open notes?”

Although most of the questions focus on the logistics and format of the exam, there are a few panicky voices that try to get a sense of what they need to catch up on and study.  And while we as instructors try to prepare our students and hope that they understood our lesson material, there is always the concern for students who will make the decision to cheat rather than to adequately prepare and study for the exam.

So, what can be done to prevent or at least mitigate cheating? Here are a few tips:

  1. Outline Academic Dishonesty Policies & Consequences

  • Discuss cheating early.

Have a clear statement about academic misconduct on your syllabus with concrete repercussions and talk about it in the first week of the course. Be precise with your words. If you are unsure about how to write your policy, ask colleagues or your institution’s student conduct officer for advice. They often have blurbs prewritten for faculty to adapt to their courses.

  • Discuss cheating often.

Before each exam, especially the first one of the course, remind students of your expectations. Specifically, mention what aids can or cannot be used during the exam. Explain that you will hold them accountable. Studies suggest that these regular dialogues do prevent some cheating. (Lang, 177-78)

  1. Carefully Organize Your Exam and Classroom – Make Cheating Noticeable.

  • Use multiple versions of an exam/test if possible.

Be mindful as you pass them out so that students near each other receive different versions. Any students with wandering eyes are likely to copy the wrong answer, making evidence easier to collect and verify.

  • Consider using colored paper.

This makes any unauthorized papers on the desk easily recognizable. I use a different color each exam so that students cannot easily sneak in a crib sheet of the right color.

  • If the exam takes place in a lab, use screen monitoring software.

This is a practice I use extensively in my Emporium model College Algebra course (with Farconics Insight). I can easily check to make sure no other tabs or windows are open besides the one containing the exam. If your lab doesn’t have such software, consider asking your department chair or technology resources office if it could be purchased. (In addition to helping to monitor students, many programs also allow for screen sharing, polls, and other helpful class resources.)

  • Be mindful of patterns.

Does a student often ask to go to the restroom during class assignments? Do a student’s test scores seem unexpected when compared to previous work and class discussion? Is he/she suddenly in a different seat for the exam day? I’m not saying that restroom breaks and a considerable improvement from one test to another should be counted as indisputable evidence of cheating, but multiple occurrences may be indicative of a pattern worth investigating.

  1. Consider Changes to Your Course Structure and Philosophy

In his book, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, James Lang “argue(s) that the responsibility for enforcement of academic honesty should not be the primary responsibility of students.” Instead, “academic dishonesty happens in the courses that we design, that we are teaching and that we have the responsibility for administering. If students are cheating in our classes, we should take primary responsibility for discovering that and responding to it.” (Lang, 170)

Lang’s work, both in his book and his regular articles for The Chronicle of Higher Educationoffers practical advice and case studies on course design. I’ll describe some of his suggestions, but I encourage checking out his work.

  • Give students valid reasons to learn the material.

Lang refers to this as “intrinsic motivation,” pointing out that old standbys like “This will be on the test” and “You will need in for the next course” are not particularly effective. The importance of your subject may be apparent to you, but it might not be to students who are experiencing it for possibly the first time. Find a way to connect the subject to the world around them. Give it a purpose. Easier said than done, I know, but the careful reflection on our part can result in more meaningful learning for our students.

  • Place emphasis on mastery of the material, not performance on a given day.

Look for ways for your students to show they understand the lessons besides the cut-and-dried quiz and exam pattern. This may mean more assignments, more flexibility in choosing assignments, or even individualized paths, but giving students more ownership and opportunities to showcase their knowledge may likely increase their learning.


Lang, James. (2013). Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

About the Author

Abby Noble is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Middle Georgia State University. There she teaches a variety of courses, from core classes to senior-level and everything in between. She enjoys outreach as much as teaching, especially organizing and volunteering at many annual events aimed at K-12 students in the community, including the Academic Bowl, Math Olympics, and Math Puzzle Party. In her spare time, she enjoys playing with her two children, hanging out with her book club, moonlighting as an amateur artist, and cheering on her beloved Atlanta Braves.