What is the best way to reduce cheating?

John Kleeman HeadshotPosted by John Kleeman

There is a famous saying: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” This has a useful analogy in preventing cheating.

There are many useful technical and procedural ways of preventing cheating in tests and exams, and these are important to follow, but an additional, cost-effective way of reducing cheating is to encourage participants to choose not to cheat. If you can make your participants want to take the test fairly and honestly — by reducing their rationalization to cheat — this will reduce cheating.

Fraud triangle - Motivation, Opportunity and RationalizationAs shared by my colleague Eric Shepherd  in his excellent blog article Assessment Security and How To Reduce Fraud, cheating at a test is a variant of fraud.  Donald Cressey, a famed criminologist came up with the fraud triangle shown in the diagram to the right to explain why people commit fraud.

In order for someone to commit fraud (e.g. cheat at a test), he or she must have Motivation, Opportunity and Rationalization.  Motivation comes from the stakes of the test; for an important test, this is difficult to reduce. Opportunity arises out of technical and procedural weaknesses in the test-taking process, and you can obviously strengthen processes to reduce opportunity in many ways.

Rationalization is when someone reconciles their bad deeds as acceptable behavior. We all have values and like to think that what we are doing is right. When someone conducts fraud, they typically rationalize to themselves that what they are doing is right or at least acceptable. For example, they convince themselves that the organization they are robbing deserves it or can afford the loss. When cheating at a test, they say to themselves that the test is not fair or that they are just copying everyone else or they find some other excuse to rationalize and feel good about the cheating.

Here are some ways to make it less likely that people will rationalize about cheating on your test:

1. Formalize a code of conduct (e.g. honesty code) which sets out what you expect from test takers. Communicate this effectively well in advance and get people to sign up to it right before taking the test. For example, you can put it on the first screen after they log in. This will reduce rationalization from people who might claim to themselves they didn’t know it was wrong to cheat or that everyone cheats.

2. Provide fair and accessible learning environments where people can learn to pass the assessment honestly, and provide practice exams so people can check their learning. Rationalization is increased if people think there is no other way to pass the test than cheating.

3. Make sure that the test is trustable (reliable and valid) and fair. If the test is not seen as fair,  people will be less like to rationalize that it’s permissible to cheat.

3. Communicate details of why the tests are there, how the questions are constructed and what measures you take to make the Cheat sheet in a juice box test fair, valid and reliable. Again, if people know the test is there for good reason and fair, they will be less motivated to cheat.

4. Maintain a positive public image. This will reduce rationalization by people claiming that  the assessment provider is incompetent or has other faults.

5. Communicate your security measures and how people who cheat are caught.  This makes people less likely to think they will be able to get away with it.

For many organizations — in addition to other anti-cheating measures — it can be very productive to spend time reducing participants’ rationalization to cheat, thereby helping them choose to be honest. The picture on the right shows a “cheat sheet” or “crib sheet” hidden in a juice carton. Think of ways you can encourage participants to use their inventiveness to learn to pass the exam, not to believe it’s okay to defraud you and the testing system.

I hope you find this good practice tip helpful. I’ll be presenting at the Questionmark Users Conference March 10 – 13 on Twenty Testing Tips: Good practice in using assessments. Taking measures to reduce rationalization for cheating will be one of my tips. Register for the conference if you’re interested in hearing more.

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