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Academic Integrity in Online Education

By Diana Skrzydlo

Expanding Horizons, April 2021


With the rapid (and now long-lasting) move to online education due to the pandemic, many educators were justifiably worried about preserving academic integrity in their courses.

Instructors and institutions have proposed solutions such as using remote proctoring software or posting fake answers on cheating websites. However, these options can be expensive, unfair, easy for students to circumvent, and overly focused on punishing the symptom.

I would instead encourage educators to address the causes of cheating while promoting student learning and growth. By structuring the course and assessments to reduce the temptation to cheat, many time-consuming and unpleasant conversations can be avoided.

Keep in mind that cheating is not necessarily more frequent in online courses just because they are online. Cheating has many causes, including students being stressed, feeling like they are unable to succeed without doing it, not seeing the value in assessments, or simply not knowing the rules. It’s important to create conditions where cheating is less likely to occur rather than just trying to chase down every offense (or worse, tempting students to cheat and punishing them when they do).

Here are some ways you can reduce the causes of cheating:

  • Have some assessments where collaboration is not just allowed but encouraged (e.g., discussion board topics for each question) and some where it is not allowed (individual work only), and make the distinction clear.
  • Make any individual assessment open-book and specify exactly what that means (e.g., anything on the course website or discussion board may be used but nothing from anywhere else). The reason for this is that if you instruct students not to use any aids, many will break that rule, and once they’ve broken one rule, it’s easier to break more. Whereas if you give them a reasonable amount of resources, they're much more likely to stick within those parameters.
  • Similarly, allow students to ask questions during the assessment so the instructor can clarify necessary points. If they feel completely stuck and can’t even begin, there’s more of a temptation to look elsewhere.
  • The questions on an open-book assessment should still represent a wide range of difficulty levels, including some relatively easy ones. If all the questions are extremely hard, there will be more incentive to cheat. But if there are some that students can easily answer on their own, they’re more likely to keep trying. Also, definitely include questions that test higher levels of learning (ask students to analyze, evaluate, and create rather than just memorize, understand, and apply).
  • Make your assessments authentic and valuable—something students may need to do in the workplace or later in their careers. Connect your assessments to what is going on in the students’ school, city and country, as well as what’s in the news. If they see the relevance and importance of what you are asking them to do, they are more likely to take it seriously and give it an honest shot.

There will always be people who try to cheat; these are the same people who would, for example, write cheat sheets on their own bodies and then go to the bathroom to check them. You’ll never prevent every case. But the vast majority of people will be honest if your expectations of them are reasonable and you minimize the temptation to cheat. It’s important to let students know that honesty is the norm—if they think everyone else is cheating, they will do it just to keep up. But a lot of research shows that most people don’t.

If you do have concerns about a subset of students cheating, you could use a follow-up oral exam or other methods. But when addressing cheating once it has occurred, your response should focus on pedagogy over punishment. Your goal is for students to learn; if you can give them the opportunity to demonstrate that they have learned the material and that they have grown from mistakes they have made, that is a win. Just as the Society of Actuaries’ Actuarial Board for Counseling and Discipline focuses on counseling before discipline, your goal should be education and not punishment.


Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries, the editors, or the respective authors’ employers.

Diana Skrzydlo, ASA, is a Continuing Lecturer and Director of the MActSc program at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at