Combatting Cheating

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Cheating on homework: how can you stop it?

Originally posted by Rebecca Celik, Ph.D.

Today’s students have access to more online information than ever before, and with that access comes increased opportunity for cheating. Whether we use online technology in face-to-face courses or teach distance learning classes, we cannot afford not to be thinking about cheating. In fact, we must do as much as possible to prevent it. While the emphasis of this post is on cheating in the context of online homework, online sharing of homework solutions is just the tip of a very large iceberg. There are websites dedicated to making old quizzes and exams available for students taking the same courses from the same professors (e.g.,,, It doesn't take much time to find PDF copies of entire textbook solution manuals available for illegal download. Search Craigslist in almost any city with a college or university and you'll find people offering to take entire online courses for students for a price.

Many schools provide on-campus exam proctoring services for distance learning courses and make-up exams, and companies like ProctorU and Kryterion offer similar services online for a fee. However, homework typically plays a different role than exams, serving as a low-stakes formative assessment that gives students a chance to practice new skills and receive valuable feedback. Ideally, the student will learn from their mistakes and demonstrate a deeper level of understanding in the future. Likewise, students should complete homework outside of class on their own time and, usually, at their own pace. Therefore, by necessity, homework assignments are almost always unproctored.

Most of us are aware that students can and do post solutions to online homework on websites such as Chegg or Cramster. This is true for any homework method, including pencil-and-paper homework. So, how does Sapling Learning help to prevent cheating? Where possible, Sapling Learning homework questions are randomized so that different students have different answers. This way, students who work together must communicate how they solved the problem rather than just the final answer. Additionally, questions may be pooled to add even more variability between students. Pooled questions assign similar yet unique problems, preventing them from sharing exact solutions.

The grading policies an instructor chooses also influence how likely students are to turn to cheating. In my experience, the best way to deter cheating is to keep the homework low-stakes. That is, I make homework worth only a small percentage of the course grade, and I keep the grading policy relatively lenient (i.e., low attempt penalty and high number of attempts). That way students are less incentivized to cheat on homework, and those who do tend to fail the tests and the class. Think of the homework as a learning tool for students rather than strictly summative assessment. Sapling Learning excels in this capacity. If you’d like, you can also set the solutions to be hidden until after the due date. However, you should consider that students often benefit more from the learning opportunity worked solutions provide if it is presented immediately after attempting a problem, when they still have a clear memory of their approach.

Another concern involves extra dummy accounts, which some students set up in hopes of obtaining correct answers to submit through their legitimate accounts. Anticipating this possibility, Sapling Learning makes it easy to remove fake student accounts. You can access and download your Sapling Learning roster. Use this process: Course Management > Participants > Export roster to open in Excel or similar software. This process allows you to compare the list of registered users in your Sapling Learning course to an official class roster from your school. Once you have identified a student to remove, click the Remove button found on the Participants page. When you are asked about refund options, keep the first option selected: the student will be given a refund, credit, or nothing as appropriate. Alternatively, your Tech TA can assist with the roster comparison and account removal process: send your Tech TA your final class roster after the add/drop period ends, and he or she can check it against your Sapling Learning roster and remove any accounts that do not belong in the Sapling Learning homework. At that point, your Tech TA can lock enrollment or set an enrollment password so that new students can’t enter without your permission.

Finally, when it comes to searching for homework solutions online, Sapling Learning solutions are much more difficult to find. Our team of experienced educators create our questions including all feedback, hints, and solutions. As a result, there is no risk of students obtaining a solution manual with all of the answers in one place, because such a thing simply doesn't exist. Compare this with a publisher-based online homework system, where the majority of questions are end-of-chapter questions with solutions widely available. In addition, solutions cannot be printed, making it cumbersome for students to share answers to problems.

The ultimate benefit of Sapling Learning’s approach to online homework is that students typically find it more efficient to learn the course material than to cheat on problems. Students are met with a mastery-learning approach, targeted feedback, and detailed solutions. That, in turn, makes Sapling Learning uniquely suited to prepare students for your proctored exams.

Have you tried other methods to combat cheating? Let us know in the comments below!