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Best Practices | Promoting Academic Integrity in Your Online Course

It's no secret that one of the biggest instructor concerns surrounding online courses is how to promote academic integrity, or in other words, how to prevent cheating, plagiarism, and falsification. After all, in an article published in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Watson and Sottile (2010) found that "students felt that they were almost four times more likely to be dishonest in on-line classes than in live classes" (Perception section, para. 1). While this statistic may raise alarm, there are a variety of ways that instructors can foster academic integrity within their online courses.

Know What Academic Integrity Looks Like

Consider revisiting your university's policies and treating them in a positive light. All too often, the characteristics of academic dishonesty (i.e., plagiarism) are used to measure whether or not a student acts with academic integrity; unfortunately, this can lead to academic integrity being perceived in a negative and threatening connotation. Knowing what academic integrity looks like and how it applies to your course will help establish clear expectations and promote the ethical behavior of your students. Remember, the policies are in place to benefit, not hinder, the student and their learning experience.

In the article Academic Integrity in the Twenty-first Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative, Gallant (2008) identifies the difference between fraud and failure with regard to academic integrity. Fraud occurs when a student intentionally deceives for the purpose of self-gain; whereas, failure occurs when a student is unable to follow expected procedures, rules, or guidelines for a particular assignment (pp. 98-99). If you feel a student has exhibited academic dishonesty, it might be a good idea to first examine whether a student has knowingly committed fraud or whether that student has suffered a failure related to procedures or guidelines.

Depending on the circumstances, you may find that a student has truly made an unintentional mistake and simply needs a gentle reminder about a certain policy. Remind the student of the university's policies, the policies' importance, along with the fact that the policies are designed for the welfare of the student. Consider this before you formally reprimand or discipline a student for academic dishonesty. Naturally, if you observe repeated unethical behaviors from a student, you will need to move forward with taking appropriate action.

Model Ethical Behaviors

One of the best ways to promote academic integrity in your course is to lead by example. Modeling correct practices is one of the first steps you need to take in tackling this issue. Undoubtedly, you've provided a link to the university's Academic Integrity Policy in your course, and all of your documents, links, and sources have been cited where appropriate. Despite this, students may not pay particularly close attention to these resources and citations. A 2013 study published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity found that only half of the students surveyed about cheating had actually read their institution's academic integrity policy (Craig & Dalton, 2013, p. 59).

Take modeling a step further by including the practice in your interactions with students. Consider citing journal articles and resources in a discussion forum for students to read and reflect upon. Including examples of exemplary work along with well-developed rubrics for students' reference will ensure that students are clear on your expectations for the assignment. You may want to acknowledge those students who exhibit ethical behaviors, as this will send the message that these behaviors are not only appreciated, but also monitored. Leaving individual feedback about the quality of student assignments, journals, and discussions is a worthwhile personal approach. When students are provided with positive feedback, they will take pride in their work and chances are they will be less likely to share it or otherwise engage in academic dishonesty.

Interacting with your students in order to model academic integrity will also help in familiarizing yourself with their level of course participation, writing style, and attitude toward the course material. These are all factors that may contribute to student academic integrity (or academic dishonesty). Being closely involved with your students will send the message that you are serious about their interactions in the online course and will hold them accountable for exhibiting honest behaviors.

Establish a Culture of Honesty

There are subtle ways that you can begin to establish a culture of honesty in your online course. In addition to linking students to the Academic Integrity policy on the university's website, you can include an honor code or syllabus affirmation in your course documents. You may choose to have your students physically or electronically sign this document and submit via an assignment link. Consider giving a nominal number of points for their signed submission. While all students are held to the academic integrity policy regardless of signing a course honor code, submitting a signed document can make an impression on students about the gravity of ethical behavior. In McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield's study (as cited in Marsden, Carroll, & Neill, 2005), cheating levels have been found to be significantly lower in colleges that use honor codes in which students promise not to cheat.

When students consistently see that academic honesty is valued in a course, they may be more likely to exhibit ethical behavior. Inform students upfront if you plan to authenticate their work. Be clear in your syllabus and throughout your course if you use databases to check for plagiarism (e.g., Turnitin, SafeAssign, Google copy/paste), statistical tracking in Blackboard, browser restrictions like Respondus LockDown Browser, or online proctoring programs such as Remote Proctor Now. By being forthcoming with your students about the measures you take to ensure academic integrity, you are establishing a culture of honesty instead of relying on a scheme or tool to catch students cheating.

Create Challenging and Dynamic Assessments

While using a comprehensive multiple-choice final exam may seem like a logical way to conclude a course, doing so often limits students' abilities to express their unique learning of the course material and can also create a stressful situation in which students may be tempted to cheat. A self- report study done by Marsden, Carroll, and Neill (2005) suggests that courses that place a high demand on students in terms of information and assignment load are related to higher rates of dishonesty (p. 8). Thus, a fully comprehensive assessment may overload students and can result in cramming, rote memorization, and possibly dishonesty.

Consider using small, formative quizzes regularly throughout your course and create a skills-based assessment as the final exam or culminating project. Skills-based assessments require more complex higher-order thinking skills than multiple-choice exams because they challenge students to synthesize and analyze the course information in order to come up with an original expression of their learning. Skills based assessments are also more difficult to copy, plagiarize, or falsify. In Assessing the Online Learner, Palloff and Pratt (2009) break down skills-based assessments into five categories:

  • Authentic assessments take the form of application activities, like simulations, role-playing, or use of case studies. These types of assessments effectively demonstrate students' acquisition of knowledge and their ability to apply that knowledge in professional settings (p. 76).
  • Performance assessments require students create a product or demonstrate a skill connected to the learning process and material. These types of assessments require higher- order thinking and problem-solving skills (pp. 83-84).
  • Portfolio assessments include a collection of documents representative of students' best work throughout the course. These types of assessments can demonstrate growth over time, showcase end-of-term accomplishments, document achievements toward a certification, illustrate the process for completing a project, and highlight important aspects of a professional career (pp. 100-101).
  • Reflective assessments encourage students to reflect on course concepts and apply them in a new way, thereby creating a synthesis of course materials and original thought (p. 105).
  • Collaborative assessments challenge students to work in peer groups to create a final product or presentation based on collaborative learning. These types of assessments require higher-order thinking and communication skills in order to synthesize and transform individual learning into a community product (p. 116).

As you develop your course assignments and assessments, consider incorporating skills-based assessments. Authentic skills-based assessments can build upon smaller formative assessments by requiring students not only to remember the course content, but also apply it to real-world scenarios using higher-order thinking skills. Requiring original work from your students will result in less opportunity for academic dishonesty and will promote a culture of academic integrity throughout your course.

Putting It All Together

Each of the strategies presented here-revisiting the Academic Integrity policy, modeling academic standards, being forthcoming about authenticating student work, and creating dynamic and experiential assessments-can be used to lay the foundation for promoting academic integrity in your online course. While there is no foolproof method for ensuring ethical behavior among students, there are steps that instructors can take to build a culture of honesty and integrity in their online course. Students who are consistently exposed to a culture of honesty and integrity are more likely to adhere to ethical academic standards when faced with a situation that tempts them to act dishonestly.


Craig, R., & Dalton, D. (2014). Developing a platform for a culture of honest inquiry and the academic construction of knowledge in first-year students. International Journal For Educational Integrity, 10(1), 56-69.

Gallant, T. (2008). Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative. ASHE Higher Education Report, 33(5), 1-141.

Marsden, H., Carroll, M., & Neill, J. T. (2005). Who cheats at university? A self-report study of dishonest academic behaviours in a sample of Australian university students. Australian Journal Of Psychology, 57(1), 1-10.

Tobin, T. (2014). Creating a Climate of Academic Integrity on Campus [PDF document]. Retrieved from Watson, G., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the Digital Age: Do Students Cheat More in Online Courses? Online Journal Of Distance Learning Administration, 13(1).