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What motivates students to cheat in online exams?

The shift towards online exams has been significant, especially since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This transition offers undeniable benefits such as saving time and increasing flexibility for both students and universities.

Despite these advantages, the rise in online exams has led to increased concerns about academic integrity, prompting educators and institutions to explore new strategies to curb cheating.

Media psychologists at the University of Cologne have delved into the underlying causes of dishonesty in these settings. Their research suggests that current preventative measures may not fully address the psychological and deeper-rooted issues that influence student behavior and well-being.

Exploring the dynamics of academic dishonesty

Focused on 339 students from various German universities, the research aimed to unravel the complex reasons behind cheating in digital assessments.

The findings are insightful. They reveal that cheating is less likely when exams are relevant to students’ future careers, emphasizing the significance of real-world applicability in making assessments meaningful.

Furthermore, authenticity and detailed, constructive feedback in exams correlate with lower cheating rates, whereas exams that require rote memorization tend to encourage dishonesty.

In the second phase, the researchers explored students’ perceptions of online examinations alongside their past and future cheating behaviors.

A key discovery was that negative attitudes towards these exams, such as the belief that they impede learning, were linked to higher incidences of cheating. In contrast, viewing online exams as beneficial to teaching quality was associated with reduced intentions to cheat.

To cheat or not to cheat in online exams

The study also explored personal motivations for and against cheating. The top reasons for cheating included the high stakes of grades, perceived unfairness in exams, and the belief in low detection risks.

Moral values like honesty and the fear of severe consequences, including expulsion, were significant deterrents against cheating.

Enhancing online exams with psychological insights

Dr. Marco Rüth, a corresponding author of the study, emphasized the importance of considering these psychological factors in educational design.

“A stronger consideration of these factors when designing courses and exam formats can reduce cheating behavior and, in the long term, positively influence students’ learning behavior and their well-being,” he stated.

This approach could not only decrease cheating rates but also enhance the overall acceptance of online exams in higher education.

Charting the course for integrity in digital learning

As universities continue to adapt to an increasingly digital world, the findings from this study are invaluable.

They highlight the need for a holistic approach to exam design – one that considers the psychological well-being of students just as much as the academic integrity of the exams themselves.

By aligning exam content with professional relevance and providing supportive, detailed feedback, educators can foster a more honest and effective learning environment.

A closer look at why students cheat online

Students cheat in online exams for a variety of reasons, often driven by the unique challenges and pressures of the online learning environment.

One significant factor is the perception of opportunity; the remote nature of online exams can make some students feel there is less risk of getting caught. 

Absence of instructors

Additionally, the lack of a physical presence of instructors and other students can diminish the sense of accountability and immediacy that typically discourages cheating in a traditional classroom setting.


Another reason is the pressure to achieve good grades, which can be intensified by the competitive job market and high expectations from family and society. This pressure can lead students to prioritize outcomes over the learning process. 

Lack of preparation 

Also, some students might struggle with the material and feel underprepared for the exam. In an online setting, without immediate access to help or clarification during the test, the temptation to cheat can be stronger.

Ease of access 

The ease of access to information and resources online can also contribute to cheating. Students can quickly search for answers on the internet, or even use more sophisticated methods like hiring others to take tests on their behalf.

This accessibility makes it easier to justify cheating as a viable option under stress or time constraints.

The study is published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.


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