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Cheating and Plagiarism in Online School

With more schools moving online, students are becoming more adept at cheating and plagiarizing their work. Discover the newest ways that students are cheating and learn what educators and administrators can do to be aware of and prevent cheating in their online classrooms and schools.

Author: Kathleen Curtis
Editor: STEPS Staff
A female student sitting at a desk with a laptop in front of her while holding a cell phone.

For schools with robust online programs prior to the global pandemic, instruction was just as challenging and valuable as face-to-face instruction. These schools are typically aware of the ways in which students cheat, and have a number of tried and true methods to combat it. But for the educators, administrators, and learners still getting the hang of distance education, cheating can be a significant problem.

With online learning becoming a larger part of both K-12 and college education year after year, it’s important for teachers and administrators to educate themselves on warning signs, and to develop policies for dealing with academic dishonesty. Use this guide to learn how online students are cheating, learn about tools and methods to spot and combat online cheating, and get the inside scoop on teacher- and school-based consequences.

How Students Are Cheating…and How Teachers Are Preventing It

Students may engage in several different types of cheating and plagiarism depending on the subject area and type of assignment. Fortunately, teachers are often able to spot and stop this type of behavior. We take a look at some common forms of academic dishonesty below.

Identity Fraud

Impersonation in online education is tempting due to the lack of in-person requirements. Several different types of identify fraud can happen, including hiring someone else to take exams or quizzes for you, or even hiring someone to take a full class in your place. From an assignment perspective, many essay banks and paper mills allow students to purchase completed papers or have someone write a paper for them based on subject area, article length, and research requirements. For fraudulent students with some extra money, this method can be quite popular.

Spot It

Spotting this type of cheating can be difficult, but there are a few things teachers can do if they suspect it happening.

  • If you suspect a paper is from an essay bank, use software such as SafeAssign to search out passages or keywords and see if they exist elsewhere.
  • If you suspect a student got someone else to write the paper, compare previous work with the essay. Does the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar match other work they’ve turned in?
  • If you suspect students are getting someone else to take their exams, look at how their grades throughout the semester compare to current grades.

Stop It

In some cases, the cheating is so blatant that stopping it is as easy as showing the student your evidence and letting them know that you will not tolerate it moving forward. But in many instances, it can be hard to know with absolute certainty whether or not the student is engaged in this type of behavior. When this happens, it’s best to try alternating your methods of giving exams or assigning papers. Consider including an oral exam in addition to the written component so that students must answer questions face-to-face. In the case of exams, consider breaking them into smaller components that are written during class time.


  • Compare questionable work to other work done in the class to see if you notice any differences.
  • Create several versions of the test so students can’t share answers between them.
  • Ask students to sign an anti-cheating pledge.


  • ProctorU
    This service provides online proctoring during exams to help detect and prevent cheating and ensure students take the tests themselves.
  • SafeAssign
    Teachers can upload student papers to SafeAssign, which then compares it against other papers to check for overlap and originality.
  • BioSig ID
    A biometric gesture password, each BioSig ID is unique to the learner. In addition to a biometric password, the software checks how the student uses their mouse or stylus and compares it each time they log-in to establish identity.


Plagiarism occurs when you take someone else’s words or ideas and pass them off as your own without giving credit. While it’s fine to quote an author as part of your assignment, failing to cite where you got the quote or idea crosses the line into plagiarism. Also known as literary theft, schools and teachers frown on this for numerous reasons. Aside from it being against U.S. intellectual property law, plagiarism also makes it possible for students to avoid the heavy lifting of thinking critically and coming up with their own ideas. Unintentional plagiarism happens when students accidentally forget to cite something. While faculty can better understand this happening, there may still be penalties.

Spot It

Plagiarism can take several different forms. The most blatant includes copying and pasting the words of someone else without putting quotations around it or attributing it to the author. Another type involves taking several different sources, cobbling them together, and passing them off as a new thought. Sometimes the plagiarism is blatant. For instance, teachers may be able to tell that the writing in a certain part of a paper doesn’t match the style in the rest of it. But other times students may reword some text just enough to sound like their voice. This still constitutes stealing the ideas of another person.

Stop It

Many students, especially early in their academic careers, may not fully understand the various forms of plagiarism. While these learners must still be held accountable, it’s also important for schools to educate students on proper attribution methods. Any first-year writing class should include a section on the various types of plagiarism and how to avoid them. If a teacher suspects that a student knowingly engaged in plagiarism, a discussion is merited. The teacher should ask the student about the facts surrounding the incident and then make a decision how to proceed, such as docking their grade or making them rewrite the paper.


  • Compare previous written work to questionable passages; does it match in style and grammar?
  • Provide an in-class seminar at the start of the semester on how to avoid plagiarism.
  • Clearly outline to students the penalties of both intentional and unintentional plagiarism.


  • Turnitin
    This software allows educators to copy+paste segments of student papers that are then compared against millions of published articles, books, and websites.
  • PapersOwl
    A free service that allows users to insert a text passage and see if it comes up in any published work.
  • DupliChecker
    Users can copy+paste or upload full documents to check whether they appear elsewhere.

Using Outside Sources

Using smartphones, smuggled-in notes, or other outside sources seems particularly brazen during an in-person class but much easier to pull off when studying online. This method is typically used when taking tests or writing exam essays as a way of getting answers to test questions without studying. Students may create notes on their phone, keep a textbook open, or covertly look up answers on their computer while taking a test or quiz.

Spot It

Spotting the use of outside sources can be difficult as teachers cannot physically observe every student in their online class as they take an exam. If a student’s GPA for the class suddenly rises dramatically but their written work does not improve, this could be a sign of outside source use. Some companies now provide online test proctoring via webcam that allows for each student to be closely monitored during the exam. These services also provide for live authentication to ensure the person sitting in front of the screen matches the student’s photo identification.

Stop It

Consider having students take exams at local, in-person proctoring centers or ask that a witness be present during the exam who signs a statement saying that no cheating took place. Another option is to create questions that can’t be easily looked up, such as those that require them to synthesize information or write an opinion using class materials. Creating a restricted testing window can also help, as students with limited time to take a test may feel too flustered to try to look up information. Lastly, consider creating exams where students can only see one question at a time and cannot go back to a question after answering it.


  • Post clear instructions on what materials can and cannot be used during an exam.
  • Require that all cellphones be turned off during the test.
  • Review cheating policies before each exam to remind students of the rules and consequences.


  • Proctortrack
    This software uses AI and trained proctors to help ensure students cannot cheat on tests.
  • OnVUE
    Designed by Pearson, this technology allows for secure, monitored test-taking.
  • Honorlock
    Designed by students for students, Honorlock offers on-demand proctoring at affordable rates.

Getting the Answers from Someone Else

Getting test answers from another classmate or someone who previously took the course is an easy way for students to cheat on quizzes and tests. Some students may even sell photos of previous tests as a side-hustle while others may simply try to do their peers a favor by sharing the questions. Even if a student isn’t given the answers, this type of cheating still allows them to pinpoint their studying and gain an unfair advantage over others in the class.

Spot It

It can be difficult to spot this type of cheating until after it happens, as students typically don’t use a cheat sheet. As with other types of exam cheating, students who suddenly do well on a test (after struggling on previous ones) may be cause for concern. It’s often easier to catch students who are taking photos or jotting down notes about the exam. If you see a student on their cellphone, this could be cause for concern. Similarly, if you notice the lighting on their screen changing, they could be taking screenshots. These are the types of behaviors an online proctor can easily catch but may be more difficult when monitoring a whole class as a single teacher.

Stop It

Many ways of stopping this type of cheating exist, including varying your questions for each class period. Even if you don’t change the actual questions, change the order in which they appear. It’s also a good idea to rework your exam questions each semester. If your learning management system allows, create the test in such a way that only one question appears on the screen at any time, making it difficult to take pictures of every question. Setting stringent limits on time can also make it more difficult for students to compare the questions given to them by another learner.


  • Randomize the order of your questions.
  • Create a pool of questions and put different ones on each exam.
  • Make it clear that no pictures or notes are to be taken during the test.


  • Testmoz
    This tool allows you to create customizable tests where questions can be randomized or available as one question per screen.
  • ClassMarker
    This web-based service allows for online testing that can be customized through a variety of different settings.
  • QuizBean
    Teachers can select from a spectrum of tools and features, including a randomizer and a quiz bank.


Fabrication occurs when students knowingly falsify or create data or citations that don’t actually exist. This could happen when collecting data from an experiment or when using established data to support a claim being made. Fabrication can be tempting to students who lack the actual sources needed to support their thesis and instead take existing information out of context or create their own data that seems to validate their argument. This type of cheating is rarely unintentional, creating a serious issue when identified.

Spot It

When dealing with falsified or fabricated sources in an essay or other written assignment, professors can typically spot these quite easily. Given that they’ve dedicated years to their subject, they are very familiar with existing scholarship. Checking citations can also typically uncover issues of fabrication; sources that cannot be verified are cause for concern. Students may either create a fake citation or cite material that doesn’t actually match with the data they used in the assignment. Paying close attention to matched citations is important for catching fabrication and falsification.

Stop It

As with other forms of cheating, it’s important to set expectations and rules early on. Make sure that students know you will be checking each citation and will ask for clarification or proof of a claim made if the citation doesn’t match up. Professors should also underscore the deep spectrum of knowledge they possess and make students aware that they will know if something doesn’t look right. Another option is to create a peer review process whereby students swap papers and check each other’s work for accuracy and proper citations.


  • Provide a handout on what fabrication and falsification entails.
  • When conducting labs and collecting data, have students work in pairs to avoid fabrication.
  • Run material through a plagiarism checker to see if a number or data set has been changed but the surrounding text remains the same.


Is It Cheating? What Do You Think?


You completed a comprehensive project earlier in your school career that got a good grade. You are now taking a different class and some of what you produced for that earlier project fits with the new one. You decide to use it.


You were really struggling in a class at the start of the semester and asked for help on some test questions from one of your classmates. In the end, you decided to drop the course so it doesn’t really matter that you did that.


While taking an online test, one of your classmates asks if you want to screenshare so you can compare answers and see if you’re coming up with the same ones. Or, you send screenshots back and forth during the exam.


The test your professor gave you wasn’t strictly labeled as an open book exam, but they didn’t say you couldn’t. You decide to use the book to look up answers as you go through the questions and end up using information you find in the textbook.


You had every intention to study for you accounting exam but then something came up and you couldn’t. Your older sister is an accountant and she agrees to sit with you while you take the test to make sure you don’t make any stupid mistakes.


You came up with a great paper topic and found tons of great research, but there’s one piece of data you just can’t seem to find. Because it’s only a small part of the paper, you decide to create a statistic that fits with your thesis.


You were talking to this student the other day who took the same class you’re in now last semester. He mentions he has some of his old tests still and says he can share them with you, just to give you a sense of what to expect on the next exam.


You’re currently researching for a paper due next week and found an online essay where this student essentially has the same argument you were planning to use. You decide to use their sources but reword the paper so it sounds more like your writing voice.


You’re required to take this class to graduate but it has nothing to do with your career aspirations and you know you’ll never use anything you learn from it in the future. Your roommate offers to help you structure the paper and ends up writing some of it for you.


You found a great piece of research for your essay assignment that really ties the paper together. You can remember what it said but for the life of you cannot find where it is located. You add in a citation for a similar fact rather than finding the actual source again.

Consequences of Cheating and Plagiarism

Engaging in cheating and/or plagiarism often comes with both teacher- and school-based consequences. Understanding what these consequences entail can help students see that it’s simply not worth it to jeopardize both their academic and professional futures.


Fabrication occurs when students knowingly falsify or create data or citations that don’t actually exist. This could happen when collecting data from an experiment or when using established data to support a claim being made. Fabrication can be tempting to students who lack the actual sources needed to support their thesis and instead take existing information out of context or create their own data that seems to validate their argument. This type of cheating is rarely unintentional, creating a serious issue when identified.

Teacher-Based Consequences

When faced with a cheating situation, teachers should first ensure they have the backing of administration. A good next step is to simply ask the student if there is anything they would like to tell you. Set a deadline, such as by the end of the day. If they don’t reach out, follow-up by letting them know you noticed something strange about their last quiz or test and want to chat about it. Set up a meeting time and ask questions about the content. This can help you ascertain whether they’re familiar with related course material or seem clueless.

Getting students to admit that they cheated is always better as it allows for a teachable moment. If the student says that they did cheat, this is your opportunity to help them reflect on why they did and come up with some ways to keep it from happening again. The consequence should match the level of egregiousness and can range from dropping a letter grade to extra assignments to suggesting suspension. Thank them for their honesty and let them know that while you don’t tolerate this type of behavior, you’re there if they need extra help or support.

School-Mandated Consequences

After a teacher reports an incidence of cheating, the school may or may not proceed with a more formal process. Some institutions hold academic disciplinary hearings to help better understand the surrounding circumstances. The policies surrounding sanctions vary by institution but may include:

  • Academic sanctions such as refusing to accept dishonest work for credit, assigning a failing grade, disallowing a student from graduating, rejecting a thesis or dissertation, or recommending that a degree conferred be revoked.
  • Additional sanctions including disciplinary probation, prohibition on involvement in school clubs or activities, disciplinary suspension, disciplinary dismissal, required letter of apology, or a rehabilitative program referral.


School-mandated consequences for unintentional plagiarism depend on the individual institution. Most honor codes and academic dishonesty policies make clear that responsibility rests on the student, regardless of whether or not they intentionally plagiarized. That being said, some first-time offenders may receive a lighter punishment if they prove apologetic and sincere in their forgetfulness and/or ignorance.

If dealing with intentional plagiarism, consequences frequently mirror those outlined for students caught cheating.

Teacher-Based Consequences

When creating punishments for plagiarism, it’s important for teachers to identify whether it was intentional or unintentional. In some cases, students may use an idea or a quote and forget attribution, or they don’t understand that using someone else’s work without properly citing it is considered plagiarism. In these cases, the teacher may ask them to redo the work and/or go back through the assignment and add proper citations where needed.

In the case of clearly intentional plagiarism, ways of handling the situation and punishments are often similar to cheating. Students knew they improperly used another person’s work and should be penalized as such.

School-Mandated Consequences

School-mandated consequences for unintentional plagiarism depend on the individual institution. Most honor codes and academic dishonesty policies make clear that responsibility rests on the student, regardless of whether or not they intentionally plagiarized. That being said, some first-time offenders may receive a lighter punishment if they prove apologetic and sincere in their forgetfulness and/or ignorance.

If dealing with intentional plagiarism, consequences frequently mirror those outlined for students caught cheating.

Cheating & Plagiarism Resources

For Teachers and Administrators

Cheating in the Digital Age: Do Student Cheat More in Online Courses? This academic study of online cheating is provided by the University of West Georgia’s Distance Education Center.

Deterring Cheating in Online Education Check out these tips given by Pearson Education.

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation Carnegie Mellon University provides a wealth of resources to students and teachers concerned with cheating.

Guidelines Addressing Cheating and Plagiarism The College of San Mateo offers information on both instructor and student responsibilities.

Honor Pledge Many schools now use honor pledges to discourage cheating. Check out the University of Maryland’s to get inspiration.

Paranoia About Cheating is Making Online Education Terrible for Everyone Vox’s Recode vertical takes a look at cheating in online education.

Plagiarism in Online Courses Professors can find resources galore in this guide created by Florida International University.

For Students

4 Ways to Avoid the Temptation to Cheat on Your Next ExamIf you feel pressure to cheat, check out these tips for getting good grades on merit.

Harvard Guide to Using SourcesHarvard University offers comprehensive information on properly citing sources.

How to Avoid Plagiarism In 5 Easy Steps Steelman Library provides this helpful YouTube video specifically designed for students.

How to Check Your Work for Plagiarism Grammarly offers a plagiarism checker to help you avoid costly mistakes.

How Will Cheating in School Affect the Rest of Your Life? Is it really worth it to cheat when you know how it can hurt you professionally and academically?

Plagiarism.org This comprehensive website seeks to educate students on plagiarism and help them understand what not to do.

Success Tips & Avoiding Cheating California State University at San Marcos offers actionable advice to ensure you don’t cheat.

Think Twice Before Cheating in Online Courses This U.S. News report uncovers some of the consequences of cheating.

Types of Academic Dishonesty St. Petersburg College takes a look at the many different ways a student can be academically dishonest.

Writing Centers Always rely on your school’s writing center if concerned about citations or issues of plagiarism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides an example of what to look for.