Why some students easily tend to cheat during online examinations? A perspective based on theory of planned behaviour

Drs. Rajasekhar and Kumar. Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Puducherry, India.

Yet another topic of concern related to COVID-19 academic is the students’ etiquette during online sessions and examinations. Students, who had been taking examinations in physically restricted atmosphere under rigorous invigilation, are now free from the clutches of supervision and this is the time when academic integrity gets tested. Since bioethics became a topic of interest, we overwhelmed students with barrages of non-canonical teaching on ethics and professionalism. So, it is the time to test whether we have been successful and if they have internalized something.

Indeed, we were interested to check this phenomenon out before commencing online examinations and our question was, “Would the students self-regulate when seemingly ‘invisible’ opportunities are available for cheating or fall prey to the impulse of cheating?” Upon examination, we felt that there is no prescribed definition of cheating or academic dishonesty during online examinations. Like, carrying unauthorized material into examination halls or peeping into a peer’s examination paper shall constitute a culpable evidence of cheating in conventional examinations. We don’t have any such time-tested invigilation tricks while going online. Both examiners and examinees are novices with respect to that and students are way more tech-savvy compared to middle-aged examiners who learned to share screens in Zoom® just few a months ago. So, we surfed the net to map out the possible techniques by which a student could cheat when he / she is allowed to take examinations from home. Interestingly, Google® provided us more ways than what we could have thought of and now we were puzzled about what could happen if students were similarly searching (not at all improbable).

In our experience with online examinations, we have pre-empted certain methods that can be used by the students to cheat in the examination and we have prepared certain rules to prevent cheating. We have communicated those rules to the students before they take the examination. In this way we have tried to reduce certain methods employed while cheating in an online examination. In spite of our effort to thwart cheating during online examinations the students have come up with a range of methods to cheat. While conducting the model examinations in an online mode, we have observed that the students had used cheating methods which were not so clever such as reading from the schematics pasted on the wall behind the computer screen, and certain very clever ways such as employing the voice recognising personal assistant software to search for answers to the questions, that are read aloud. Therefore, the ways and means with which the students would be able to cheat are manyfold. The purpose of the examination conducted in online format will lose its relevance unless the student decides to be truthful while taking the examination. If the student decides to cheat in the online examination, then it is very difficult for the examiners to administer a fool proof examination, which will stand the test of all online cheating methods. Factors such as ethical behaviour and self-control on the part of the students will alone prevent cheating in online examinations.

Taking cues from Icek Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour 1, student’s behavioural control is a summative influence of attitude, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control. A) Attitude: the students’ behaviour to cheat or not to cheat depends on how the student feels about the act of cheating. The students’ feelings are manifested based on his past experience, moral certitude and personal ethical standards. B) Subjective norms: The decision to cheat or not to cheat may also be influenced by the behaviour of students’ peer group and often the student conforms to the group behaviour. C) Perceived behavioural control: The student might consider that the cheating brings enormous amount of pressure and may result in a negative outcome, and hence does not subscribe to the idea of cheating and compel themselves to stay away from cheating. On the other hand, morally compromised students may perceive the cheating as an opportunity that is readily available to compensate for their lack of preparation for the examination. Certain students often lose self-control and are tempted to cheat in the examination just because it is easy to do so.

All the above factors, such as attitude, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control may form the foundation of the thinking and may influence the intension of the student as to cheat or not to cheat. Ultimately, the intension manifests as the behaviour of cheating or abstaining from cheating in the online examination. Sometimes the perceived behavioural control can independently control the behaviour and manifest the action.

What can be done to prevent students from cheating in the online exams? Firstly, there is a need to delink the process of learning with the quest to attain good grades in the examination. Secondly, we have to inculcate in the minds of the students that any breach in the ethical behaviour, major or minor, may once for all take away the value system in ones behaviour, and no amount of justification will ever legitimise the unethical behaviour among the students. There is need to impress up on the students that examination is a process of feedback of learning process in order to augment the very process of learning. Only a honest and legitimate examination will truly assess the quantum of learning. Generating an active orientation and a constant awareness about the philosophy of maintaining personal ethics and bioethics to the students throughout their learning career may be the way forward.

1. Ajzen I. The theory of planned behavior. In: Lange PAM, Kruglanski AW, Higgins ET (eds.) Handbook of theories of social psychology. London, United Kingdom: Sage. 2012, p. 438-59.

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