Technology Executive Council

How college students learned new ways to cheat during pandemic remote schooling

Key Points
  • Students say that working remotely makes it easier to use phones and notes during exams, and cite constraints in online learning as reasons to explain their behavior.
  • A study from Imperial College London found a near-200% increase in questions and answers posted to Chegg's homework help section between April and August 2020.
  • Experts say the empirical data on Covid cheating is slim, but many students are doing it because during the pandemic remote learning shift they think no one is watching.

In this article

Boston University courtyard outside of the College of Communication at Boston University in Boston on Sept. 23, 2020. BU was among schools that says it investigated academic misconduct linked to remote learning during Covid.
Boston Globe | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Flying drones, sticky notes on dogs, and virtual group chats. 

Amid the pandemic shift to remote school, age-old copying is out, and these are some of the tricks students are using to cheat their way to "As" at colleges across the globe. The rise in cheating is forcing colleges and universities to adapt to the unintended consequence of students living and learning from the comfort of their homes. 

A recent study led by Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at the Imperial College London, found that the number of questions and answers posted on Chegg's homework help section for five STEM subjects between April and August 2020 was up over 196% from the same time period in 2019. The study ruled that the increase correlated with the shift to online school and indicates students are using the tool in ways "not considered permissible by universities."

While websites like Chegg and Course Hero aren't designed for cheating — they're marketed as a place for students to get help — they do offer a platform for it, experts say.

Texas A&M reportedly found more than 800 cases of academic fraud after a faculty member noticed students were finishing complex exams in less than a minute, with some of the information coming from Chegg, a university official told the NBC News Stay Tuned Snapchat channel. Boston University also reportedly investigated students inappropriately using the site, among other resources, to cheat, several news sites reported. A spokesperson from BU confirmed in an email that they investigated a misconduct case last spring. 

Chegg says they are committed to working with faculty and institutions in cases of academic dishonesty and recently launched a program called Honor Shield, which they hope will curb the "small minority of users who seek to misuse" the platform, a spokesperson for the company said in an email statement. 

Course Hero, a platform where students and faculty can upload or share study resources, will remove content considered plagiarized or copyright infringement, says Andrew Grauer, the company's CEO and co-founder. Their database is readily available for schools investigating incidents, he added. 

Giving up on learning

When it comes to cheating, many students say they're just looking to get by and pass the course. Many students say the shift to online education has drastically affected their ability to learn and retain information, and they only intend to cheat in the short-term. 

Many also say asking questions during exams is difficult without the in-person experience. Students can ask questions via email or attend office hours, but many miss the ease of raising a hand and getting a question answered in real time.

Some students, including University of Missouri freshman Andrew Labit, are struggling to learn in this new environment. He says he will take a hit to grades, if it is during a period of time when he feels that he is learning, but for now he has adopted a get-the-answer, pass-the-class and move on mentality. 

"Unlike in-person work where you have to show your work, where you actually learn something, online is just 'get to the answer, that's all we want,'" Labit told NBC's Stay Tuned. "And that's a lot of where our mentality went to, which was just trying to get the right answer."

Some students say they cheat because they think their professors don't care. Labit suspects many are also oblivious to the ways students cheat.

Occasionally professors take action or acknowledge the cheating. In one of Simeon Charles' courses, a professor openly acknowledged that many students used similar wording on a short answer question. Given the sheer number of students involved, he was reluctant to take action. Many students like Charles readily use Chegg to source answers. On the off chance the website is wrong, they notify the class through group chats and messaging apps.

"So, I do feel morally conflicted," Charles, a Canada-based student told Stay Tuned. "However, I am at the point where I'm like, if I'm paying you thousands of dollars for an education and you're not doing your job, then I don't have to do mine either." 

Tracking student activity online

Many education platforms allow professors to check when students switch between tabs during an exam, while companies like Honorlock, Respondus and ProctorU have emerged offering lockdown browsers that prevent users from opening additional tabs, or live and automated proctoring options which monitor students from afar.

Respondus said in an email statement that the universities that began using the company's proctoring system "more than doubled" since the pandemic began and about 600 of the roughly 1,500 institutions using the lockdown browser licensed the monitoring system. The company says its system will identify periods where "certain events or anomalies" occur, like two faces appearing in a frame or an examinee leaving the computer, information which is communicated to instructors.

"This doesn't mean a student has cheated," a Respondus spokesperson wrote in an email. "But it provides information to instructors so they can decide whether an examination rule has been violated."

Proctoring companies often utilize a remote proctor who will ask students to show their identification and workspace all while recording audio and video. Many programs and proctors will track eye movements during exams. They can also end the test or flag it for someone to review if they suspect suspicious activities, while others offer record-and-review options for an official to watch post-exam. 

Jarrod Morgan, founder and chief strategy officer at ProctorU, a remote proctoring company that employs 1,100 proctors across 16 locations and 7 countries, says the company will bring the evidence to the universities, but won't "make the final determination."

"Everyone is the hero of their own stories and students that cheat like this don't see themselves as doing anything inherently dishonest," he said. 

How students cheat the system

A camera on the other end would stop most students from cheating, but even with proctored tests, there's ways to work around the systems. Some students will place a phone on the desk or screen after a room check. Others write notes on their arms. Some schools have begun requiring students to take a test in front of a mirror to show their full surroundings. A lot of students are also using calculators which plug in answers meant to be worked through on paper. It isn't a problem when students don't have to show their work. 

Many students work with a second monitor to easily switch between screen and answers, but most of the time it's on the phone, students say. Others will tape notes to screens, the edge of the computer and desks or fill their keyboard with notes. They get creative with making a peek look natural. In recent months, students have also taken to TikTok to offer up tips for those looking to beat the system.  

Aside from searching answers on Google, some students are using group chats to readily spread information. One student at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, who says their grades depend on their classmates' performance, cheats to get ahead of the curve.

A spokesperson from Rutgers' New Brunswick campus said in an email statement that the university's academic integrity policy "has not changed for remote learning," and although different, students continue to find ways to cheat in-person. 

"Our academic departments have changed the way they provide online exams to make it more difficult for students to cheat, and if they do so, they are more likely to be caught," the spokesperson said, adding that the university will "continue evaluating how they give online exams."

Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig on how Covid-19 has changed education
Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig on how Covid-19 has changed education

Many professors recycle exams semester to semester, offering a lucrative business opportunity for some teaching assistants and students to sell answer keys for a price. This is not a new phenomenon but an issue further exacerbated by remote learning. One student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, encountered another student during a summer course in 2020 offering to help with exams over the phone. While the student declined the offer, they said in an interview they were "closer to cheating than they normally would be."

A spokesperson from McGill said in an email statement to CNBC that some students have faced disciplinary actions in response to "alleged plagiarism or cheating." Students suspected of cheating are summoned for an interview with a disciplinary officer, and based on the evidence could face "conduct probation, a grade penalty for the assessment in question, or a failing grade for the course."

Students like Nkiru Chigbogwu, who did not feel comfortable sharing her school, say the emergence of proctoring systems in general add another layer of stress and paranoia to an already difficult time as a student. Most students aren't notified when they're flagged and briefly looking away from the computer could be interpreted as cheating, she told NBC's Stay Tuned.

"All you can think about after the exam is like, was I flagged, will they think I was cheating? It's just a really stressful situation," Chigbogwu says.

She often hears her roommates chatting in the kitchen. Occasionally, they'll bang on her door to talk during an exam. It got to the point where she would text her group chat and email professors to explain. Even simple Wi-Fi malfunctions warrant an explanation email to her professors.

Problems with cheating research

Experts still disagree on whether cheating is easier during Covid than it was before. For some, it's not that students are necessarily cheating more, but rather, they are getting caught more easily, says Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the academic integrity office and academic affairs at University of California, San Diego.

"Cheating is cheating," she says. "It hasn't really changed in a hundred years. People have always cheated by going to sources that they weren't supposed to go to."

Many schools have used software since before the pandemic that allows professors to identify text in student papers that has been plagiarized.

Others, including Benjamin Wiggins, a manager of instruction at the University of Washington, say cheating is easier nowadays because professors are giving students extra time. They're also creating tests that are written at a "low memorization level," allowing students to easily find responses online. One way to fix this is by requiring students to apply concepts, Wiggins says. 

Much of the evidence to support a rise in cheating remains anecdotal, because there is not enough data to measure a phenomenon that requires people to admit to dishonest behavior, Bertram Gallant said. The research that does exist is mostly self-reported surveys that also need to be updated for the 21st century, she added. 

"You're just not going to get reliable facts," Wiggins says. "We're all going off of anecdotes and experiences."

Students often cheat in situations of stress and pressure, conditions further exacerbated by the pandemic, isolation and stay-at-home orders. The majority of the undergraduate population is also still morally and cognitively developing, although there's no data to empirically support a correlation between this and cheating, Bertram Gallant said. 

In response to the Imperial College London study, a spokesperson from Chegg said in an email statement that they "welcome research and discussion of these issues, but the study's methodology was flawed and its conclusions without any clear evidence."

Students who cheat are worried about the effects of their actions, including how they will connect the dots when future classes build on unlearned material. But they stand by their choices. 

"In my honest opinion, I do not think cheating is bad," Charles said. "I think if you're provided the opportunity to cheat, go for it. The only, the only time it is wrong is if you get caught."

—Additional reporting from Stay Tuned Producer Lauren Wilson. For more coverage, check out the NBC News Stay Tuned Snapchat channel.