Are we assuming all students will cheat?

Photo by Edo Nugroho, Unsplash, CC0

In this post, Dr Donna Murray guides the academic community to think about moving our ongoing conversations from AI-assisted plagiarism detectors and the lack of trust in students to exploring what it means to equip students to belong to an academic culture. Donna is the Head of Taught Student Development  at the Institute for Academic Development and this post forms part of the Hot Topic series: Moving forward with ChatGPT.

It is hard to avoid discussions about the possible use of AI tools such as ChatGPT by students, and the potential for academic misconduct. Often the focus is on how difficult it will be to detect assignments produced by such tools, with an underlying assumption that students will automatically use it. At the same time, much of the sector is seeing an increase in cases of academic misconduct, and colleagues report increasing concerns about whether students are ‘ready’ for learning in Higher Education. This is creating a situation where there appears to be a belief that students will cheat if they can, and it is up to universities to continually find new ways to detect this in an academic arms race.

  • What has happened to create this situation?
  • Has there always been a distrust of students?
  • If cases of academic misconduct are rising, why is this?

I think that previously, when technology was simpler, colleagues were simply more confident of their abilities to detect whether someone’s work was their own. Now that we have moved beyond many people’s comfort levels with technology it appears unstoppable, and that causes unreasonable anxiety.

There are many reasons why academic misconduct may be rising which do not imply students are more willing to ‘cheat’.  We have all come out of a pandemic where many students struggled hugely with the changes to their learning. They may have left school without having proper exams, or with a reduced level of teaching if they couldn’t access online lessons.  They may have had time at university with online learning of varying quality. Students with specific learning needs or disabilities were often even more negatively affected by the pandemic. It will take time to re-adjust to business as usual. Maybe this would be an opportunity for universities to reflect upon what worked well with online learning, and what is worth retaining – rather than simply going back to on campus lectures, in-person exams, and assignments which are primarily based on producing text.

Other possible reasons include financial pressures on students which means many are now having to subsidise their studies by working, this decreases their time available for assignments. It also decreases the time available for all the other aspects of being a student – such as societies, making friends, being part of an academic community. This can make students feel isolated, and less likely to understand or follow the unspoken rules of academic culture.

I think this final point is really the key. We are not always clear about what is expected of students, and what they can expect of us. Even where there is guidance, it tends to focus on the negative aspects such as don’t plagiarise, rather than exploring what it means to belong to an academic culture. What are the rules that apply? What are the benefits of these rules to the student? For example, we may tell students to cite their sources, without explaining that this protects their work as well. By respecting the rights of others to have their work acknowledged we create an environment where our work is acknowledged.

The University has a resource within Learn which attempts to welcome students into our academic community. By asking them to reflect upon good academic practice, it aims to encourage this behaviour as a natural part of being a student at Edinburgh. At present, it is a little hidden under ‘Help and Support’. However, I will be working with Chris Mckenzie and Medhat Khatar (the authors), along with Stuart Nicol from ISG, to move the content into a small, not-credit-bearing course that all students can work through either before they start, or in the early part of their studies. We will also be adding resources on group working, and the different between collaboration and collusion. We hope this will move discussions away from focusing on what not to do, and equip students for being active members of their academic community.

I would summarise by saying that I don’t think all students would cheat, or even that students would view cheating as less serious than we might have when we were students. However, it is important to acknowledge the huge pressures students face now, and think about ways to release some of this pressure. This could be an opportunity to re-think our assessment practices, and develop new methods which don’t rely on a high level of writing ability, or require huge amounts of time. Or we could look across the University for stress points such as assignment bunching, and remove this in order to give students the time to grow and develop as learners.

It would also be helpful if we all remember that when we were learners, our lecturers no doubt complained about our approach to assignments, and worried about us cheating. We didn’t, and neither will our own students. Let’s give them a chance to excel, and let them delight us with their thoughts.

photograph of the authorDonna Murray

Donna has 25 years of experience in the higher education sector, most of that time spent at Edinburgh where she has responsibility for academic development support to the University’s cohort of over 42,000 Undergraduate and Taught Postgraduate students. Donna is particularly interested in transitions into, through, and out of university study; and how universities can support students’ self efficacy.

In her work with staff, Donna focuses on the third-space – roles which are not completely academic or professional services, but a mixture of both. Current work involves establishing writing retreats to support this group, and building a community of practice.


  1. The point about the arms race is very apposite – we have reached a point where reliable detection of “cheating” is no longer possible. I do think this is a good thing – we have spent far too much effort chasing up on what we consider misconduct, without recognising that the world around us has radically changed. We have seen small scale changes in the past. When Wikipedia first came on the scene the measured response was that we should explain to students how to use it. The reason this is a good response is that in the real world Wikipedia is a very useful resource, not to mention how useful Google is. The trick is knowing how to assess the information you get back!
    As generative AI is being built into Office365, we cannot reasonably stand against the tide, but instead should educate students on how to use these amazing tools properly. Curriculum Transformation has an objective to make students “Ready to thrive in a changing world”, and a key component is “digital and data literacy”. If this doesn’t include generative AI then we are selling our students short.
    I couldn’t agree with Donna more that we need to rethink our assessments – education must be about developing learners and encouraging independent thought. This is an exciting time full of opportunities to change the conversation around assessment thanks to the major disruptor of ChatGPT!

    • Hi Dave
      These are really good points about Curriculum transformation, and how it may be an opportunity to think differently about generative AI.

      I like the idea of viewing ChatGTP as something that may be a positive disruptor rather than something we need to fear, or something we have to control/gatekeep

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