Stack of rocks in order of size with water in background

It’s no secret that students face a lot of pressure to do well in college – from parents, from friends, from a theoretical future employer or grad school, and from themselves. For freshman, they’re also experiencing a new environment, facing the challenge of finding new friends, and learning how to be successful in a much more challenging setting than in high school. In the dozens of academic integrity cases I have been involved in, the cause is typically not because the student is lazy. Rather, it is because they felt pressure to do well and didn’t feel like that was possible without the actions that brought them to me.

              As teachers, we often take a “holier-than-thou” stance in regards to academic integrity, though doing so ignores the basic economics of decision-making. “The traditional economic theory behind decision-making involves a cost-benefit analysis in which an individual measures what they stand to gain from a particular action—even if this action is morally wrong—as well as the probability and cost of being caught” (Adnani, M). This applies to the reader and author as much as it applies to students. Do you ever speed? Have you exaggerated on your taxes? Have you told a lie recently? If you have, the likelihood is that the reason why is because you believed that it would provide some sort of a benefit to you and the probability of being caught was low. Maybe you were late for dinner with friends and you blamed your poor time management on traffic. The benefit – being seen as someone who is timely – is minimal, but it’s unlikely anyone would question that lie, so the likelihood of being caught is very low. Our students put a very high value on doing well in college. Therefore, if they believe there is a benefit to a dishonest action and that they are unlikely to be caught, it is in their economic, though not moral, interest to do so. When the perceived alternative is failure, the moral obligation becomes easier to overlook.

              The solution to the economic conundrum is education and transparency. In a study of freshman students, Hossain (2022) found that merely 1 in 10 students received instruction in academic integrity literacy in middle school and only 1 in 5 did in high school. Regardless of whether it should be the responsibility of the college instructor to teach academic integrity literacy, it is essential for us to do so if we wish to prevent academic dishonesty. The retroactive approach of catching a student and punishing them provides a far less effective approach than preventing the dishonesty in the first place. To fully prepare students, instructors must make clear what constitutes academic dishonesty. For example, some instructors allow formula sheets on tests; others allow collaboration. While some issues, like plagiarism, are more universal, many others vary from instructor to instructor. Violations must be clear, written out, easily accessible, and discussed in class. This solves the knowledge piece, but that in and of itself is not enough. Students must know the consequences and the methods the instructor uses to ensure academic integrity. For example, in my classes, I use a response device for in-class quizzes. Students bringing an absent classmate’s response device is a common issue. To deter such behavior, I start class by posting a question and counting the number of students in the class. As they’re responding, a response counter is displayed on the screen. I announce the number of students in the class and the number left to respond. By doing this, I am demonstrating that I am paying attention to the number of students present and the number who are responding. I also explain to them how I will know who is not present if I find that there are more responses than students present. This grade represents 10% of their total course grade – which I remind them of frequently. If they’re caught sending their clicker with a friend when they are not present, they lose all 10%. The simple economics of this decision is an easy one. The benefit of one day’s points is not worth the risk of an entire letter grade when the teacher is transparent and closely monitoring the situation. This unfortunately does not deter all students. Some, unfortunately, overestimate the perceived benefit and/or underestimate the likelihood of being caught. Instructors cannot prevent all acts of dishonesty, but with education, transparency, and setting expectations, we can demonstrate that the economics are on the side of honesty.

Hossain,Z. (2022). University freshmen recollect their academic integrity literacy experience during their K-12 years: Results of an empirical study. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 18(1) doi:

Adnani, M. (2016). Why Do We Cheat? The Economics Review.***



***Please note: This article does reference Dan Ariely's work on integrity, thought it discusses a different experiment than the discredited insurance study found fraudulent in 2020.