7 steps to help stop cheating

Demonstrate the importance of integrity to the profession.
By Anita Dennis

Integrity is one of the cornerstones of the accounting profession. Unfortunately, students don't always uphold the profession's commitment to integrity in their tests and coursework. There are, however, steps faculty can take to reinforce the importance of academic integrity and reduce the temptation to cheat. Here are some of the strategies accounting faculty have used:

Make a connection. On the first day of class, Laura Wiley, CPA, Ph.D., assistant chair of the department of accounting at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, asks students to write a memorandum about their future career plans. "I think that helps build trust between me and the students," Wiley said, since it demonstrates her interest in their goals. "If we have strong relationships, there's less likelihood of misconduct," she said.

Emphasize the profession's standards. "The profession's code of conduct is part of what defines CPAs," Wiley said. The graduating seniors in her auditing class study the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct, and she emphasizes the CPA's role in protecting the public interest by acting with integrity, objectivity, and independence.

Jill Mitchell, accounting professor at Northern Virginia Community College, believes that when students understand the profession's commitment to integrity, "it gives them more respect for their own work, for their school, and their degree."

Use real misconduct cases as learning experiences. Showing students the consequences of misconduct can also have an impact. Wiley reviews the section of the AICPA site that covers disciplinary actions taken against CPAs who have failed to follow the code. The goal is to demonstrate the importance of ethical behavior and set a tone for the academic integrity that is expected in the class.

In her class on internal controls, Mitchell asks students to listen to one of three podcasts on real fraud cases, including one from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners about a controller who committed fraud and has served time in prison. Students then write papers on the podcasts detailing what they have learned. Students have told her that this assignment "really helped them understand the importance of internal controls and the severity of committing fraud in 'real life,'" she said.

Personalize learning. Terry Warfield, Ph.D., PwC Chair and senior associate dean at the University of Wisconsin, recommended giving assignments that require personalized answers. For example, different students are given different case studies, each with its own set of facts, which makes it tougher to cheat. Students then do a class presentation on their case and share what they've learned with their classmates.

Mitchell also gives students personalized assignments. In her classes, students write a paper —worth 10% to 15% of their grade — in which they describe how accounting topics connect to their life. One management accounting student wrote about the fact that most of the products he used in his everyday life, such as soda or shampoo, were accounted for using process costing, which is used for mass-produced items, rather than job costing, which is used for products with unique characteristics. Another student shared that he uses the concept of materiality when taking notes and deciding on which information is important to remember to be successful in a class.

Creating your own exam questions — rather than relying on a publisher's test bank that might be available online for students to find — is another effective way to prevent cheating, Wiley believes. Developing case studies and questions requires extra work, but she noted that they can be reused for future classes. She also likes to use short answer or essay questions in addition to multiple choice because they require students to give more thought to questions and offer more detail. 

Set time limits and mix things up. While teaching online classes, many faculty worried that, without someone proctoring tests, students would have opportunities to cheat. Wiley addressed this problem by giving timed exams where students had to answer each multiple choice question before proceeding, and were not able to return to a question once they'd answered it. As a result, students didn't have enough time to text a friend for an answer or look it up online or in a textbook.

For in-person testing, Warfield recommended randomizing the order of questions so that it's harder for students to peek at a classmate's paper. He also advocated limiting how long students can spend on an exam. "You need to know the material to do well on a timed exam," he said.

Lower the stakes. Students may be less motivated to cheat if most of their grade does not depend on one or two large, high-stakes exams, Warfield said. Mitchell gives frequent quizzes in her classes: one every two chapters.

Many faculty are using numerous types of assessments rather than exams. This shift is also in line with a general reconsideration of the best ways to achieve learning objectives, Warfield said. For example, he uses quizzes, homework, case studies, and class participation alongside exams in his classes. "No one element is overweighted," he said.

Maintain your institution's academic integrity policy. Mitchell acknowledged that upholding a strong integrity policy is not easy. She believes in giving students second chances when misconduct is found. However, she also thinks that students should have to experience some consequences for their misconduct, in line with the administrative and educational sanctions in their institution's academic integrity policy. Sanctions, which can vary by college, school, or even within departments, might include a grade penalty, letter of apology, service-learning experience, or counseling. "If we don't hold them accountable now, the consequences could be devastating for them and for the accounting firms or organizations they work for later," she said.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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