A misconduct framework

One model of academic dishonesty is based on the Cheating (or Fraud) Triangle, depicted below.

It argues that there are three elements that influence the likelihood of academic misconduct on assessments:

  1. Pressure: the student feels pressured academically; this could be pressure to achieve high grades or pressure to just pass.  In cases, consequences for not performing well on a single assessment could go far beyond a course, impacting things such as scholarship eligibility, program placements, visas, or co-op eligibility. In many cases, pressure may cause students to behave in ways they would not otherwise (i.e., “panic cheating”).
  2. Opportunity: the assessment is designed or conducted in such a way that easy for a student to cheat.  Put another way, there is a lack of barriers to minimize misconduct.
  3. Rationalization: it is easy for the student to rationalize the behaviour (e.g. knows others are also doing it or does not feel it is very wrong).  An economic model is often used here where a student determines that the potential rewards outweigh potential risks.

An analogy

As an analogy, think of a driver of an automobile who is supposed to be somewhere but is running late, and how the following might affect whether they exceed the speed limit. If they are driving to a friend’s house for a casual visit there is less pressure to arrive at a particular time (and less pressure to speed) than if they are rushing to catch a flight at the airport. If the road they are on uses traffic calming measures (such as roundabouts, narrowed lanes, and speed humps), there is less opportunity to speed. Finally, if school zones, bike lanes, and pedestrian crossings are well marked, and if drivers understand that fatality rates on roads drop dramatically with lower speed, it is more difficult for a driver to rationalize speeding.

This analogy can be extended to academic misconduct in several ways, introduced here and left for you to ponder. 

There are standard speed limits in a city and care goes into training new drivers about this; any deviations from the standards are clearly identified at the point where that information is needed (i.e., speed limits are posted). A driver’s decision-making can be clouded in the moment when pressure is high; for the driver about to miss their flight, at that instant, getting to the airport on time might seem like the most important thing in the world. Most drivers are influenced by what they see other drivers around them doing; a driver is more likely to speed if it seems all other drivers on the road are speeding too.  Conversely, a driver is more likely to travel the speed limit if they see all other drivers doing the same. Police can control speeding behaviour through enforcement, such as by issuing speeding tickets; however, this can have unintended consequences such as suggesting the reason to follow the speed limit is to avoid getting a ticket, which in turn suggests speeding is not as bad when the police are not around.  A comprehensive strategy to reduce speeding that addresses all three of pressure, opportunity, and rationalization is more likely to be successful than any strategy reliant on a single element.

Choo and Tan [1] found that the presence of any one of the three elements of the Cheating Triangle (i.e., high pressure on students, the opportunity to cheat without being caught, or the ability to rationalize cheating) led to a statistically significant increase in cheating behaviours. They also found interaction effects: from a baseline propensity to cheat of approximately 20%, when all three elements were present this climbed to 33%. When none of the elements were present (i.e., measures were taken to reduce pressure, opportunity, and the ability to rationalize cheating), the likelihood of cheating dropped to 8%.

We can impact all three elements in our assessment and course design, and reduce the likelihood of misconduct as discussed on the strategies for promoting academic integrity page.


  1. Freddie Choo and Kim Tan, The effect of fraud triangle factors on students’ cheating behaviors, Advances in Accounting Education: Teaching and Curriculum Innovations, Volume 9, 205–220, 2008, ISSN: 1085-4622/doi:10.1016/S1085-4622(08)09009-3


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