Students aren’t using online resources to cheat as much as you may think.

Title: Students’ use and perception of textbooks and online resources in introductory physics

Author: Charles Ruggieri

Author’s institution: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Journal: Physical Review Physics Education Research 16, 020123 (2020) [open access]

Over the past few months, you’ve probably heard instructor concerns about how to prevent students from cheating on exams, especially for classes that are fully online. Of course, concerns around students using outside resources to cheat are not new. For example, many professors are aware of Chegg, which allows students to pay a monthly fee to access step-by-step solutions to many common homework problems. Per students, some instructors have even went as far as creating fake Chegg accounts to catch their students cheating.

While the narrative around online resources may be about cheating, is that how students actually use them? Today’s study suggests that isn’t the case. In fact, students often use online resources because they perceive deficiencies in the course materials or barriers associated with accessing traditional resources such as office hours and learning centers.

To reach this conclusion, the author surveyed students in introductory physics courses at Rutgers University toward the end of the fall 2018 semester (so the pre-pandemic times) about the online tools they used and how often they used them. 669 students from physics I and physics II completed the course. Physics I was offered as algebra- or calculus-based while physics II was only offered as calculus-based. All of these courses followed a traditional lecture and recitation format.

From the survey, the author found that YouTube, Khan Academy, and Chegg were the most popular online resources students used, ranging from around 4 in 5 students using YouTube to 3 in 5 using Chegg. Across all the courses studied, 7 out of 10 students reported using each of those three resources at least a few times a month.

An interview study to learn more about online resource usage

To learn more about how students use online resources, the survey asked students if they would be interested in providing more information during a follow-up interview. Around 300 students were interested and 11 (7 women, 4 men) were randomly selected to participate in the follow-up.

For each interview, the author used a semi-structured format where he used guiding questions to start the discussion but adjusted the questions he asked based on the student’s responses.

After conducting the interviews, he grouped responses around the major ideas and themes found in the responses. The themes centered around how students used resources and why they may have chosen online resources over traditional resources.

Using online resources

Further understanding and review

First, students reported using resources for clarifications and explanations. Students reported using both the textbook and online resources for that. However, students often looked to online resources for alternative representations or different phrasings of the concept.

Sometimes maybe I don’t understand something or I forgot something, then I will go to the videos and then they would lecture it to me again in a different way […] I would go and watch videos more so for clarification.


On the other hand, students reported using the course textbook to review the main ideas of a section but not using online resources to do the same.

Problem solving

Students also reported using online resources to gain more problem solving practice or to learn how to do problems. While textbooks often include a few worked problems, students often desired more and wanted annotated and line-by-line solutions.

I got used to just looking through Khan Academy, either for extra practice or to really get another
perspective, on how to… I don’t know… integrate something, or find the volume of a curve, to get to know how to better answer an archetypal question and just truly understand it better.


Confirm answers or copy solutions

While using resources to simply copy solutions may be how instructors think students typically use online resources, students offered different degrees to which that was true. For example, some students expressed looking for online answers to see if they were on the right track or to check their work.

[Chegg] gives you solutions, and I found out that coming [to this University], not a lot of teachers give you solutions. So you can’t check your answers against it.


On the other hand, some students expressed using resources like Chegg to copy the problem, especially when they thought the problem was too difficult or worried about losing points by getting the answer incorrect. Yet, some of the students realized that doing so wasn’t conducive to learning if they were only copying the solution instead of learning.

It’s all about your intention too. If you’re going in to get the right answer on a problem, it could hurt you because then you’re just mindlessly doing it, plugging and chugging. But if your intention is to learn, I definitely think it helps. Chegg gives you a lot of power to just get the right answer. So if you’re actually trying to understand it, it helps a lot. But it can also hurt you if you don’t have the right intention.


Barriers to traditional resources

When talking about why they used the online resources they did, many students referred to difficulties accessing or using traditional resources like textbooks, office hours, and learning centers. That is, using online resources was often quicker, easier, and more convenient than using the course resources.

Difference between textbook problems and homework problems

Some of the students articulated the problems presented in classes or in the textbooks were not of the same difficulty as homework problems and hence, they needed to use online resources to learn how to approach more complex problems.

[The textbook] didn’t go into enough details for me to do problems […] It’s kind of like being taught how to do addition and then doing [calculus] problems for practice problems.


Traditional resources are inaccessible

Many students reported that they had difficulty accessing traditional resources such as office hours and learning centers. For example, instructors scheduled their office hours during popular class times or at a location that required students to travel (e.g. at their office on North Campus while classes are taught on South Campus) and learning centers were often understaffed.

In both cases, students reported using traditional resources as a gamble: if not other students were using them, it was worth it but if there other students, it was a waste of valuable study time.

Sometimes [the Learning Centers] would be [crowded]. I think before exams it’d be packed. But
sometimes it wasn’t. I went recently, and there was no one there, so it was nice to have that–basically, it was
like one-on-one tutoring.



Perhaps the biggest implication is that students often aren’t using online resources to cheat but to supplement their learning. Assuming that we want students to engage with our course content rather than need to seek external resources, the author proposed suggestions for accomplishing that.

  • If you are using a textbook, include the page or section numbers when relevant so students can refer back to the relevant sections if they are confused in lecture or homework. This is a good idea for accessibility in general based on checkpoint 3.1 of the Universal Design for Learning framework (which we’ve covered in a previous PERbites post).
  • Reduce or remove penalties for guesses and increase the number of tries to get the problem correct. Students reported being more likely to look up the answer when they were on their last attempt to avoid getting no credit. Research suggests that 5 attempts is the optimal number of tries per problem.
  • Also, allow students to use the “hint” button without losing points and provide opportunities for partial credit rather than the full or no credit system many online homeworks offer.
  • Create a weekly work plan so students know what to expect and how the activities they are doing achieve the learning goals. Students are often taking a full course load, doing extracurriculars, and may have jobs or caretaking responsibilities. Knowing what to expect can reduce the time pressure and the need to cheat.
  • Include problems of various difficulty in the examples and lecture notes (including exam level). Homeworks should start with simple problems and work up to more complicated, exam-level questions.
  • Instead of picking an office hours time, ask students when they are available and schedule accordingly. Also, allow virtual office hours even if classes are in-person. It may be more convenient for students to join a Zoom call than travel to your office hours location.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

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