Academic Dishonesty and Motivation by Design

There are a few perennials in academia that can be counted upon for year-to-year consistency, come hell or high water: meetings that should be emails, opinion pieces about “fixing” college written by people who have themselves never taught college, and faculty complaints about Students These Days being worse than ever. None of these perennial features of our landscape get us very far, yet here they are nonetheless. 

Over my career, I’ve noticed the “Students These Days” lamentations intensify in both frequency and volume in the weeks following midterms. It makes sense, as that’s when we start to see the “big ticket” assignments coming due, like research papers, case studies, or portfolios. And it’s  in these types of assignments (as well as final exams) that we tend to encounter the cases of academic dishonesty that trigger the “Students These Days are awful/gutless/immoral/nihilistic/cheatingest cheaters” discourse that streams through faculty offices and around coffeepots campuswide. But is it true? Are Kids These Days more likely to cheat than the supposedly virtuous students of yore?

The answer is, well…No. Cheating has been with higher education as long as students have been. One of the seminal studies on college cheating, McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield’s “Cheating in Academic Institutions” (2001), looks at decades worth of research and sees a consistent trend of academic dishonesty that stretches throughout the century in American colleges and universities. But herein lies the rub: what, exactly, is “cheating?” Academic dishonesty can cast a pretty wide net; many studies where students (anonymously) self-report dishonest behaviors have a taxonomy that includes more than a dozen types of “cheating,” ranging from homework collaboration to plagiarino cheatingsm to copying other students’ answers in an exam. Is all cheating created equal?More pertinently: are the reasons behind these various forms of cheating the same?

Understanding why academic dishonesty occurs is a far more useful way to mitigate it than mere ex post facto condemnations. “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” and and all that. Our guest at this year’s Summer Institute, Prof. James Lang, has made the important argument that much of the academic dishonesty we see from students is actually abetted by the ways in which our courses and their design actually prevent students from being intrinsically motivated. If students operate from a purely extrinsic set of motivations, the incentives to cheat can be higher while the internal barriers to doing so move in the opposite direction. (Also worth noting: this may be true regardless of class modality–online classes could exhibit a lower rate of cheating instances than face-to-face classes, according to a recent study.)

So how do we use our power over course design and assessments to foster intrinsic motivation with our students, and mitigate both the impetus and opportunities for engaging in academic dishonesty? Lang has some great ideas in his book Cheating Lessons, some of which are summarized here. Rima Amin, writing in the Times Higher Education, also makes a powerful case for looking at student motivations (and the systems in which they find themselves enmeshed) as a key to overcoming cheating. Building in best practices for Information Literacy and proper use of research sources is also crucial; Grand View’s excellent Library staff are an invaluable resource in this regard. And, of course, the Summer Institute (May 24-26!!!!!!) will be an excellent opportunity to dive deeper into these issues as well.

In the meantime, though, it’s important to remember that there are concrete actions we can take in our courses and with our students to work at promoting academic integrity, and to mitigate the temptation to cast it aside in favor of expediency or desperation. As always, your friendly neighborhood CETL staff is happy to talk further about any or all of these issues, should you wish. Come by for a cup of coffee and conversation!


Looking for resources? Ideas? Help?

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And in honor of our impending Spring Break, here are some dogs (and a cat) who know how to do beach day right!

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