Researching academic dishonesty

Apr 15, 2004

Researchers take an honest look at academic dishonesty among engineering undergrads at a number of universities.

College students cheat. Not all of them, but a large percentage engage in some form of academic dishonesty. Doesn't matter what discipline they study. The pressure to achieve high marks is unquestionable. Ironically, in today's business and industry environments, a superior scholastic record often equates to an exceptional career opportunity, which could potentially extend the practice of cheating for students-turned-professionals into their corporate experiences.

But the motivation to cheat is not often based on a malicious or overt attempt to "beat the system," studies show. Instead, researchers such as Kettering's Trevor Harding report that other factors contribute to a student's decision to cheat. Some of these include the need to receive high grades, not enough time to study properly, perception of poor instructional quality and the social acceptance of cheating. The result? An increase in self-reported rates of cheating.

This, then, brings to mind a few questions for those interested in this subject: why are undergraduate engineering students cheating? And if they do cheat, is it possible for student decision-making patterns to be a predictor of future workplace behaviors of engineers?

Research into this subject shows that engineering students are among those most likely to cheat based on a project Harding and others are working on titled Perceptions and Attitudes Toward Cheating Among Engineering Undergraduate Students (PACES). This project surveyed 650 students from 12 schools (including Kettering University) in the U.S. and abroad. According to the data, 60 to 90 percent of all students surveyed reported some form of cheating during their academic career. More importantly, engineering students are the second worst offenders based on data from previous studies conducted by other researchers. There is something going on in the decision making process of engineering students that prompts them to take the risk and behave dishonestly, which could have a negative impact on how they view their career and work responsibilities.

A deeper look into this topic reveals even more pivotal questions: Do engineering students' attitudes toward cheating suggest that they suffer from weaker moral development than other students in different fields? Is instructional quality in engineering poorer, leading to increased apathy among students? Do the assessments used in engineering provide more opportunity to cheat? Do engineering students feel more alienation and thus powerlessness, which might lead them to increased decisions to cheat? And do peer influences in engineering lead to more cheating?

The investigative work necessary to find answers and uncover the reasons engineering students cheat is difficult. This is why Harding, along with Dr. Donald Carpenter, assistant professor of Civil Engineering at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich., Dr. Cindy Finelli of the University of Michigan, Honor Passow and Matt Mayhew, two Ph.D. candidates at the University of Michigan School of Education, have undertaken such an extensive project. Their work began in the fall of 2000 and attempts to determine the student definition and frequency of cheating; establish a conceptual framework of factors that influence a student's decision to cheat; and develop practical instructional, institutional and intervention methods to reduce academic dishonesty. The overall goal of PACES is to create a model of the decision to cheat based on a student's moral reasoning, attitudes toward cheating, peer influences and situational influences. Once this model undergoes validation, Harding and the research team expect to use it to determine which interventions will be successful in reducing the tendency to cheat among engineering students.

The PACES project has already uncovered some disconcerting data on this subject. For example, 60 percent of those who frequently cheated in high school do so in college and the workplace, which shows a direct influence of prior behavior when a student comes to college and then graduates into the workforce. Demographically speaking, the PACES project surveyed juniors and seniors who worked an average of 6.8 months of full-time employment in a year. Most respondents worked in engineering and the trade/ construction areas. "Since engineers are cheating at increasingly higher frequencies," Harding said, "we should be very concerned about the ethical behavior of engineers, especially since these professionals make decisions that affect the welfare of the public."

He points to two previous studies in 1964 and 1993 that focused on academic dishonesty as the most comprehensive examinations into this subject, both of which helped inform the PACES project. In 1964, William Bowers of Columbia University surveyed 6,000 students majoring in a variety of subjects from schools throughout the country regarding academic dishonesty and whether or not they had cheated during their college careers. In this examination, 30 percent of all engineering students taking the survey said that they had cheated. The results of a similar study in scale conducted in 1993 by Don McCabe of the Rutgers University showed that this percentage actually ranged from 50-80 percent of all engineering students surveyed indicating that they had cheated during college.

"One of two things are happening regarding this situation," Harding said, "either students today are more willing to admit to cheating than in the past, or academic dishonesty is increasing."

Some of the solutions that could curtail or prevent cheating and perhaps similar behavior in their careers, according to the research by the PACES group, include institutions developing a clearly stated and enforced policy on academic dishonesty. Survey respondents also indicated that three actions would help deter such behavior: open book or reference sheet exams; instructors assigning fair tests and homework; and instructors providing course material relevant to the future career of students. Students feel that an open discussion in the classroom about the instructor's policy on academic dishonesty, and obtaining agreement on what constitutes cheating in the class, is a strong deterrent as well, since it empowers students to determine what academic dishonesty constitutes for that class.

The PACES project also suggests that instructors should work to insure that students understand that cheating on tests and homework result in consequences that can significantly impact the grade a student receives in the class. This also means giving more weight to homework, adopting policies that treat homework cheating severely and consistently apply these policies throughout the term.

Harding added that perceived instructor concern for student learning may be the most influential deterrent to cheating. The PACES team found that when instructors introduce material into the course that relates directly to the future career of students and stress the significance of honesty during the term, chances are that students will continue to approach class work and their job in an honest, ethical way. Data from the project shows that of those respondents who report engaging in frequent cheating during high school, 63.6 percent were likely to violate workplace policies, which indicates a strong relationship between high school behavior and college/workplace behavior. Thus, if students can understand the importance of the material presented in class and its connection to their impending careers, they are less likely to cheat in college and on the job.

In recent weeks, the team has begun "creating a theoretical model built on theories concerning morality, psychology and decision-making, which could then be tested to determine if this model can predict cheating behavior more efficiently," Harding said. This model could then help identify interventions with the greatest impact of reducing cheating in certain student populations such as engineering. To date, the model suggests that several variables are statistically important in determining the frequency with which students cheat. These include the following.

  • Class level appears to relate to increased cheating. The longer a student is in college, the more frequently they cheat.
  • A history of cheating in high school is a significant predictor of cheating in college.
  • Moral attitudes play an important role. The more a student believes cheating is wrong, regardless of the situation, the less likely a student will cheat. This, Harding said, "suggests that morality and moral maturity are important variables."
  • With regard to cheating on tests, students indicated that they would feel personally ashamed of having cheated, but the possibility of feeling shame was unlikely to prevent them from cheating. And when it involves cheating on homework, students indicated that they would not feel any shame for having done so.
  • Students on scholarships were slightly more likely to cheat on tests than other students. When it involved homework, both scholarship and non-scholarship students were just as likely to cheat. The PACES team believes that some scholarship students thus view tests as important determinants in whether they will retain their scholarship, which justifies cheating in their minds.
  • The situation in which cheating occurs was one of the strongest predictors of the frequency of cheating. For example, the quality of instruction, difficulty of assignments and the like had a large impact on a student's decision to cheat. This shows that reductions in cheating are possible by changing some faculty teaching practices, which is one of the primary goals of the project.

Thus far, the PACES project has met with a tremendous amount of success. Project members continue to receive invitations to present papers at national and international conferences. Since 2000, they have presented 10 papers at national conferences regarding this issue, and look forward to additional opportunities to discuss this project and how it can help faculty work toward the prevention of academic dishonesty. Additionally, the Kern Foundation in West Michigan recently awarded the group a grant of $25,000 to examine and map the moral development of individuals to determine how it influences a person's decision making process. Soon, Harding will also present a workshop on the group's project at Oklahoma University this spring. To learn more about the PACES project, contact Trevor Harding at (810) 762-9811, or via e-mail at

Written by Gary Erwin
(810) 762-9538