What motivates students to cheat? (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and this time I picked this study from this biweekly newsletter written up by Winnie Tam:

Academic cheating is a serious worldwide problem that researchers believe can be affected by verbal “nudges.” Zhao and colleagues conducted a study to investigate the effects of messages about test difficulty on cheating behavior. They cited two possible motivations leading to increased cheating with respect to the difficulty messages.

•           Approach motivation: if students are informed that a test is difficult, cheating is a way to appear capable of academic success.

•           Avoidance motivation: if they are informed that a test is easy, they may be motivated to cheat to avoid appearing incompetent.

A sample of 201 children (94 girls) from 6 eighth grade (mean age = 13.4 years) classes at a middle school in Eastern China were asked to take a math test of equivalent difficulty, and perform self-scoring two weeks later. The 6 classes were randomly assigned to one of three differing conditions involving messaging about test difficulty. The differing information was given to them before they started the test.

•           Grade level condition: students were told that the test was of standard difficulty and that its difficulty was the same as their grade level.

•           Easy condition: students were told that the test was very easy and that its difficulty was below their grade level.

•           Hard condition: students were told that the test was very hard and that its difficulty was above grade level.

Unbeknownst to the students, the experimenters took photos of their test papers before they were returned to them for self-scoring. Researchers, therefore, could compare the self-reported scores and the actual scores. Two measures were taken: the first was for the presence of cheating, i.e., the self-reported score at least 1 point higher than the actual score; the second was to measure the cheating extent, which was computed by subtracting the actual score from the self-reported score.

•           This study found that the cheating rate was 40.9% in the grade-level condition, 62.1% in the easy condition, and 58.0% in the hard condition. The likelihood of cheating following messages about test difficulty was significantly higher than that following messages about grade level.

•           Among students who cheated, the cheating extent ranged from 1 to 61 points. Those in the easy condition inflated their scores significantly higher than their counterparts in the grade-level condition and the difficult condition. The grade-level condition and difficult condition had no difference.

If students decided to cheat, the cheating extent was more strongly affected by avoidance motivation than by approach. Researchers concluded that simple messaging can have a significant impact on children’s cheating behavior.

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