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Academic Dishonesty: Fear and Justifications

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Why do some students cheat by looking over someone’s shoulder, furtively searching for test answers on the internet, using cheat sheets during exams or paying others to complete their coursework? How do they rationalise their behaviour to continue to think of themselves as decent people? A study conducted by the HSE Centre for Sociology of Higher Education offers some answers.

Cheating is contagious

According to studies performed in many countries, the vast majority of students have at least once committed academic fraud such as plagiarism, using cheat sheets during exams, ‘outsourcing’ one’s homework, sharing information between peers regarding test answers, etc. There are many reasons why academic dishonesty is so widespread.

Often students’ perception of their peers’ behaviour has an effect on the likelihood of cheating. Students who believe that most of their classmates do it are more inclined to cheat.

A recent study by the Centre for Sociology of Higher Education of the HSE Institute of Education suggests that cheating students use various mental strategies to rationalise and justify their dishonesty, indicating their awareness that cheating is wrong and their attempts to resolve an internal conflict.

Oksana Dremova, Natalia Maloshonok, and Evgeniy Terentiev interviewed a number of undergraduates in Russia and the UK at both highly selective (two in each country) and medium-level universities (one in each, in different regions), most of them large and multidisciplinary ones. The students interviewed were predominantly economics and business undergraduates whom other studies found to be more prone to academic fraud.

Cheating such as copying from other students’ papers was found in both countries. But the study did not involve a cross-country comparison, rather, its main purpose was to provide a generalised classification of reasons why undergraduates may either judge or justify cheating and to suggest appropriate measures against academic fraud for various national contexts.

The researchers identified six main types of logic (or ‘modes’) of dishonest conduct, based on Laurent Thévenot and Luc Boltanski’s sociology of critical capacity.

Modes of justification

In their seminal work De la justification: Les économies de la grandeur, Boltanski and Thévenot identify six ‘modes’ (or ‘regimes’) of criticism and/or justification, listed below with examples from the sphere of academic dishonesty:

  • The inspiration mode, involving an emotional aspect, e. g. the study content evokes either interest or boredom;
  • The domestic (traditional) mode, instilled by family or school, e.g., cheating is considered unacceptable (or OK) in the family;
  • The opinion (reputation) mode, based on an external assessment of one’s actions, e.g., successful cheating is admired but being caught causes a student to lose points with peers;
  • The civic mode, which is community-driven, e. g. peer cover-up, (un)willingness to share assignments;
  • The market mode, seeking to obtain results at a relatively small cost;
  • The industrial (functional) regime, e.g., is there any benefit in taking a course? If none is expected, cheating is OK.

In a more recent paper, Boltanski and Eve Chiapello added a project-oriented mode, in which the equivalency principle is based on whether one is active and likely to initiate projects. This mode, however, can hardly be applied to academic dishonesty, because cheating and plagiarism are associated with precisely the opposite: an unwillingness to be active at school.

Interesting vs boring

Being in the inspiration mode often means that the student is interested in the subject and finds it easy to engage with the teaching and learning materials and the teacher’s presentation. Students who are motivated and passionate about a subject are not likely to cheat. ‘Writing it on your own is better, because you are starting to really understand [the subject],’ according to a respondent in Russia.

On the opposite end are negative feelings, such as extreme anxiety at the exam, fear of failure, boredom and aversion to the subject or to the teacher. Students experiencing such feelings are more likely to cheat and often rationalise their dishonesty by being too nervous, finding the subject too complicated and the teacher overly demanding, and saying that ‘you cannot retain such a huge amount of information in your head anyway’.

According to a study participant: ‘Some teachers give lectures in a monotonous manner, so following them is virtually impossible <…>. Also, some teachers are not really involved in the process during seminars, and their students answer by reading out papers downloaded from the internet and no one cares.’

But sometimes people are motivated to be honest because they want to avoid negative feelings. ‘I almost bought [an essay] once,’ says a Russian university undergraduate. ‘But then I felt it was kind of shameful <…> humiliating. I do not consider myself too stupid to write an essay.’

As far as the inspiration mode is concerned, teachers need to know how to engage students in their subject, in particular by soliciting feedback from students about the content and delivery of the courses they take.

The researchers also advise teachers to consider using close supervision and strict sanctions to discourage students from cheating by creating negative emotional associations with dishonest behaviour.

Cheating habits

In the traditional mode, dishonest conduct is either justified or rejected based on students’ pre-existing attitudes. Thus, some undergraduates justify their cheating by saying that it was tolerated in their family or secondary school. ‘When we come to university, we are already prepared to cheat, just like we had been doing for the 11 years before that,’ according to a Russian student.

Another respondent argues: ‘[We learn] all of this from adults, from our older sisters and brothers, from our parents, who tell us stories about getting stuff without paying or about outwitting someone. So you come to university and cheat to avoid studying hard, just as you did before <…>.’

For other students, integrity is a value instilled by their family. ‘I was raised to be honest,’ says a UK respondent. ‘I want to be proud of the work I do and to be able to say that I did this myself.’

Since most undergraduates’ attitudes are already well-established, there is not much a university can do to combat cheating justified by ‘tradition’.

Success at any cost 

In the reputation mode, other people’s opinion is the main consideration for those who cheat to get a good grade or avoid a bad one. ‘Given a chance to look up the right answer, I don’t think anyone would miss out on it by saying that they never cheat on principle,’ according to a Russian undergraduate. Another reason to cheat is to avoid upsetting one’s family.

A student from the UK explains: ‘If our parents are only concerned about our academic performance and pressure gets too high, cheating looks like an increasingly interesting option.’

On the other hand, the fear of damaging one’s reputation by being caught can discourage academic fraud. ‘If your school finds out that you have been cheating, you will be punished,’ a UK respondent explains.

In order to respond to this type of justification, any academic success gained by cheating should be declared unacceptable and damaging to the cheater’s reputation.

Common good and punishment

This mode is based on collectivism and informal rules established among peers. ‘It’s a matter of mutual help,’ says a respondent from Russia. ‘I allow you to copy from my paper and you allow me to copy from yours. Either all of us should avoid cheating or we all agree to cheat.’

A few other studies found that students often interpret cheating behaviour as acceptable peer support. ‘If you peek at someone’s paper just a little bit to compare your answers<…>, I don’t think of it as something bad,’ a respondent says. ‘We need to help each other.’

Those who are against cheating often refer to broader responsibility before society. ‘I believe that someone [who completes an assignment on behalf of someone else] harms society by enabling that person to get through university without gaining the knowledge.’

Sanctions imposed on the entire group rather than the individual cheater may be effective in dealing with this type of dishonest conduct. ‘It’s like in the army – one person messes up, the entire team is made to do push-ups together or mop the floor,’ according to one respondent.

Big gain with least effort

In the market mode, students hope to achieve their goals with the least possible investment of time and effort. They rationalise dishonesty by saying that it is OK to save one’s resources while still getting the desired result. ‘The main thing [for some people] is to get a degree, so they choose to pay [for a term paper, a thesis or an essay],’ a Russian respondent explains.

He is echoed by a UK undergraduate who says: ‘If there were a really big difference between passing and failing, I would cheat because the cost of failure would be too high,’ and summarises: ‘Do whatever it takes to pass the exam.’

Another argument may be that cheating is tolerated in university. ‘I am not aware of anyone getting kicked out [for cheating]. <…> Everyone does it and everyone gets away with it, so why not me?.’ a Russian respondent says.

The attitude of the faculty can also play a role. According to some students, teachers prefer to look the other way because they will be worse off by exposing cheating. ‘If they catch someone with a cheat sheet<…>, they will need to reschedule the exam at the cost of their personal time – which perhaps will not be compensated<…>.’

According to another respondent: ‘If all your teacher needs is some kind of paper from you, I don’t consider [cheating in this situation] to be academic fraud.’

But cheating can be risky. ‘I was afraid to pull out and use my cheat sheet,’ a student admits. ‘I knew that I could be kicked out of the exam if caught.’

Justifications of this type rely on the perceived balance between cost and benefit. Codes of conduct, group discussions and similar approaches to changing students’ minds are not likely to work in this situation. ‘Stricter supervision to make it more difficult for students to achieve their goals by cheating may be more effective,’ according to the researchers.

Career benefits

In the industrial mode, students make decisions based on whether or not a course is likely to contribute to their future career. When cheating is perceived as an obstacle to useful learning, it is avoided, because cheaters make incompetent employees, as potential employers will quickly discover.

‘Those who thoughtlessly download papers from the internet deny themselves the opportunity to think independently, to learn how to express their ideas, search for information and reorganise it’, according to a Russian undergraduate. ‘As a result, their degrees do not reflect their actual abilities.’

Another respondent agrees that someone who refuses to complete assignments ‘will simply fail to learn anything of value before their graduation’, stressing that ‘when studying is a tick-box exercise, one is not getting any real value out of it.’

On the other hand, some students justify academic dishonesty by claiming that the content of certain university courses has little relevance to their future occupation. ‘A lot of words but not much meat – no practice, only theory’, a respondent from Russia complains. Another undergraduate argues that ‘academic fraud is OK’ in a course which ‘has no effect on your future’ but is only needed for the degree.

Making courses interesting and relevant is a universal response to this and other rationalisations of dishonesty, because student engagement is the best cure for cheating. This may not work, however, in schools where academic fraud has acquired epidemic proportions to become the new norm.

According to the authors, more research could determine the prevalence of different cheating justification modes across universities and help design effective responses for each case.

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