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Choice Provision Can Enhance Perceptions of a Cheating Environment in the Classroom

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Academic dishonestly should cause teachers concern—between 70% and 95% of college students have been involved in acts such as, deception, fabrication, plagiarism, cheating on tests, exchanging work with other students, or purchasing work. Research suggests that the percentage is even higher among younger students—this would mean that most, if not all, K-12 students engage in academic dishonesty at some point. 



Academic dishonesty costs all students, whether it is through a false reading of instructional effectiveness or an unfair grade-distribution. Cheating occurs in a variety of contexts, including, when there are opportunities to cheat, when there are minimal consequences associated with getting caught, when there are desirable outcomes for successful cheating, and when individuals have favorable and neutralizing attitudes that justify cheating.

But why do students cheat? Studies have suggested that it is due to a lack of psychological needs being met, such as the basic human need for competence, as well as the need for autonomy or sense of control in a classroom setting.

Researchers Erika Patall and Jennifer Kay Leach in 2015 journal article, “The role of choice provision in academic dishonesty,” test their prediction that providing students with choices could offer psychological benefits such as increased motivation, satisfaction, sense of competence and control for students, that often go along with cheating, thus diminishing the need for cheating among students in school contexts.

Through a preliminary study consisting of an online quiz, the researchers manipulated provision of choice by giving some students choices over which type of quiz they took (i.e., choosing a word game or math game vs. being assigned to a game without a choice). The researchers also manipulated opportunities to cheat by providing some students the freedom to report how many questions they answered correctly without surveillance. The authors found that choice and opportunities to cheat jointly predict the misreporting of scores.

For students who were not provided with choices over which type of quiz they took, those who reported their scores without surveillance also reported getting a significantly higher number of correct answers. For students who had a choice over which type of quiz they took, no difference in reporting was found in score reporting for students who were under surveillance and those who were not. 

This study has real-world implications for teachers: If teachers are short on time, sometimes they will have students self report scores. While helpful for efficiency, this study showed that when given the opportunity, students will most likely misreport.

In the second study, the authors provided students with a more authentic scenario—Patall and Leach presented students “vignettes” of different classroom environments to help determine the environmental factors that can affect academic dishonesty.

The result of this study were ironic, even paradoxical—students presented with a “high-choice” classroom scenario reported both greater experiences of competence and control but also a perceived opportunity to cheat.  In turn, students with higher perceptions of competence and control were more likely to place the blame for cheating on themselves as opposed to on the instructor, have less favorable attitudes toward cheating, and were less likely to cheat.  On this double-edged sword, when students perceived a greater opportunity to cheat, they were more likely to place blame for cheating on the instructor rather than themselves, to have more favorable attitudes toward cheating, and to report being more likely to cheat.  This supported that high choice instruction is indirectly linked to positive and negative cheating attitudes by way of different psychological mechanisms.

Choice provision is already a real-world strategy, and when paired with common methods to decrease cheating such as minimizing opportunity, increasing punishment, and implementing integrity programs and policies like honor codes, choice provision might be effective at minimizing academic dishonesty. The studies suggest that while cheating opportunities are often found within choice provision, if there is choice provision along with an environment that clearly has no cheating opportunities, student choice might help to mitigate cheating.

In situations where it is clear there is not an opportunity to cheat strategies such as allowing students to choose homework assignments has the potential to increase intrinsic motivation and allowing students to choose items on a test has been found to enhance performance and help test validity.

Given both the positive and negative implications of choice provision, these studies were inconclusive, but reinforce that choice provision leads to higher levels of perceived competence and control and thus lead to negative cheating attitudes, lower academically dishonest behavior, and more student-blame for cheating. This study discovered the paradox of using choice provision as a method to mitigate cheating—students also view choice as a cheating opportunity and this led them to have positive cheating attitudes, academically dishonest behavior, and blame teachers for their cheating.


By Katherine Waller, Pre-Service Teacher at NC State


Patall, E. A. & Leach, J. K. (2015). The role of choice provision in academic dishonesty. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 42, 97-110. doi: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2015.06.004