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Not Cheating Because You Fear Punishment? You May Be a Cheater!

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Promoting the importance of academic integrity can be a difficult task, and often punishing cheating can seem like the only option. However, new research published in the Journal of Experimental Education suggests that the students who are most likely to cheat are those whose primary deterrent is the fear of punishment.

Missouri State researchers Arden Miller, Carol Shoptaugh, and Jessica Wooldridge emailed 5,000 randomly chosen graduate and undergraduate students at a Midwest University—and received 1,086 responses. The researchers were interested in discovering whether reasons not to cheat were related to rates of cheating. Respondents were asked how often they cheated, as well as what discouraged them from cheating.

Just as the researchers had predicted, students who described their primary deterrents from cheating as moral standards, or personal education goals (or referred to cheating as simply being wrong), were less likely to cheat. As for students who reported that they were afraid of getting caught—they actually cheated much more often. Instructors commonly use the threat of punishment as a method for reducing cheating. In this study, over half of the students reported that they had cheated before- indicating that teachers need better strategies to reduce dishonest behavior.

Now imagine that you are a math teacher who, while grading the initial placement test, realizes that several of your students have identical wrong answers. You might be inclined to punish the students in front of the class in hopes of discouraging cheating in the future. But, although that would certainly be better than doing nothing, it is not the most effective way to discourage dishonest behavior. This is because, according to the study, threat of punishment works best if there are imminent consequences (which teachers may not always be able to provide). If a student is not cheating due to fear of repercussions, then they have no reason to be honest if there is no chance of being caught.

Perhaps the answer is for you, our perplexed math teacher, to play-up moral standards and character. And, barring that, perhaps you can put a premium on the process and value of learning rather than the grade. If your students are learning for the sake of learning, then cheating has little appeal—regardless of performance.

This research also indicated that male students are more likely to engage in disingenuous academic activity than female students. But, due to the size of the study, more research needs to be done before these findings can be considered conclusive. Next steps for this research are determining if the results are repeatable at different universities, high schools, and middle schools.

Miller, A ., Shoptaugh, C., & Wooldridge, J. (2011).  Reasons not to cheat, academic-integrity responsibility, and frequency of cheating. The Journal of Experimental Education, 79(2). doi: 10.1080/00220970903567830.

By Graymon Ward

NC State Pre-Service Teacher