Landing : Athabascau University

Study links student cheating to whether a course is popular or disliked

examWe already know that extrinsically motivated students (mainly those driven by grades and testing) are far more likely to cheat than those who are more intrinsically motivated. I bookmarked yet another example of this effect just the other day but there are hundreds if not thousands of research papers that confirm this in many different ways. And, as this article reaffirms, we already know that mastery learning approaches (that focus on supporting control, appropriate levels of challenge, and, ideally, social engagement) tend to make cheating far less likely, because they tend to better support intrinsic motivation. Hardly anyone cheats if they are doing stuff they love to do, unless some strong extrinsic force overrides it (like grades, rewards, punishments, hard-to-meet deadlines, etc). 

This research reveals another interesting facet of the problem that exactly accords with what self-determination theory would predict: that, whether or not the pedagogy is sensible (supportive of intrinsic motivation) or dumb (extrinsically driven), a student's dislike of a course appears to predict an increased likelihood of cheating. This is pretty obvious when you think about it. If someone does not like a course then, by definition, they are not intrinsically motivated and, if they are still taking it despite that, the only motivation they can possibly have left is extrinsic.

The increased chances of cheating on disliked courses, whether or not mastery learning techniques are used, is completely unsurprising because it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. If mastery learning techniques are not working then it probably means that we are simply not using them very well. Most likely there is not enough support, or not enough learner control, or insufficient social engagement, or not enough/too much challenge, or there's too much pressure, or something along those lines. It is actually much more difficult and usually far more time consuming to teach well using techniques that respect learner autonomy and individual needs than it is to follow the objectivist instructivist path, at least in an institutional environment that deeply embeds extrinsic motivation at its very core, so it is not surprising that it quite often fails.  It is also very possible that the problem is almost entirely due to the surrounding educational ecosystem. For instance if it is one that forces students down institutionally-determined paths whether or not they are ready, whether or not it matters to them, or if not enough time is allowed for it, or if the stakes for failure are high, then even well-designed courses with enthusiastic, supportive, skilled, well-informed, compassionate, unpressured teachers are not likely to help that much.

Some people will take a pragmatic lesson from this to look more carefully for cheating on courses that they know to be disliked. That's not the solution. Others will look at those courses and try to find ways to make them more likeable. That's much better. But really, once we have done that, we need to be wondering about why anyone would be taking a course that they dislike in the first place. And that points to a central problem with our educational systems and the tightly coupled teaching and accreditation that they embed deep in their bones. Given enough time, support, and skilled tuition, almost anyone can learn almost anything, and love doing so. We live in a time of plenty, where there are usually countless resources, people, and methods to learn almost anything, in almost any practical way, so it makes no sense that people should still be forced to learn in ways that they dislike, at inappropriate times, and at an inappropriate pace. If they do, it is because (one way or another) we make them do so, and that's the root of the problem. We - the educators and, above all, the educational system - are the cause of cheating, as much as we are the victims of it. And we are the ones that should fix it.

The original paywalled paper can be found here.


  • Gerald Ardito October 8, 2017 - 1:31pm


    I appreciate your sharing this article. And, I agree, the results are completely consistent with other related research (and Self Determination Theory).

    I wanted to add that there is also this Catch-22 in the mix potentially as well. Students who are extrinsically motivated tend to dislike a course that does not exactly fit their ideas of how a course should be organized, thereby idisincentivizing instructors who are seeking more rigor or depth or an innovative design. For me, It is all part of how you say:

    We - the educators and, above all, the educational system - are the cause of cheating, as much as we are the victims of it. And we are the ones that should fix it.

  • Jon Dron October 8, 2017 - 1:50pm

    Very true - it's horribly self-reinforcing. Our educational systems tend to teach people how not to learn and, like drug pushers, to make students into grade addicts, ideally having grades mainlined via a process that demands least thought and effort to get the purest possible hit (cheating is a high-risk self-destructive shortcut, but it's totally understandable how and why it happens).

    To be fair, it's the whole system, not just educational institutions, that creates the addiction, and students themselves are part of that as well as employers, professional bodies, families, etc, etc.  It's a big, wicked, deeply entangled, complex problem to solve. We can patch things up locally but the problem is inherent in the design. I think that mandatory decoupling of grades and learning would go a long way towards fixing things, not because it is the answer in itself, but because the rest of the house of cards sits on top of that.

  • Gerald Ardito October 8, 2017 - 1:54pm

    I completely agree that the whole system is the problem. I find myself mostly doing the work of trying to patch a system that is inherently flawed if not completely broken.

    Separating grades and learning would make a big difference.