One of the tactics that discourages student cheating may not work as well in courses that college students particularly dislike, a new study has found.
Previous research suggests instructors who emphasize mastering the content in their classes encounter less student cheating than those who push students to get good grades.
But this new study found emphasizing mastery isn't related as strongly to lower rates of cheating in classes that students list as their most disliked. Students in disliked classes were equally as likely to cheat, regardless of whether the instructors emphasized mastery or good grades.
The factor that best predicted whether a student would cheat in a disliked class was a personality trait: a high need for sensation, said Eric Anderman, co-author of the study and professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University.
People with a high need for sensation are risk-takers, Anderman said.
"If you enjoy taking risks, and you don't like the class, you may think 'why not cheat.' You don't feel you have as much to lose," he said.
Anderman conducted the study with Sungjun Won, a graduate student in educational psychology at Ohio State. It appears online in the journal Ethics & Behavior and will be published in a future print edition.
The study is the first to look at how academic misconduct might differ in classes that students particularly dislike.
"You could understand why students might be less motivated in classes they don't like and that could affect whether they were willing to cheat," Anderman said.
The researchers surveyed 409 students from two large research universities in different parts of the country.
The students were asked to answer questions about the class in college that they liked the least.
Participants were asked if they took part in any of 22 cheating behaviors in that class, including plagiarism and copying test answers from another student. The survey also asked students their beliefs about the ethics of cheating, their perceptions of how much the instructor emphasized mastery and test scores, and a variety of demographic questions, as well as a measure of sensation-seeking.
A majority of the students (57 percent) reported a math or science course as their most disliked. Large classes were not popular: Nearly half (45 percent) said their least favorite class had more than 50 students enrolled, while two-thirds (65 percent) said the course they disliked was required for their major.
The most interesting finding was that an emphasis on mastery or on test scores did not predict cheating in disliked classes, Anderman said.
In 20 years of research on cheating, Anderman said he and his colleagues have consistently found that students cheated less - and believed cheating was less acceptable - in classes where the goals were intrinsic: learning and mastering the content. They were more likely to cheat in classes where they felt the emphasis was on extrinsic goals, such as successful test-taking and getting good grades.
This study was different, Anderman said.
In classes that emphasized mastery, some students still believed cheating was wrong, even in their most-disliked class. But when classes are disliked, the new findings suggest a focus on mastery no longer directly protects against cheating behaviors. Nevertheless, there is still a positive relation between actual cheating and the belief that cheating is morally acceptable in those classes.
"When you have students who are risk-takers in classes that they dislike, the benefits of a class that emphasizes learning over grades seems to disappear," he said.
But Anderman noted that this study reinforced results from earlier studies that refute many of the common beliefs about student cheating.
"All of the things that people think are linked to cheating don't really matter," he said.
"We examined gender, age, the size of classes, whether it was a required class, whether it was graded on a curve - and none of those were related to cheating once you took into account the need for sensation in this study," he said. "And in other studies, the classroom goals were also important."
The good news is that the factors that cause cheating are controllable in some measure, Anderman said. Classes can be designed to emphasize mastery and interventions could be developed to help risk-taking students.
"We can find ways to help minimize cheating," he said.
Explore further: Epidemic of student cheating can be cured with changes in classroom goals
Eric M. Anderman et al. Academic Cheating in Disliked Classes, Ethics & Behavior (2017). DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2017.1373648