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Putting less emphasis on grades is essential. Sam Edwards/OJO Images via Getty Images

Motivation is a key factor in whether students cheat

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic caused many U.S. colleges to shift to remote learning in the spring of 2020, student cheating has been a concern for instructors and students alike.

To detect student cheating, considerable resources have been devoted to using technology to monitor students online. This online surveillance has increased students’ anxiety and distress. For instance, some students have indicated the monitoring technology required them to stay at their desks or risk being labeled as cheaters.

Although relying on electronic eyes may partially curb cheating, there’s another factor in the reasons students cheat that often gets overlooked – student motivation.

As a team of researchers in educational psychology and higher education, we became interested in how students’ motivation to learn, or what drives them to want to succeed in class, affects how much they cheated in their schoolwork.

To shine light on why students cheat, we conducted an analysis of 79 research studies and published our findings in the journal Educational Psychology Review. We determined that a variety of motivational factors, ranging from a desire for good grades to a student’s academic confidence, come into play when explaining why students cheat. With these factors in mind, we see a number of things that both students and instructors can do to harness the power of motivation as a way to combat cheating, whether in virtual or in-person classrooms. Here are five takeaways:

1. Avoid emphasizing grades

Although obtaining straight A’s is quite appealing, the more students are focused solely on earning high grades, the more likely they are to cheat. When the grade itself becomes the goal, cheating can serve as a way to achieve this goal.

Students’ desire to learn can diminish when instructors overly emphasize high test scores, beating the curve, and student rankings. Graded assessments have a role to play, but so does acquisition of skills and actually learning the content, not only doing what it takes to get good grades.

2. Focus on expertise and mastery

Striving to increase one’s knowledge and improve skills in a course was associated with less cheating. This suggests that the more students are motivated to gain expertise, the less likely they are to cheat. Instructors can teach with a focus on mastery, such as providing additional opportunities for students to redo assignments or exams. This reinforces the goal of personal growth and improvement.

3. Combat boredom with relevance

Compared with students motivated by either gaining rewards or expertise, there might be a group of students who are simply not motivated at all, or experiencing what researchers call amotivation. Nothing in their environment or within themselves motivates them to learn. For these students, cheating is quite common and seen as a viable pathway to complete coursework successfully rather than putting forth their own effort. However, when students find relevance in what they’re learning, they are less likely to cheat.

When students see connections between their coursework and other courses, fields of study or their future careers, it can stimulate them to see how valuable the subject might be. Instructors can be intentional in providing rationales for why learning a particular topic might be useful and connecting students’ interest to the course content.

4. Encourage ownership of learning

When students struggle, they sometimes blame circumstances beyond their control, such as believing their instructor to have unrealistic standards. Our findings show that when students believe they are responsible for their own learning, they are less likely to cheat.

Encouraging students to take ownership over their learning and put in the required effort can decrease academic dishonesty. Also, providing meaningful choices can help students feel they are in charge of their own learning journey, rather than being told what to do.

Schoolgirl sitting at desk feels happy after receiving great news
Building confidence in students is a good approach toward reducing academic dishonesty. fizkes/iStock via Getty Images Plus

5. Build confidence

Our study found that when students believed they could succeed in their coursework, cheating decreased. When students do not believe they will be successful, a teaching approach called scaffolding is key. Essentially, the scaffolding approach involves assigning tasks that match the students’ ability level and gradually increase in difficulty. This progression slowly builds students’ confidence to take on new challenges. And when students feel confident to learn, they are willing to put in more effort in school.

An inexpensive solution

With these tips in mind, we expect cheating might pose less of a threat during the pandemic and beyond. Focusing on student motivation is a much less controversial and inexpensive solution to curtail any tendencies students may have to cheat their way through school.

Are these motivational strategies the cure-all to cheating? Not necessarily. But they are worth considering – along with other strategies – to fight against academic dishonesty.

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