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Abstract

Using a parallel mixed-methods design, the current study examined university students’ perceptions of academic cheating through collecting and analyzing both the quantitative and qualitative data. Our quantitative findings corroborate previous research that male students have engaged more in academic cheating than females based on students’ self-reports, and that undergraduate students are less willing to discuss issues on academic cheating as compared with their graduate counterparts. Five themes emerged from the thematic analysis of the qualitative data: (1) flexible definitions for cheating, (2) environmental promotion of cheating, (3) the moral transgression of cheating, (4) cheating as an ambiguous justification, and (5) cheating as a conscious decision making process. The mixed-methods findings indicate that there is no relationship between students’ gender or classification and their endorsements of the qualitative themes. However, non-White students are more likely to endorse the theme “cheating as an ambiguous justification.” Implications for reducing and preventing academic cheating at the university level are discussed.
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Journal of Academic Ethics
ISSN 1570-1727
Volume 12
Number 4
J Acad Ethics (2014) 12:287-298
DOI 10.1007/s10805-014-9219-x
University Students’ Perceptions of
Academic Cheating: Triangulating
Quantitative and Qualitative Findings
Tianlan Wei, Steven R.Chesnut, Lucy
Barnard-Brak & Marcelo Schmidt
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University StudentsPerceptions of Academic Cheating:
Triangulating Quantitative and Qualitative Findings
Tianlan Wei &Steven R. Chesnut &Lucy Barnard-Brak &
Marcelo Schmidt
Published online: 25 October 2014
#Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract Using a parallel mixed-methods design, the current study examined university students
perceptions of academic cheating through collecting and analyzing both the quantitative and
qualitative data. Our quantitative findings corroborate previous research that male students have
engaged more in academic cheating than females based on studentsself-reports, and that under-
graduate students are less willing to discuss issues on academic cheating as compared with their
graduate counterparts. Five themes emerged from the thematic analysis of the qualitative data: (1)
flexible definitions for cheating, (2) environmental promotion of cheating, (3) the moral transgres-
sion of cheating, (4) cheating as an ambiguous justification, and (5) cheating as a conscious decision
making process. The mixed-methods findings indicate that there is no relationship between
studentsgender or classification and their endorsements of the qualitative themes. However,
non-White students are more likely to endorse the theme cheating as an ambiguous justification.
Implications for reducing and preventing academic cheating at the university level are discussed.
Keywords Academic cheating .Graduate students .Undergraduates .Mixed-methods
Introduction
Academic cheating has become a critical issue in the higher education. Although cheating is
universally condemned, it occurs more frequently than we would expect in colleges and
universities (McCabe, 2005; Moore, 1991). For example, Smyth and Davis (2004) indicated
that 74 % of college students had observed cheating, and 45 % of these students admitted to
cheating. Educators and school administration are certainly concerned with such high preva-
lence because academic cheating is believed to endanger the foundations of higher education
J Acad Ethics (2014) 12:287298
DOI 10.1007/s10805-014-9219-x
T. Wei (*)
Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, Mississippi State University,
Mississippi, MS 39762, USA
e-mail: tw1518@msstate.edu
S. R. Chesnut :L. Barnard-Brak
Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership, Texas Tech University, Lubbock 79409, USA
M. Schmidt
Doctoral Support Center, College of Education, Texas Tech University, Lubbock 79409, USA
Author's personal copy
in many ways. First and foremost, a college education prepares individuals for jobs as office
workers, service industry staffers, professionals, and experts. The attainment of professional
knowledge separates college graduates from those who typically work in physical labor jobs.
Unfortunately, academic cheating or dishonesty plagues our education system by distorting the
assessment of learning, thus reducing the overall efficiency of the nations educational system
(Magnus, Polterovich, Danilov, & Savvateev, 2002). Moreover, cheating also indicates a
defiance of the values that are essential to good citizenship (West, Ravenscroft, &
Shrader, 2004). In fact, researchers have cautioned us that cheating in college is
predictive of future cheating or dishonesty in workplace (Lawson, 2004).
In the past few decades, educators have taken actions to deter academic cheating among
university students. One major approach to this was including ethics education in the curric-
ulum and introducing honor code reporting, a practice for which faculty and students are
required to report violations of academic integrity according to an honor code (Miller &
Nadler, 2006). In recent years, honor code reporting has been increasingly implemented in the
higher education, but the investigations of its effectiveness yielded mixed results. Although a
series of studies by McCabe and his colleagues (e.g., McCabe, Butterfield, & Trevino, 2006;
McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield, 2002) indicated that students from institutions with honor
codes perceived fewer violations of academic integrity, there is not much evidence endorsing
the link between honor code reporting and the actual incidence of academic dishonesty.
Moreover, McCabe (2005) even found that some universities had achieved higher
levels of integrity without honor codes. These findings have led to the claim that
ethics cannot really be taught to students. Hence, it may be more meaningful that we direct our
attention at the students and their perspectives on academic cheating. The purpose of
the current study was to clarify the perceptions that students maintain about academic
cheating and the perceptions of various factors on an individuals willingness to
engage in cheating behaviors.
Perspectives on Academic Cheating
Environmental Influence on Academic Cheating
Thus far, researchers have identified several environmental factors of academic cheating
including social values, culture climates, peer pressure, and instructorsattitudes and actions.
With regard to the role of social values, Gross (2011)adoptedthe value shifts theory to
examine the contemporary views about cheating and plagiarisms, and concluded that cheating
is a product of changing values rather than a willful wrongheadedness on the part of students
(p. 435). While the traditional values emphasize the private property/ownership requiring
attribution of credit,the postmodern values tend to view anything published, especially over
theInternet...ascommunitypropertynotrequiringattributionofcredit(Gross, 2011,p.
436). This notion draws our attention to the changes in a broader social context pertaining to
academic dishonesty. Arguably, how college students define, perceive, and interpret cheating
behaviors may change across generations or birth cohorts as a function of the value shifts of
the society. Similarly, Willen (2004) analyzed the cultural circumstances which compell
students to act against their moral and ethical standards to cheat. As Willen stated, in this
climate what counts most are numbers and results, and those who get results, those who make
the grade, regardless of how they go about doing it, reap the benefits(p. 56). Taken together,
these findings seem to suggest that educators and policy makers need to reflect on whether the
design of relevant practices (e.g., honor codes) has taken into account the value changes in our
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society. Relatedly, researchers also need to examine the relative influence of moral standards
when immediate, tangible benefits can be easily obtained through the violations of these
standards. Individualsdecision-making, after all, concerns many psychological factors.
Peer pressure also plays a critical role in the formation of the motives to engage in
academic cheating (Zhou & Zhou, 2007). Simply put, one is reinforced to cheat when
he observes his peers succeedingthrough cheating. It is just natural for a student to
feel insecure about his relative standing and future opportunities when he is
outperformed by others. This echoes Willens(2004) notion that policy makers need
to reflect on the ways in which institutional and pedagogical practices reinforce and
reward aggressive competitiveness and an individualistic me-first climate(p. 57).
Nonetheless, it is worth noting that academiccheatingpersistsinmanycultures(e.g.,
Brandão & Teixeira, 2005;Zhou&Zhou,2007), and the cultural climates may only
partly account for the high prevalence of academic cheating.
In addition to cultural climates and peer pressure, faculty attitudes and actions are also
considered to be the environmental determinants of studentscheating behaviors. Volpe,
Davidson, and Bell (2008) indicated that university faculty frequently underestimate the
incidence of cheating. Faculty members also tend to limit their involvement in students
cheating: although 79 % of surveyed faculty members reported having caught a student
cheating, only 9 % of them reported penalizing the student (Graham, Monday, OBrien, &
Steffen, 1994). It is with little debate that students are more likely to cheat when there is little
risk of being caught (Kibler, 1993; Tittle & Rowe, 1974). On the other hand, various
countermeasures are available to prevent cheating in the first place, but faculty may not be
adopting the most effective ones. Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce (2009) summarized some
countermeasures perceived by students as most effective in preventing cheating. Interestingly,
none of the top-ranking countermeasures appears to relate to honor codes. Over 82 % of the
surveyed students endorsed extremely effectivefor scrambling test questions, followed by
70 % for small class sizes, 68 % for using several proctors during exams, 68 % for giving
unique makeup exams, and 67 % for having two or more forms of the exam. These results
suggest that studentslikelihood to cheat are related to two major factors: the administration of
a test (i.e., the risk of being caught cheating) and the level of test anxiety. However, the two
factors cannot seem to account for the high incidence of plagiarism (37.7 %) reported in the
same study.
Individual Influence on Academic Cheating
The individual/personal determinants of academic cheating are well worth some discussion
given the wide disparity in individual decision-making. Researchers have identified several
personal determinants including personality traits, attitudes and academic self-perception, and
demographic characteristics. For instance, de Bruin and Rudnick (2007)) indicated that two
personality traits, conscientiousness and excitement seeking, combine to account for the
variance in academic cheating; Elias (2009) found that students high in anti-intellectualism
attitudes or low in academic self-efficacy are least likely to perceive college cheating as
unethical; and Saulsbury, Brown, Heyliger, and Beale (2011) reported that gender, degree of
idealism, relativism, and Machiavellian traits all influence studentsattitudes toward cheating,
while age, GPA, race, income, and marital status do not. With regard to gender differences,
Elias (2009) and Saulsbury et al. (2011) found that female students view cheating as more
unethical than their male peers do. This disparity found between genders may require
perspectives offered from different theoretical perspectives. In addition, Elias (2009)and
Saulsbury et al. (2011) both suggested that university students may be categorized into two
Students Perceptions of Academic Cheating 289
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groups as to their perceptions of cheating: younger, traditional students (age 25 or below) and
older, non-traditional students (age 25 or above) who returned to higher education from
workplace. According to Elias (2009), younger, traditional students tend to perceive academic
cheating as less unethical, and are more likely to engage in cheating. Given the disparate
perspectives adopted above, it seems difficult to summarize these findings for practical
implications.
Definitional Ambiguity on Academic Cheating
The literature also revealed ambiguity and inconsistency in the ways that different parties (e.g.,
school administration, faculty, and students) define and perceive academic cheating. We tend
to assume that the concepts of academic cheating or academic dishonesty are straightforward
and self-explanatory, but some researchers remain skeptical about this. In higher education
institutions where there are honor codes, written guidelines and codes are normally
available for guiding the practices. However, most students do not get to read these
guidelines (Owunwanne, Rustagi, & Dada, 2010). As compared to classroom cheating,
the definition of plagiarism entails more careful descriptions. With the rapid develop-
ment of information technology, students today have easy access to othersintellectual
properties, and cannot always tell plagiarism from reasonable citations (Owunwanne et al.,
2010). Moreover, questions such as should a direct quotation cited with its author(s), but
without quotation marks considered plagiarism or not?and if the student simply rewrote a
published article using a very different style, yet reflected nearly no original thoughts in his
work, should this be considered plagiarism?will further complicate the circumstances.
In summary, three major issues emerged in our review of the literature. First, it remains
largely unknown whether the concept of academic cheating is well defined and communicated
to the university students. Second, previous studies have adopted disparate perspectives and
yielded mixed findings on many topics, leaving the field with no clear framework for
understanding and approaching academic cheating. Finally, much of the empirical research
on academic cheating has been quantitative. There is a critical need for qualitative inquiries to
unravel the complexity of this topic. As discussed earlier, a discrepancy between students
perceptions of cheating and the institutionsviewpoint has emerged in the surveys (Hollinger
& Lanza-Kaduce, 2009), with the studentsperspectives providing more realistic and practical
advice as to how to deal with academic cheating. Such results are not surprising considering
that students are the main recipients of the good and bad outcomes of academic cheating
policies and procedures. University students certainly have a critical angle in the area that
warrants exploration.
Purpose of Current Study
The purpose of this study was to explore university studentsperceptions of academic
cheating. The research questions were:
1. How do university students perceive academic cheating? What are their concerns regard-
ing it?
2. Do students perceive academic cheating differently according to their demographic
background?
3. What are the implications of studentsperceptions of academic cheating on institutional
practices for deterring cheating?
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Methods
Research Design
The current study adopted a convergent parallel mixed methods design (Creswell & Plano-
Clark, 2011). Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected using one survey question-
naire. In the first section of the questionnaire, participants were asked to provide demographic
information including age, gender, ethnicity, current estimated GPA, and classification. Their
pre-college cheating behaviors were measured using seven 5-point Likert-type items with a
possible range of 7 to 35 for each respondent. For example, students were asked how often
would you say you were tempted to cheat in high school?. An open-ended question what do
you think of cheating?was presented as optional to collect participantsverbal responses.
Participants
This study was conducted at a large, private university located in the southern region of the
United States. A total of 435 students completed the questionnaire. Approximately 54.9 %
(n= 239) of the sample were female, 34.5 % (n= 150) were male, and 10.6 % (n= 46) were
missing gender information. With regard to ethnicity, participants were permitted to select any
and all ethnic categories, and 69.9 % (n= 304) of the sample identified themselves as White,
followed by 10.3 % (n= 45) as Hispanic, 6.2 % (n= 27) as African American, 7.8 % (n=34)
as Asian American, and 0.7 % (n=3)ofthesampleasOthers.Further, 18.9 % (n=82)of
the sample were freshmen, 12.2 % (n= 53) were sophomores, 15.9 % (n= 69) were juniors,
16.8 % (n= 73) were seniors, 19.8 % (n= 86) were graduate students, 2.8 % (n= 12) were law
or other professional students, and 13.8 % (n= 60) were missing classification information. A
total of 22 different majors were represented. The mean self-reported GPA was 3.43 (SD=.47).
Ages ranged from 17 to 59 years old with a mean of 22.52 years old (SD = 6.04). Finally,
12.0 % (n= 52) of the sample responded to the open-ended questions for qualitative
analysis.
Analyses
Quantitative Phase
The quantitative analyses were performed using SPSS v. 20. Data were first explored for
missingness and descriptive statistics. The internal consistency reliability was then computed
for the seven pre-college cheating items. Next, a composite score of pre-college cheating was
computed by summing up the item-level scores. To investigate whether studentsself-reported
pre-college cheating differ according to demographic background, a multiple regression
analysis was conducted with pre-college cheating as the criterion variable, and gender and
ethnicity as the predicting variables. The predictors were dummy coded that maleand non-
Whitewere the comparison groups against femaleand Whiteas the reference groups,
respectively.
Because only 12.0 % of the sample responded to the open-ended question, analyses were
performed to examine the possible non-response bias. Nonparametric techniques were used along
with the parametric ones given that some analyses included categorical variables only, meaning that
the data were not ordered numerically and we could not use the mean or any similar statistic for
analytic purpose (Field, 2009). Specifically, two-way chi-square (χ
2
) of independence analyses
were performed between categorical variables (i.e., gender, ethnicity, and classification) and
Students Perceptions of Academic Cheating 291
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participantsnon-response status, and independent samples t-tests were performed to compare
the mean differences in current estimated GPA between the response and non-response
groups. As in the previous analyses, participantsethnicity was coded as White
versus non-White,and the non-White group included those who identified as
Hispanic, African American, Asian American, or Others.Participantsclassification
was coded as undergraduateswhich included all freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and
seniors, versus graduateswhich included all graduate, law and other professional
students. Phi (φ) coefficients were calculated to represent the magnitude of associations
in chi-square analyses. Phi (φ) coefficient values of 0.10, 0.30, and 0.50 may be interpreted as
small, medium, and large effect sizes (Cohen, 1988). Adjusted residuals greater than 1.96 or
smaller than 1.96 were considered to be statistically significant at the 0.05 level or less.
Qualitative Phase
In the qualitative phase, we utilized a thematic analysis to explore the open-ended responses
(Braun & Clarke, 2006). To outline the procedure, we first engaged in iterative readings of the
responses, and then coded segments of these responses and created themes from these codes.
The researchers corresponded on multiple occasions to discuss the coding processes
and decisions regarding groupings and themes. Some disagreements arose. They were,
however, resolved by modifying the labeling of themes and / or their descriptions via
group decisions.
Mixed Methods Phase
To answer whether students perceive academic cheating differently according to their
demographic background, two-way Chi-Square analyses of independence were per-
formed to examine the relationship between endorsements of themes and demographic
variables.
Results
Quantitative Findings
In the sample of 435 university students, missing data on pre-college cheating was limited
given that 97.0 % (n= 422) of them had complete data on all eight items. With regard to
demographic variables, missing data ranged from 10.6 % (n= 46) on gender and 14.9 %
(n= 65) on current estimated GPA. The pre-college cheating items demonstrated good internal
consistency reliability, Cronbachsα= .86. The multiple regression analysis for predicting pre-
college cheating was significant, adjusted R
2
=.04, F(2,377) =8.37, p<.001. Male students
self-reported pre-college cheating appeared to be higher than that of female students (β=.18,
p<.001). Also, non-White students appeared to report higher pre-college cheating than those
who endorsed White as their ethnicity (β=.11, p< .05). Table 1summarizes the descriptive
statistics of the analysis.
The results of two-way chi-square analyses indicated whether participants responded to the
open-ended question was not associated with their gender, χ
2
(1, N=389)=1.06,p=.30, or
ethnicity, χ
2
(1, N=435)=1.39,p= .24. Response status was not associated with GPA either,
t(368)=.45, p=.66. However, graduate students were more likely to respond than undergrad-
uate students, χ
2
(1, N=375)=12.54,p<.001, φ= .18, standardized residual=+2.8.
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Qualitative Findings
Five themes emerged from the qualitative data: cheating has flexible definitions,cheating is
influenced by the environment,cheating is a moral transgression,cheating can be justified by
ambiguous means,and cheating comes from conscious decisions. Table 2provides the
frequency of the themes that emerged by student.
Cheating is not always cheating,flexible definitions
The responses that we received frequently pointed to the notion that what one defines as
cheating may not be how another defines cheating. This was important to us because how an
individual defines cheating also influences how they perceive engaging in a variety of
behaviors that may be on the border of morality and ethics. In fact, some of the participants
believe that the vague and non-explicit definitions provided by instructors leave gray areas
in the understanding of what it means to cheat. To some students, cheating was copying off of
someone elses test, plagiarizing othersworks, and having one person in a group doing most
of the work. However, a few believed that copying homework was not cheating because it is
an assignment that is completed outside of classHow is it any different if you are there [in
class] when they solve the problem or you get it from someone later?In addition, although
many institutions and instructors would define turning in the same paper for two courses as
plagiarism, one of the participants stated that it was difficult for her to agree with this
perspective, as it was her own work being utilized. Throughout our exploration of the
responses offered by the participants, different definitions of what it meant to cheat surfaced.
The variety that we have presented here suggests that many students do not have a clear
boundary system for constitutes cheating or even unethical and immoral academic behaviors.
Although some of the participants chose to talk about what it means to cheat, others went on to
offer a variety of justifications for why one might cheat.
Tabl e 1 Descriptive Statistics of
Pre-College Cheating by Gender
and Ethnicity (N=435)
MSD
By gender
Male 14.39 6.14
Female 12.59 4.13
By ethnicity
White 13.01 4.75
Non-White 13.95 5.48
Table. 2 FrequencyofThemesinStudentResponses
Themes n%
Cheating is not always cheating11 21.2 0 %
Cheating is a result of environmental factors 10 19.20 %
Cheating is a moral transgression 4 7.70 %
Cheating justified by ambiguous justification 8 15.40 %
Cheating is a conscious decision-making process 8 15.40 %
Note: There may be overlap in the themes discussed by each student individually
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Cheating as a result of environmental factors
The role of the environment was mentioned frequently as a reason to engage in cheating
behaviors, but the type of project and the extent of the cheating behavior were not important
factors. This indicates that the environment is influential in cheating on assignments as simple
as worksheets to as important as exams. For instance, one of the participants mentioned that
many students are overwhelmed by an abundance of busy work.This sense of being
overwhelmed is an important aspect of the learning environment. In addition, many partici-
pants felt the educational environment actually promoted cheating behaviors. One of the
participants mentioned cheating in front of the instructor without receiving any punishment
or even acknowledgement for the behavior. This lack of consequence for engaging in cheating
behaviors increases the ease with which a person believes they can successfully engage in the
behavior without ramifications. As described by another participant, people will cheat if it is
easy for them to do so; however, with increased explicitness to the rules and guidelines,
cheating behavior is likely to decrease. With some individuals believe that the environment is
one of the sole influences of cheating, others demonstrated a sense of remorse for their
previous cheating, yet attempted to justify it as being pushed upon them by the environment
(e.g., when the teacher isnt doing a good job,when the subject isntimportant).
Cheating as Moral Transgression (internal conflict)
Engaging in cheating behaviors can tarnish the reputations of those caught and suspected to be
involved. For many students involved in cheating behaviors, it is highly likely that they are
internally conflicted about the morality and ethical ramifications of their involvement. For one
of the participants, cheating is wrong, but [many] dont care that it is.This lack of concern
for the unethical behaviors raises many warning flags that all should pay attention to. This is
especially true, as one of the other participants mentioned, when an individual feels the need to
engage in cheating behaviors. For some participants, when an individual continues to cheat
regardless of the feelings of moral transgressions, it can have a snowball effect.This
snowball effect can lead those who engage in relatively small cheating infractions to engage
in more complicated and serious cheating. This might also be coupled with a moral disen-
gagement to keep from feeling badabout the cheating behaviors.
Cheating as an Ambiguous Justification
For many participants, the justifications that they offer for cheating behaviors are vague at best
and indifferent at the least. Many students skew the stories they have been told or those of
historical importance in a way that is decontextualized and lends itself to a weak argument. In
this, they claim that nothing [is] wrong with a little cheating. Christ cheated death.The focus
on Christ as a justification for cheating was decontextualized from the story typically
recounted. For some participants, cheating is about survivingand is a means to an end.
That is, these participants view cheating as the only way to successfully complete a phase in
the educational plan (e.g., course, grade, degree), but do not lend any extra information to
highlight why they may believe it to be the case. In some instances, these ambiguous
justifications extend to others as justification for their own behaviors. For some participants,
they believe that everyone cheats; however, the only way it can be justified is if it has a good or
bad impact on others. In addition, some people rationalize their cheating as a way to keep from
upsetting the social balance. One of the participants utilized the term whistleblowerto
describe why he would not turn in others he knew were cheating or stop his own behaviors.
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For other participants, we noticed a sense of unethical disregard for the types of opportunities
that were presented to them through the years and their decisions to take or refuse them. One of
these participants viewed cheating as an opportunity to get by and it is not wrong to seize
[the] opportunity when it [arises].Although many of the previous themes have outlined the
types of justifications that individuals use for engaging in cheating behavior, there are still
some who believe that cheating is a decision that takes a lot of thought and risk analysis before
deciding to engage in the behavior.
Cheating as a Conscious Decision Making Process
Even though many participants made justifications for their own or another persons engage-
ment in cheating, some highlighted that cheating is not just about responding to the environ-
mental stimuli, but also requires serious forethought and risk analysis beforehand. Instead of
placing the blame of cheating on purely environmental conditions, or justifying their behaviors
based on what others have done, these participants believed that cheating was an active
decision made by the individual. One of participants explained their perceptions of cheating
and the decisions she had to make to finally decide that it was not worth her time. In her
response, she talked about her bout with cheating as it related to her nursing career, I always
remembered that cheating would influence the education that I received and ultimately, future
patient care.In this, she understands that the decision she makes regarding cheating behaviors
will influence her ability to provide exemplary service in her future career. This type of
response was typical of individuals who were talking about their college education as
compared to those who talked about their high school education. One of the participants
represented this distinction well when he explained its pointless to attend college if you have
no desire to do the work,followed by another participant who said, cheating in high school
is completely different than in college.Of those that mentioned having cheated in college or
high school as a conscious decision that they had to make, they mentioned various personal
factors that influenced these decisions (e.g., sickness, depression, lack of interest, lazy). This
information provides a stepping-stone for understanding cheating behavior that flies in the face
of what many define as ethical and moral behaviors. That is, there are a variety of internal and
personal factors that can influence a person to have to make a decision to engage in cheating,
even when they recognize that their behaviors are wrong.
Mixed Methods Findings
Given that some participants endorsed multiple themes based on the qualitative findings (four
out of a total 52, 7.7 %), their endorsement to each theme was dummy coded for two-way chi-
square analyses of independence. The results indicated students did not endorse themes
differently according to their gender or classification. However, non-White students appeared
to be more likely to endorse the theme cheating as an ambiguous justification, χ
2
(1, N= 52) = 8.28,
p<.01, φ=.40, standardized residual= +2.3.
Discussion
Academic cheating is a complex area of investigation. Although our quantitative findings
corroborate Elias (2009) and Saulsbury et al. (2011) that male students and undergraduate
students seem to either perceive cheating as less unethical or engage more in cheating
behaviors, we must note that self-reports of cheating may not accurately account for all of
Students Perceptions of Academic Cheating 295
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the cheating that occurs as some students do not report their cheating behaviors or may not
have a clear understanding of what cheating means. In the analysis of non-response bias,
undergraduate students were also found to be less likely than graduate students to respond to
the open ended question regarding their perceptions of academic cheating. It is possible that
undergraduates generally feel more uncomfortable discussing academic cheating, or they do
not have a clear conceptualization of academic misconduct, or a combination of the two. This
finding highlights the distinction between younger, traditional students and older, non-
traditional students as indicated by previous literature. We recommend that future research
in this area incorporate the goal-orientation theories (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) to address
issues emerging from this distinction. Whereas non-traditional, graduate students tend to have
mastery goal-orientations as they are concerned about the mastery of knowledge and skills
according to self-set standards, undergraduate students tend to adopt performance goal-
orientations as they are more concerned about their performances as assessed by grades or
class standings.
Our qualitative findings, on the other hand, largely enrich previous research which focused
on either the environmental factors (e.g., Gross, 2011;Willen,2004) or the personal factors
(e.g., de Bruin & Rudnick, 2007;Elias,2009; Saulsbury et al. 2011) for academic cheating,
especially when these factors are not easily understood through the collection and analysis of
demographic and quantitative data. The themes that emerged from the qualitative data may be
organized to reflect the role of individualscognitive processing with regard to morality issues.
As indicated by the themes (see Table 2), cheating is a conscious decision-making process
whereby a person takes into account various environmental and personal factors including
definitional ambiguity of cheating, competitiveness of the environment, general moral stan-
dards, and academic goal-orientations. These factors indicate different approaches to deterring
academic cheating that educators and school personnel may consider. First, the definitional
ambiguity reflects the inadequate communication between school administration and students.
It is worth noting that there is no mention of any honor codes in our data, suggesting the
ineffective implementation of honor codes to say the least. Thus, two steps may be taken to
enhance this communication: (a) creating written guidelines and codes for practice and (b)
making the guidelines accessible to students.
In addition to the honor codes, the environmental determinants as revealed in our data
emphasize the role of countermeasures that instructors could take to curb cheating. A
classroom environment with effective teaching and an emphasis on mastery goal-orientations,
rather than performance goal-orientations may also be helpful, given that the justifications and
perceptions seemed to spawn from the goal-orientation structure of the student. When high
schools and colleges place such a great emphasis on grades, students will likely establish goals
and behavioral plans to ensure success (Willen, 2004). If we provide students with alternative
goals to focus on and enforce regulations and effective countermeasures of academic cheating,
students will likely turn from unethical academic behaviors for more adaptive strategies.
Finally, the last three themes in Table 2may be summarized to demonstrate a general
pattern of rationalization of individuals. In particular, a person tends to rationalize his past
behaviors whether a certain behavior represents a moral transgression (see cheating justified
by ambiguous justification) or not (see cheating as a conscious decision-making process).
This pattern provides implications for moral education as to whether a behavioral perspective
of learning (e.g., using countermeasures and appropriate punishments) or a cognitive perspec-
tive (e.g., building studentsacademic self-concept and mastery goal-orientations) is more
effective in educating students of their moral responsibilities. Clearly, our findings indicate that
solely relying on the cognitive perspective is inadequate, given that the ambiguous justification
is so frequently observed in studentsresponses in regard to their previous cheating.
296 T.Weietal.
Author's personal copy
Although our findings are not exhaustive, they expand the knowledge base surrounding
student perceptions of academic cheating, providing specific recommendations for policy
makers and educators for address academic cheating issues in our higher education. In
conclusion, the results of the current study both complement and supplement existing research.
We should note the limitation that the current study was conducted at a private, religiously-
affiliated institution, thus the context may not necessarily transfer to other institutions of higher
education. We suggest that future research extend the current study by replicating it within
different contexts of higher education (e.g., public versus private; honor code status). Given the
complexity of the topics and the limited knowledge of this area of research, we also recom-
mend the use of mixed-methods approaches to examining issues about academic cheating. A
particularly novel finding of the current study, for instance, is the relationship of non-response
to an open-ended question about cheating that would not have emerged in an exclusively
qualitative or quantitative research design.
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Author Note
Tianlan Wei, Steven Chesnut, and Lucy Barnard-Brak, Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership,
Texas Tech University; Marcelo Schmidt, Doctoral Support Center, College of Education, Texas Tech University.
Tianlan Wei is now at Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, Mississippi State University.
298 T.Weietal.
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