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To Cheat or Not to Cheat: Part 1

Updated: Dec 6, 2023


Highlights:

 
In Part 1 of this blog, I introduce these concepts and their application to motivation and academic cheating. Part 2 will soon follow, highlighting practical steps you can take for all parts of a course and specific steps with Yellowdig’s community-building system. The goal of these suggestions is to increase intrinsic motivation and remove the pressure, opportunity, and ability to rationalize cheating.

Part 1: AI Use is a Symptom, Not the Cause


This blog explores two frameworks, the Fraud Triangle and Self-Determination Theory, which can help us understand learner motivation, why learners cheat, and some of what we can do about AI misuse. In Part 1 of this blog, I introduce these concepts and their application to motivation and academic cheating. Part 2 will soon follow, highlighting practical steps you can take for all parts of a course and specific steps with Yellowdig’s community-building system. The goal of these suggestions is to increase intrinsic motivation and remove the pressure, opportunity, and ability to rationalize cheating. As I will argue, many learners cheat because they are being demotivated by the context and fail to see personal value in participating.


Most educational organizations have two over-arching functions: 1) They foster learning and 2) provide a credential that attests to that learning (i.e., granting credits, degrees, etc.). These learning and credentialing functions are often at odds. Our need for credentials can lead to grading strategies that further demotivate struggling learners. After failing a midterm, many learners will drop the course or start cheating rather than increase their learning effort. If grades were only to promote learning, we would allow re-taking tests to inspire mastery. As importantly, because of credentialing, almost everything that gets a grade is high-stakes; not getting a few course points could block a learner from their preferred grad school or require them to retake a class. Observations like these and an apparent jump in cheating are why “ungrading” is increasingly popular despite its challenges for credentialing. Assuming most readers will not be able to dispense with grading, it is important to think about how we balance these functions as we tackle cheating, motivation, and communicating with our learners.


Before we go further, we should define “cheating.” The Oxford Dictionary considers cheating: 1) acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage or 2) avoiding something undesirable by luck or skill (e.g., cheating death). Aligning with this definition, learners often cheat to appear more capable with less effort (#1) and to avoid assignments they do not find as personally valuable as other things (#2). These “other things” may not be educational, like time with friends, but also often are other school assignments. To meet the definition as used here, cheating will be: 1) an intentional act; 2) meant to be concealed; 3) that garners academic credentials or grades that the learner has not earned from their own learning effort.


The Fraud Triangle and the Necessary Conditions for Cheating


Although learners cheat for many reasons, the Fraud Triangle can help us predict what increases the odds. The idea was originally applied to white-collar criminals, who tend not to fit typical criminal stereotypes; many have some higher education, are gainfully employed, and have moderate-to-strong ties to others (Klenowski & Dodson, 2016). Academic cheating is similar in that it is often committed by learners who are not the most obvious “cheaters” and may not appear to need to cheat.


According to the Fraud Triangle, there are three conditions that must be present for fraud: opportunity, rationalization, and pressure (Cressey, 1953). For academic cheating, opportunity refers to how easy a learner thinks it will be to cheat and get away with it, rationalization refers to the justifications learners use to convince themselves that their cheating is morally or socially acceptable, and pressure refers to the perceived necessity of cheating to achieve a desired outcome. These dimensions exist on a continuum, and where something falls is up to each learner. Someone close to failing might feel more pressure. Someone who knows a topic better can more easily rationalize avoiding work on that subject. The more a course design can reduce all 3 dimensions in the minds of more learners, the less cheating. As technologists and designers, we are not to blame for cheating, but we do create the context in which it occurs. One way we can control the context is to motivate learners by focusing them on learning rather than grades and credentials and to create assignments that satisfy more of their needs.



Image depicting Fraud Triangle

Learners who do not have their individual needs met according to the Self-Determination Theory will be less motivated to learn and simultaneously more likely to experience all of the necessary conditions for cheating according to the Fraud Triangle.

Self-Determination as a Salve for Reducing Opportunity, Rationalization, and Pressure


Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a psychological theory of motivation that suggests that people are most likely to be motivated, especially intrinsically, when their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Motivation, and especially intrinsic motivation, is important for reducing cheating. Motivation makes it less likely learners will look for opportunities or feel pressure to cheat, and that they will also find it more difficult to rationalize. Autonomy refers to the need for individuals to feel that they are in control of their own actions and decisions. Learners having options to pursue specific topics or assignments of interest to them helps add autonomy. Allowing learners to avoid assignments and topics that they see as less valuable while still progressing toward the learning objectives of the course is also effective. Competence refers to the need for individuals to feel capable in their pursuits. Feedback is an important factor in developing competence, but so is the learner feeling they have the ability to act on that feedback to change the result or continue to progress. Relatedness refers to the need for individuals to feel connected to others and to belong to a social group. “Belonging” has recently become a buzzword in higher education and is functionally equivalent, as I see it, to relatedness; these concepts are important in our battles to combat imposter syndrome or make education more inclusive of all demographic groups. If learners do not feel they relate to others in the learning environment or their future profession, they are less likely to maintain the motivation to persist.


Similar to the elements of the Fraud Triangle, these dimensions of SDT each exist on a continuum and their interpretation is up to each individual. The dimensions can also be expected to impact one another. For example, a learner may not be able to feel competent if they are getting feedback they cannot address because they lack the autonomy to act or cannot change the result. When more psychological needs are satisfied by an activity, learners are likely to see the value and relevance and be intrinsically motivated to participate. More intrinsically motivated learners are less likely to cheat (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). The mechanism behind why SDT and the Fraud Triangle are yolked can largely be explained by intrinsic motivation changing how learners think about the dimensions of the Fraud Triangle. A learner who feels they are not learning much, that it is irrelevant to their lives, or who do not have the freedom to pursue the things they need but still feels the pressure to perform well will find more opportunities and more “valid” rationalizations for cheating. In short, learners who do not have their individual needs met according to the Self-Determination Theory will be less motivated to learn and simultaneously more likely to experience all of the necessary conditions for cheating according to the Fraud Triangle.

We think we need to do more to motivate learners, whereas SDT would suggest that we really need to do fewer things that demotivate them. That is an interesting way to reframe learner engagement problems and the things we can do to solve them.

Getting learners intrinsically motivated may feel like a daunting task or may not seem like a practical solution to cheating. However, an interesting base assumption of SDT is that people are oriented toward growth. Applied to academics, SDT assumes learners want to master new things and that they derive happiness from doing so; it is when a learner's psychological needs are “thwarted” that their intrinsic motivation is decreased. I will admit that I did not think most of my learners were all that motivated while I was teaching them. However, I also rarely considered that my design choices may have been meeting my needs but frustrating theirs. I especially did not consider my role in demotivating them because I tried to be a “fun” instructor. I put time into designing a quality learning experience that was not boring. I suspect most designers and instructors feel that way, but maybe there is a problem with this approach. We think we need to do more to motivate learners, whereas SDT would suggest that we really need to do fewer things that demotivate them. That is an interesting way to reframe learner engagement problems and the things we can do to solve them. I will cover some of those solutions in Part 2 of this blog.


 

About the Author:


Brian Verdine, Ph. D., is the VP of Academic Product Engagement at Yellowdig. Brian received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. He went on to a postdoctoral position in the Education department at the University of Delaware, where he later became, and continues to be, an Affiliated Assistant Professor. His academic research and his now primary career in educational technology have focused on understanding and improving learning outside of classrooms in less formal learning situations. At Yellowdig, he manages all aspects of Client Success with a strong focus on how implementation in classes influences instructor and student outcomes.

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