Communication Currents

An Underutilized Approach to Minimize Cheating

June 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

Cheating on papers, projects, and exams in college is a serious, common problem.  Previous communication research has not examined a potent resource in the fight for intellectual honesty.

Regardless of the major or the institution, about 50% of undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities will cheat at some point. Cheating, formally known as academic misconduct, is a constant concern for faculty members. Academic misconduct takes many forms, including cheating on exams and plagiarism. With the advent of the Internet in the classroom, academic misconduct has gotten more technologically savvy and more difficult to detect.

Previous communication research has focused primarily on faculty-student interaction as a tool for the prevention of academic misconduct. Until recently, prevention methods have focused on equipping faculty with anti-plagiarism policies and detection tools. For example, common academic misconduct prevention advice involves writing course syllabus policies that penalize academic misconduct and trains students about the types of plagiarism.

Communication research, however, suggests that one underutilized tool for prevention is peer interaction. College students are often swayed by the opinions and behaviors of their classmates. Consider this diverse group of behaviors:binge drinking, eating disorders, and sexual health choices. All these behaviors are influenced by peer group norms.  Cheating is also influenced by peers; knowing people who have cheated greatly increases a student’s likelihood to cheat.

Our research focused on peer communication and the possibility that peers could be used to help prevent academic misconduct. We wanted to determine what the motivations were for classmates who directly confronted a cheating peer or who told a course instructor that a classmate was cheating. In this case, we were interested in one type of academic misconduct: copy-and-paste plagiarism. 

We conducted an experiment using a goals-plans-actions approach to studying peer confrontation and whistle-blowing to course instructors. In this model, motivations are communicators’ primary and secondary goals. The communicator then thinks about what to say in a conversation or plans the interaction based on their motivations. Finally, the motives and thoughts about the interaction lead the communicator to act. The primary goal is to influence the classmate or, in this case, to prevent the cheating peer from copying and pasting text. Secondary goals include identity (believing it is immoral or unethical to cheat), conversation management (whether the confronter or whistle-blower believes it is appropriate to tell on the peer), personal resource (protecting a course grade), relational resource (protecting the friendship with the cheating peer), and affect management (nervousness or anxiousness of the situation). Our aim was to determine what goals motivated students to confront their cheating classmates explicitly and what goals motivated students to tell the course instructor about the peer’s cheating. 

We learned that peer confrontation was motivated by the influence goal and by the identity goal. Students who said that they would directly speak with a cheating peer reported that they were primarily concerned about preventing the peer from copying and pasting text from another source without proper citation into a paper. Peer confronters also reported being motivated by their ethics and moral identity.

The motives of whistle-blowers were more complicated. In our experiment, classmates were either in the same group as a cheating peer or in a different class group. When the peer cheater was in the same group, the identity and affect management secondary goals predicted whistle-blowing. In essence, the more morality and anxiety were prevalent, the more likely a student was to blow the whistle to the faculty instructor of the course. In the conditions when the peer cheater was in another class group, the personal resource secondary goal predicted whistle-blowing. The students reported the desire to protect their own grade in the course from negative repercussions of have a cheating classmate motivated them to blow the whistle.

The results of our experiment can help faculty prevent future incidence of academic misconduct. Beyond adding language to a course syllabus, faculty may want to consider assigning group projects. We found that peers with a greater stake in the outcome of cheating were more likely to report explicitly confronting a cheating peer. Classmates basically policed themselves more within a group. Group work with a single group grade should increase the likelihood that classmates help prevent their classmates cheating.

Faculty should also attempt to increase their teacher immediacy. Teacher immediacy, or closeness between students and the course instructor, can be achieved through nonverbal behaviors like smiling and making eye contact, or through verbal behaviors like addressing students by name. The results of our experiment imply that if heightened anxiety leads to whistle-blowing, attempting to discuss cheating with an unapproachable teacher may prevent whistle-blowing. 

Peers can ultimately be a force for positive change in the classroom. Besides detecting academic misconduct and prevention policies, faculty can structure classes to help classmates feel empowered to maintain the honesty of academic course work.

About the author (s)

Mary Lynn Miller Henningsen

Northern Illinois University

Associate Professor

Kathleen S. Valde

Northern Illinois University

Associate Professor