Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Academic cheating motivation

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Academic cheating motivation:
What motivates cheating in an academic context?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Using a cheat sheet during an examination is typically viewed as cheating
Think about this

Imagine that you are a student (Tim) in the final semester of school for the year. You are sitting your final exam and you can’t seem to answer any of the questions. You feel lost and that you have no options. You look over your shoulder and suddenly there is a bright beckon of light; the student sitting next to you has all the answers. They are in plain sight and ripe for the picking. You decide to look over and copy all of the answers. You cheat your way out and get a good grade. What motivates this behaviour? What drives students to cheat? Have you cheated? If so, why? What factors influenced this? This book chapter aims to answer these questions.

This book chapter aims to:

  • Introduce academic cheating and illustrate why this issue needs attention
  • Examine how personality influences academic cheating
  • Explore three motivational theories (self-determination, achievement goal theory, and the theory of planned behaviour) which help explain why individuals are motivated to cheat
  • Provide suggestions on how to avoid academic cheating

Academic cheating[edit | edit source]

Definition[edit | edit source]

Academic cheating is a form of dishonesty or misconduct that occurs in relation to academic exercises such as assignments and exams. This academic dishonesty or misconduct may occur in numerous ways, vary in its severity and can be either deliberate or accidental (Colnerud & Rosander, 2009; Srikanth & Asmatulu, 2014). In Australian universities the misconduct of cheating was found in the survey from Monash University (Brimble and Stevenson-Clarke, 2005). In a survey conducted by Brimble and Stevenson-Clarke (2005), the most common instances of cheating involved handing in assignments for a unit from previous units, submitting assignments written by another student, students being aware of other students cheating in an exam (i.e., passing on information to another student when they completed a deferred exam), and other variations (Brimble and Stevenson-Clarke, 2005). Colnerud & Rosander (2009) also note that academic cheating can occur in three broad ways, cheating, unauthorised collaboration, and plagiarism/fabrication (see Table 1).

Table 1.
Colnerud & Rosander's (2009) three methods of academic cheating.

Type of cheating Example
Cheating using cheat sheets and unauthorised materials to complete tasks.
Unauthorised collaboration working collaboratively on individual tasks.
Plagiarism and fabrication using material that is not your own without acknowledgement, resubmitting the same paper, or parts of it in more than one course, and falsification of information.

Test yourself[edit | edit source]

1 Which of the following methods of cheating were mentioned above by Colnerud & Rosander (2009)?

Unauthorised collaboration
Plagiarism and fabrication
All of the above

2 Which of the following points are true about academic dishonesty/misconduct?

It occurs in numerous ways
Varies in its severity
It can be either deliberate or accidental
All of the above

Prevalence[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Prevalence of Cell Phone Cheating[explain?]

Various studies have highlighted that academic cheating occurs regularly and is on the rise (Murdock, Miller, & Goetzinger, 2007). The literature on academic dishonesty indicates that cheating is practiced by students at all levels of schooling, with incidences climaxing in high school (Godfrey & Waugh, 1998). Bowers published the first large-scale study of cheating in academic institutions. He surveyed over 5,000 students from different colleges and universities. He found that 75 percent of respondents engaged in incidents of academic cheating (Bowers, 1964 as cited in McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield, 2001). More recently, it has been found that as many as 50 to 75 percent of students admit to cheating during their academic careers. In addition to this, 50 to 70 percent of faculty members (e.g., teachers) report that they have observed cheating (Burrus, McGoldrick, & Schuhmann, 2007). These rates are consistent in both public and private education, with neither being more prevalent over the other (Bruggeman, 1996). Whitley (2001) illustrates interesting findings as to whether males or females are more likely to partake in cheating. He noted that while females have more negative attitudes towards cheating when compared to men, they are both equally likely to cheat (Whitley, 2001).

Engaging in academic cheating can lead to serious consequences (Edgren & Walters, 2006), including:

  • Failure of assessments or examinations
  • Failure in a course
  • Revocation of a degree
  • Expulsion

The dark triad of personality and academic cheating[edit | edit source]

Not much is known about the role of personality traits in explaining and predicting academic cheating (De Bruin & Rudnick, 2007). Williams, Nathanson, and Paulhus (2010) argue that the reason for this is that a number of personality factors have not been examined. Building on their argument, they believed that cheating behaviours are more likely to be shown in individuals who have personalities characterised by the Dark Triad personality factors (Williams et al., 2010). These factors are narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy. These are outlined in the table below.

Table 2.
Dark Triad Personality Factors

Personality factor Explanation
Narcissism These individuals are characterised by grandiosity, entitlement, and pride. These people are arrogant, self-centred, and self-enhancing. The biggest factor relevant to cheating is entitlement. Narcissists believe they are entitled to recognition for their academic accomplishments, in order to get this recognition cheating may be used (Williams et al., 2010).
Machiavellianism These individuals are characterised by manipulating and exploiting others. These individuals exploit a range of dishonest tactics to achieve goals. These tactics can increase the likelihood of cheating (Williams et al., 2010).
Psychopathy These individuals are characterised by selfishness, antisocial behaviour, manipulation, and callousness. Psychopaths engage in a range of bad behaviour such as substance abuse and criminal acts. For this reason cheating is associated with individuals who are high in this factor (Williams et al., 2010).

Williams et al. (2010) found that all of the dark triad personality factors showed positive associations with academic cheating. More specifically, psychopathy showed the strongest correlation followed by machiavellianism and narcissism. Based on the findings of this study one could assume that individuals who are high in narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy are more likely to engage in academic cheating.


Imagine once again that you are our good friend, Tim, who is sitting his exam, your personality is marked by narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Are you more likely to look over your shoulder and copy answers off another student?

The role of motivation[edit | edit source]

What motivates academic cheating? Think about these questions for a moment and see if you can answer them...

  • Why would anyone want to cheat?
  • How does motivation impact on cheating?

A great deal of work has been done which helps answer these questions (Jordan, 2001). The self-determination, achievement goal, and planned bahaviour theories are helpful in explaining the motivation for cheating.

Self-Determination Theory[edit | edit source]

According to this theory three types of motivation exist that can be shown on a continuum: amotivation, extrinsic, and intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000a). The table below distinguishes between these types of motivation.

Figure 3. Motivation exists on a continuum

Table 3.
Types of motivation[explain?]

Type of motivation Explanation
Intrinsic This motivation arises when individuals are driven by internal desires; they do something because it is enjoyable. They want to feel autonomous, competent and feel a sense of relatedness. For example, you like going to the gym because it makes you feel good.
Extrinsic This motivation arises because of rewards and consequences; it is an external created reason to engage in a behaviour. For example, a student studies because s/he wants to receive good grades.
Amotivation There is no motivation whatsoever, the individual is neither extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.

(Ryan & Deci, 2000a).

In an educational environment students who are intrinsically motivated are driven by their desire to learn and understand course material. On the other hand, students who are extrinsically motivated are driven by their desire to achieve rewards, for example good grades or praise from others (Sieman, 2009).

These motivations that students adopt clearly have a large effect on their cheating behaviour in an academic context (Rettinger & Jordan, 2005). Jordan (2001) examined the role of motivation in college students. He highlighted that motivational variables are related to cheating. More specifically, he noted that students who adopted internal motivations were less likely to cheat when compared to students with external motivations. Building on this previous work, Rettinger & Jordan (2005) also looked at the relationships among motivation and academic cheating. It was found that grade orientation, an extrinsic motivator, was associated with increased self reports of cheating. These studies and the self-determination theory have highlighted that extrinsic factors (grades being the most prominent) motivate academic cheating.


Imagine once again that you are Tim, you only care about getting good grades. Are you extrinsically motivated? Would this make you more likely to cheat in this test?

Achievement Goal Theory[edit | edit source]

The achievement goal theory is also used to explain motivation for academic cheating (Miller & Murdock, 2007; Murdock & Anderman, 2006; Sieman, 2009; Yu Niiya, Ballantyne, North & Crocker, 2008). This theory distinguishes between two types of goals, mastery and performance, these goals explain differences in the way students engage in their academic endeavours (Miller & Murdock, 2007).

Mastery goals are associated with learning and mastering skills (Miller & Murdock, 2007), when students are faced with challenges (e.g., difficult assignment) they respond by working harder and trying new things (Sieman, 2009). Adoption of mastery goals will allow students to be more intrinsically motivated (Murdock & Anderman, 2006).

Performance goals focus on demonstrating competence by performing better than others (Miller & Murdock, 2007). When faced with challenges students respond by using maladaptive achievement strategies, for example cheating (Miller & Murdock, 2007; Sieman, 2009). Performance goals increase extrinsic, and decrease intrinsic motivation (Murdock & Anderman, 2006). Two variations of performance goals exist, performance approach (outperforming other) and performance avoidance (avoiding performing more poorly then others), when comparing the two variations performance avoidance increases cheating (Darnon, Butera, Mugny, Quiamzade, & Hulleman, 2009; Sieman, 2009; Yu Niiya et al., 2008).

Yu Niiya et al. (2008) examined achievement goals as predictors of cheating,[grammar?] they found that students goals influenced academic cheating. More specifically, cheating correlated positively with performance goals and negatively with mastery goals,[grammar?] this indicated that students with performance goals were more likely to cheat. A possible explanation to this is that performance orientated students view cheating favourably as it helps to achieve goals (Murdock & Anderman, 2006). Students that adopt mastery goals view cheating negatively as it would interfere with the attainment of their goals (Sieman, 2009).


Consider this: Tim enjoys performing better than others and getting better grades than his friends. Its going to be hard to beat them when he doesn't know any of the answers to the exam. How would you get out of this predicament? Looking over at the other test paper could be an option...

Theory of planned behaviour[edit | edit source]

Figure 4.Theory of planned behaviour diagram

The theory of planned behavior developed by Ajzen (1991) can be used as a model for examining student’s reasons to cheat (Sieman, 2009). The theory is based on the idea that as humans we are rational and make decisions to engage in behaviours by weighing up possible costs against expectations of positive outcomes (Harding, Mayhew, Finelli, & Carpenter, 2007). According to Ajzen (2002), the intention to perform a behaviour is determined by three components: attitude toward a behaviour, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control. Harding et al. (2007) also added the component of moral obligation. This theory helps provide an explanation to academic cheating as it reveals students intentions through their attitudes towards cheating, these intentions precede behaviour and the greater the intention the more likely that an individual will engage in a certain behaviour (Harding et al., 2007; Sieman, 2009). These components are highlighted in the table below along with the findings from the study done by Harding et al. (2007) which used this theory to explore undergraduate students’ decisions to cheat.

Table 4.
Components of the theory of planned behaviour .

Factor Explanation
Attitude toward a behaviour This refers to the individual’s overall evaluation and tendency to respond either favourably or unfavourably towards a behaviour (Harding et al., 2007). Suppose a student has a favourable attitude towards cheating, this student would be more likely to cheat (Harding et al., 2007).
Subjective Norms This refers to an individual’s perception about a behaviour which is influenced by the judgment of others (Harding et al., 2007). A student who has parents that support the idea of cheating would be more likely to engage in cheating (Harding et al., 2007).
Perceived Behavioural Control This refers to the extent to which a person feels able to enact the behaviour based off past experiences and difficulties (Harding et al., 2007; Sieman, 2009). A student with a history of successful cheating will see themselves as an effective cheater and will be more likely to engage in cheating in the future(Harding et al., 2007).
Moral obligation Harding et al. (2007) also added another component to Ajzen’s original model, this was labelled as moral obligation. This refers to an individual’s personal pressures (shame and guilt) to either perform or not perform a behaviour (Harding et al., 2007; Sieman, 2009). Harding et al. (2007) found that students who had a moral obligation not to cheat were associated with less cheating behaviours.


Consider this, Tim, you like cheating, and you think its an easy way to get good grades. Your parents also encourage cheating as they believe you should take any means necessary to get good grades. You have cheated before on numerous occasions and you think you are good at it, you also don't feel guilty or ashamed of cheating. Putting all these points together do you think you would be more likely, or less likely to cheat?

Tips to avoid academic cheating[edit | edit source]

Here are a number of suggestions based off academic institutions which provide tips for students and faculty to avoid academic cheating (Australian National University, 2014).

  • Spend time discussing standards of academic conduct with students and teachers.
  • Faculty members should develop academic environments that support honesty.
  • When in doubt about anything that might constitute cheating ask other students or faculty members for assistance.
  • Take advantage of resources to assistant students (e.g., referencing guides, academic skill center).
  • Faculty members should ensure equal access to study materials are provided for all students.
  • Students should take responsibility to learn how to properly reference other peoples ideas.
  • Report academic dishonesty when you see it.
  • If faculty members suspect students of cheating, they should confront them about it.

Putting it all together[edit | edit source]

The key points that reduce the likelihood of cheating are outlined below in the example of Tim. The motivational theories discussed (when combined) provide a solid outline for how academic cheating can be reduced.


What points can Tim take away from reading this chapter? What actions should he take so he is less likely to be motivated to cheat?

A number of important steps can be taken from the theories discussed which could lower the likelihood of Tim cheating in the future.

  • Tim should adopt an intrinsic motivational orientation where he is motivated by his internal desires, he should study something that he finds enjoyable, he should be saying things like "I enjoy taking this subject, it's a lot of fun".
  • Rather than trying to do better than his friends, Tim should adopt a mastery goal orientation when approaching his studies. He should focus on learning, understanding and overcoming difficult tasks at school, this would increase his intrinsic motivation, and decrease the likelihood of cheating.
  • Tim should also change his attitudes towards cheating, previously he viewed cheating as good, this should change so he has more negative attitudes towards cheating.
  • Tim's parents should not encourage him to cheat.
  • Tim should also be caught out on his bad behaviours so he can see the consequences of cheating.
  • Lastly, Tim should also have a moral obligation not to cheat.

These points, if taken together can help reduce academic cheating.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This book chapter has explored a variety of motivations and motivational theories which explain why cheating occurs in an academic context. It is evident that cheating is a large problem and is on the rise. Academic cheating leads to a variety of problematic issues which can have serious consequences. Research studies have shown that a number of factors can contribute to academic cheating, these include gender, age, personality, attitudes, motivational and goal orientations. It is important to note though that motivation is a multifaceted concept and many other factors which were not mentioned may also impact on academic cheating. By highlighting the three motivational theories we can use these to reduce academic cheating and improve our motivational lives. Considering this is such a common issue, more work is needed in this area.

Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

Test your knowledge of this chapter about academic cheating motivation. For each question select the best answer.

1 According to Burrus, McGoldrick, & Schuhmann (2007) what is the percentage of students that admit to cheating during their academic careers?

10 to 30 percent
50 to 70 percent
80 to 90 percent
100 percent

2 Engaging in academic cheating can lead to serious issues, which of the following were highlighted as consequences to academic cheating?

Failure of piece of assessment or examination
Failure in a course
Revocation of a Degree
All of the above

3 Which of the dark triad personality factors shows the strongest correlation with academic cheating?


4 Which type of motivation is associated with increased academic cheating?

All of the above

5 True or false, students that adopt mastery goals are more likely to cheat?


6 According to the theory of planned behaviour which of the following is true?

If intention is low there is more of a chance that an individual will engage in a behaviour
If intention is high there is more of a chance that an individual will engage in a behaviour

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behaviour. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179-211.

Ajzen, I. (2002). Perceived behavioural control, self-efficacy, locus of control, and the theory of planned behaviour. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(4), 665-683.

Australian National University. (2014). Academic honesty and plagiarism. Retrieved from

Brimble, M., & Stevenson-Clarke, P. (2005). Perceptions of the prevalence and seriousness of academic dishonesty in Australian universities. The Australian Educational Researcher, 32(3), 19-44.

Bruggeman, E. L. (1996). Cheating, lying, and moral reasoning by religious and secular high school students. Journal of Educational Research, 89(6), 340-344.

Burrus, R. T., McGoldrick, K. M., & Schuhmann, P. W. (2007). Self-Reports of Student Cheating: Does a Definition of Cheating Matter? Journal of Economic Education, 38(1), 3-16.

Colnerud, G., & Rosander, M. (2009). Academic dishonesty, ethical norms and learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(5), 505-517. doi: 10.1080/02602930802155263.

Darnon, C., Butera, F., Mugny, G., Quiamzade, A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2009). “Too complex for me!” Why do performance-approach and performance-avoidance goals predict exam performance? European Journal of Psychology of Education, 24 (4), 423-434.

De Bruin, G., & Rudnick, H. (2007). Examining the cheats: The role of conscientiousness and excitement seeking in academic dishonesty. South African Journal of Psychology, 37(1), 153-164.

Edgren, S., & Walters, S. (2006). Academic Dishonesty in the 21st Century. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 54(2), 56-59.

Godfrey, J. R., & Waugh, R. F. (1998). The perceptions of students from religious schools about academic dishonesty. Issues in Educational Research, 8(2), 95-116.

Harding, T. D., Mayhew, M. J., Finelli, C. J., & Carpenter, D. D. (2007). The Theory of Planned Behaviour as a Model of Academic Dishonesty in Engineering and Humanities Undergraduates. Ethics & Behaviour, 17(3), 255-279. doi:10.1080/10508420701519239.

Jordan, A. E. (2001). College Student Cheating: The Role of Motivation, Perceived Norms, Attitudes, and Knowledge of Institutional Policy. Ethics & Behaviour, 11(3), 233-247.

McCabe, D. D., Trevino, L. K., & Butterfield, K. D. (2001). Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research. Ethics & Behaviour, 11(3), 219-232.

Miller, A. D., & Murdock, T. B. (2007). Modeling latent true scores to determine the utility of aggregate student perceptions as classroom indicators in HLM: The case of classroom goal structures. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32, 83–104. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2006.10.006

Murdock, T., Miller, A., & Goetzinger, A. (2007). Effects of classroom context on university students’ judgments about cheating: mediating and moderating processes. Social Psychology of Education, 10(2), 141-169.

Rettinger, D. E., & Jordan, A. E. (2005). The Relations among Religion, Motivation, and College Cheating: A Natural Experiment. Ethics & Behaviour, 15(2), 107-129.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000a). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68

Sieman, A. S. (2009). Motivational Predictors of Academic Cheating Among First-Year College Students: Goals, Expectations, and Costs (dissertation, North Carolina State University). Retrieved from

Srikanth, M. M., & Asmatulu, R. R. (2014). Modern cheating techniques, their adverse effects on engineering education and preventions. International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, 42(2), 129-140. doi:10.7227/IJMEE.0005

Whitley, J. E. (2001). Gender Differences in Affective Responses to Having Cheated: The Mediating Role of Attitudes. Ethics & Behaviour, 11(3), 249-259.

Williams, K. M., Nathanson, C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2010). Identifying and Profiling Scholastic Cheaters: Their Personality, Cognitive Ability, and Motivation. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 16(3), 293–307. doi: 10.1037/a0020773

Yu Niiya, Ballantyne, R., North, M. S., & Crocker, J. (2008). Gender, Contingencies of Self-Worth, and Achievement Goals as Predictors of Academic Cheating in a Controlled Laboratory Setting. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 30(1), 76-83. doi: 10.1080/01973530701866656

External links[edit | edit source]