Faculty and College Student Beliefs about the Frequency of Student Academic Misconduct

By Hard, Stephen F.; Conway, James M. et al. | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Faculty and College Student Beliefs about the Frequency of Student Academic Misconduct


Hard, Stephen F., Conway, James M., Moran, Antonia C., Journal of Higher Education


Student academic misconduct, such as cheating and plagiarism, has increased in recent decades (McCabe, Trevifio, & Butterfield, 2001) and is an important concern in higher education. Meanwhile, it has been reported that faculty members often do little to prevent misconduct or to challenge students who engage in it (Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnik, Whitley, & Washburn, 1998; Schneider, 1999). Reducing misconduct requires understanding the factors influencing the behaviors of each of the two parties most closely involved: the students, whose behavior determines whether and how often misconduct occurs, and the faculty, whose behavior can potentially deter misconduct. (Institutional policy is another important factor, but is not the subject of the present study.)

The present study concerns the prediction of behavior by both students (i.e., committing misconduct) and faculty (i.e., attempting to prevent and to challenge misconduct). We believe an important (and understudied, at least for faculty) behavioral predictor is beliefs about the prevalence of student academic misconduct. These beliefs concern descriptive norms (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990), which concern what members of a group actually do. Cialdini et al. distinguished these norms from injunctive or prescriptive norms, which refer to the moral rules of one's peers or of some other social group. The effects of beliefs about descriptive norms on students' own behavior have been studied, for example, regarding college student peer alcohol use (Perkins, 2002) and academic misconduct (McCabe et al., 2001). These effects have also been applied to a group of which one is not a member (i.e., faculty beliefs about the frequency of student misconduct, Koljatic & Silva, 2002). As we argue below, we believe student beliefs about the behavior of their peers (peer descriptive norms) can influence misconduct, while faculty beliefs about student academic misconduct can influence efforts to prevent and challenge the misconduct. Before making those arguments, we give a brief description of academic misconduct.

Student Academic Misconduct

Using our university's code of conduct, we define academic misconduct as

  providing or receiving assistance in a manner not authorized by the
  instructor in the creation of work to be submitted for academic
  evaluation including papers, projects and examinations (cheating);
  and presenting, as one's own, the ideas or words of another person or
  persons for academic evaluation without proper acknowledgement
  (plagiarism).

We recognize that misconduct can vary along a number of dimensions. One dimension is the type of work submitted, with the major categories being examinations and written work (e.g., papers). Another dimension is whether the misconduct is planned in advance or spontaneous. A third dimension is whether a student is providing or receiving assistance. These distinctions may be important to the extent that students' and/or faculty members' beliefs and attitudes differ. For example, Lim and See (2001) found evidence that students considered examination cheating more serious than plagiarism. It is also possible that students and/or faculty members perceive planned misconduct as more serious than spontaneous misconduct. We will therefore consider these distinctions later.

Student Beliefs about Peer Behavior

There is a large theoretical and empirical literature indicating that expectations and beliefs about peers' behavior (i.e., peer descriptive norms) influence individual behavioral choices. Social norms theory says that people tend to maintain behavior consistent with peer descriptive norms, and that overestimating the frequency that one's peers engage in a behavior can lead to increases in that behavior (e.g., overestimating peer alcohol use can increase students' drinking, Berkowitz, 2003; Perkins, 2002). According to Berkowitz (2003) and Perkins (2002), college students often overestimate peer descriptive norms for alcohol use, and interventions intended to correct these mistaken beliefs have shown evidence of success in reducing drinking (though Smith, 2004, has challenged the supportive evidence). …

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