Students sometimes get caught up in the stress of education that they don’t mind the short-term and long-term consequences of their actions. Present consequences of academic dishonesty, for instance, include having a reduced grade, suspension, or expulsion while future consequences include behaving dishonesty in a job or permanent reputation damage.
The moral barrier effect
What are the ways, then, for schools and teachers to discourage students from cheating in the first place? A new study by the University of California - San Diego researchers presents a nudge-based solution to promote honest behavior in classrooms. They call it the moral barrier effect. The hypothesis posits that a simple environmental cue, such as a real or imaginative barrier, can reduce cheating.
The team conducted four experiments involving 350 kids from China, aged 5 to 6 years old. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Toronto and the Hangzhou Normal University, the researchers show that just the thought of a barrier placed between a child who is taking the test and the answers placed on the next table discourages academic dishonesty.
Li Zhao from the Institutes of Psychological Sciences in China and colleagues said that the barriers they used were clear plastic or simple metal frames. When placed strategically, these barriers were able to reduce cheating among 5- to 6-year-olds from a baseline of about 50% to between about 20% and 30%. The effect was observed both when the barrier was in a physical form or when it was only purely symbolic (experimenter drew an imagined frame using a toy magic wand).
The study appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
A test sheet was created that contained a series of counting problems. The children were required to count all the shapes of a certain type and then circle the correct answer from a set of nine response options. The first four problems were trivially easy for kids of their age but the final problem was exceptionally difficult because of the number of shapes they need to count and the manner they were arranged. They were also required to finish the entire test within the 5-minute time limit. The children were tempted to cheat because of the number five math question.
An interesting finding in their study is that the barrier needs to be placed between the child and the answer key. If they are placed on other parts of the room, such as the other side of the child, it did not encourage honest behavior in them.
The power of nudges
Lead author Gail Heyman, who is also a professor of psychology in the UC San Diego, said that their study demonstrates “the power of nudges.” In behavioral sciences, it is a concept that seeks to improve people’s decisions by changing the way options are presented to them. Nudging has also been proven popular with governments around the world. The father of the nudge theory, Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler has shown that it is effective to get adults to behave in positive ways.
Applying insight among children, the UCSD researchers explain that moral violations can be reduced by using spatial boundaries. Heyman said via Science Daily that people’s beliefs about morality are deeply rooted in how they view space probably the reason why there are plenty of spatial metaphors for morality. Examples include “keep on the straight and narrow” and “cross the line.”
The physical environment affects people’s behavior
The findings likewise confirm the centuries-old hypothesis applied in architecture that physical environments can affect people’s behavior, which is also why many companies spend money and time on designing their workspaces. Evidence has also shown the power of these physical cues in our daily life, like where people should wait in line or how far apart people should stand based on the social distancing circle drawn in floors.
What surprised the UCSD team was that even kids already can quickly pick up subtle and unfamiliar environment cues as a guide for their moral behavior. They don’t even necessarily have to be explicitly reminded of these physical cues or see how others are following it. Nudges can also be used during this time of the pandemic. For instance, painting a colorful path from the toilet to the sink in school bathrooms or illustrations in areas where people should wash their hands. Nudges can moreover be used to encourage kids to eat a more nutritious diet.
Academic dishonesty survey
According to The International Center for Academic Integrity, one of the most comprehensive surveys conducted throughout 12 years across 24 schools in the US, shows that 95% of the more than 70,000 students surveyed admitted to cheating on a homework, test, or committing plagiarism.
When asked if they think cheating is morally or ethically okay, 44.4% said it is okay on homework but not on tests. About 39% said it is not okay to cheat on tests and homework while 16.1% said yes, it is okay to cheat on both. The survey also found the most common reasons for student penalties for their academic integrity violations. Major (64%) academic integrity breaches involved was the unauthorized usage of materials and mobile phones (75%) and some were for use of inappropriate materials (8%) and disruptive behavior (7%).
In Ukraine’s higher education, 60% of students who admit to cheating in some form complaint about a huge number of written assignments per semester, 54% have no interest in topics they should write about, 49% don’t understand why they should do written assignments, 35% affirm that written assignments lack a practical application, and 28% grumble about recurrent topics or written assignments. This was based on a study by CEDOS and American Councils for International Education.
Even at a young age, children are already aware that dishonesty happens. But remember also that when a student has too much going on, they may feel the pressure to cut the corners somewhere and it may manifest in cheating. It may also be for lack of motivation or the peer pressure to copy someone else’s work. If the school called you as a parent about cheating, you may talk to your child about ways they can amend their action and take preventive measures to prevent it from happening again.