COLUMBUS, Ohio — College students who consider themselves risk takers are more likely to cheat than others, particularly when they simply have no interest in the class they’re taking, a new study finds.

Earlier studies had shown that professors who promote mastering a subject as opposed to simply getting good grades report fewer instances of cheating in their classes, but such research didn’t take into account how much a student detested a course when it came to academic dishonesty.

Student doing homework, taking exam
A new study finds that college students are more likely to cheat if they dislike a course, particularly if they’re more of a risk-taker.

In this latest experiment, researchers at Ohio State University surveyed over 400 students from two large, geographically-separated American universities, asking them a variety of questions as it pertained to their academic attitudes.

First, respondents were asked to disclose the least favorite course they were taking, and whether they partook in any of 22 predefined cheating behaviors in that class, including plagiarism and copying answers off of others.

In addition, the researchers sought to learn more about how cheating factored into one’s moral compass; the emphasis that instructors put on achieving high marks or mastery of a subject; and any given individual’s taste for risk-taking.

“If you enjoy taking risks, and you don’t like the class, you may think ‘why not cheat.’ You don’t feel you have as much to lose,” explains study co-author Eric Anderman, a professor of educational psychology, in a university news release. “You could understand why students might be less motivated in classes they don’t like and that could affect whether they were willing to cheat.”

Fifty-seven percent of students said that a math or science class was their least favorite, and 65 percent indicated that their most-disliked course was not part of their major.

Courses with more than 50 students in the class were also generally disliked.

Anderman found the most interesting takeaway was that once a student decided he or she didn’t like a course, the professor’s teaching philosophy played little role in whether or the student would cheat. Should a professor promote the value of learning the course’s material, but a student expresses disdain, cheating will still rise, the researchers say, despite little change in the student’s beliefs.

This finding ran against two decades’ worth of research Anderman had previously conducted which indicated students felt less compelled to cheat in classes where professors embraced the understanding of the subject over grades.

“When you have students who are risk-takers in classes that they dislike, the benefits of a class that emphasizes learning over grades seems to disappear,” says Anderman. “We examined gender, age, the size of classes, whether it was a required class, whether it was graded on a curve— and none of those were related to cheating once you took into account the need for sensation in this study.”

In other words, when a teacher puts his more daring students to sleep, he can expect many of them to incessantly peer over their peer’s shoulder.

The full study was published last month in the journal Ethics & Behavior.

About Daniel Steingold

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