Academic cheating is a serious worldwide problem that begins during childhood. Inspired by nudge theory from behavior economics, researchers believe physical and verbal nudges can affect cheating rates among children. Zhao and colleagues conducted a study using a naturalistic experimental method to investigate the effects of a contextual factor – message about test difficulty – on academic cheating. Two possible motivations can lead to increased cheating with respect to the difficulty messages.
- Approach motivation: if students are informed that a test is difficult, cheating is a way to appear capable of academic success.
- Avoidance motivation: if they are informed that a test is easy, they may be motivated to cheat to avoid appearing incompetent.
Researchers conducted an experiment to investigate the relation between messages of test difficulty and cheating behavior. A sample of 201 children (94 girls) from 6 eighth grade (mean age = 13.4 years) classes at a middle school in Eastern China were asked to take a math test of equivalent difficulty level and perform self-scoring two weeks later. The 6 classes were randomly assigned to one of three differing conditions involving messaging about test difficulty. The differing information was given to them before they started the test.
- Grade level condition: students were told that the test was of standard difficulty and that its difficulty was the same as their grade level.
- Easy condition: students were told that the test was very easy and that its difficulty was below their grade level.
- Hard condition: students were told that the test was very hard and that its difficulty was above grade level.
Unbeknown to the students, the experimenters took photos of their test papers before they were returned to them for self-scoring. Researchers, therefore, could compare the self-reported scores and the actual scores. Two measures were taken: the first was for the presence of cheating, i.e., the self-reported score at least 1 point higher than the actual score. The second was to measure the cheating extent which was computed by subtracting the actual score from the self-reported score.
- This study found that the cheating rate was 40.9% in the grade level condition, 62.1% in the easy condition, and 58.0% in the hard condition. The likelihood of cheating under both the easy condition and the hard condition was significantly higher than that under the grade level condition. The easy and hard conditions were not significantly different.
- Among students who cheated, the cheating extent ranged from 1 to 61, those in the easy condition inflated their scores significantly higher than their counterparts in the grade level condition and the difficult condition. The grade level condition and difficult condition had no difference.
If students decided to cheat, the cheating extent was more strongly affected by avoidance motivation than by approach. Researchers concluded that simple messaging can have a significant impact on children’s moral behavior.
Source: Zhao, L., Peng, J., Dong, L. D., Li, Y., Mao, H., Compton, B. J., Ye, J., Li, G., Heyman, G. D., & Lee, K. (2022). Effects of test difficulty messaging on academic cheating among middle school children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 220, 105417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2022.105417