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Feeling (Dis)Honest: Academic Integrity in International Schools

By Bradford Barnhardt

04/05/2017

Research conducted among anglophone international schools during the 2011–12 and 2012–13 school years, and recently published in the journal Ethics & Behavior, suggests that academic cheating may be largely driven by fluctuations in felt moral obligation; that is to say, under certain circumstances cheating can feel more or less justifiable, despite one’s abstract beliefs about its immorality.

Participants included 589 students from 15 international schools, of which most were U.S. State Department-supported, located in 11 countries across Africa, Europe, and Asia. Survey data on cheating behavior, moral obligation, and perceptions of learning context and self-concept were collected from the graduating classes of 2015 and 2016 over the course of two years—that is, over their respective transitions from Grades 8 to 9, and Grades 9 to 10. All data was collected in reference to the context of Science class in the year that students completed the survey.

Three pieces of good news

First, the international students in this study reported less cheating than tends to be reported by students in domestic schooling systems. Taking students in domestic U.S. schools as a standard for comparison, international school students reported roughly 25 percent less cheating of any kind (55 vs. 80 percent), and 15 percent less cheating on tests (35 vs. 50 percent). The latter difference is notable because, according to a body of research involving over 180,000 U.S. secondary school students over the last three decades, the annual incidence of test cheating in domestic U.S. schools has itself fallen by nearly a third since the 1990s.

Second, the incidence of self-reported cheating rose among students who transitioned from Grade 8 to Grade 9, and fell among students who moved from Grade 9 to Grade 10. This suggests that much of the cheating reported by Grade 9 students was a “transition effect,” that is, a response to the stress of transitioning to high school, which may thereafter improve at least partly of its own accord.

Third, students who moved from Grade 9 to Grade 10 reported, on average, more positive perceptions of their classes and of themselves as Science students. Grade 10 students (Year 2) reported seeing themselves as stronger in Science, and seeing their Grade 10 teachers and Science classes as being of higher quality than their Grade 9 teachers and Science classes. These also appear to be transition effects.

The moral quality of cheating behavior

The central focus of this research was “felt moral obligation”: how well it predicted cheating behavior and how well it could be predicted by personal and contextual variables. Students who reported feeling less moral obligation to be honest, that is, who felt that cheating was justifiable, were more likely to perceive classes as competitive and/or of low quality, and their peers as more accepting of cheating behavior. The implication was that under certain conditions in a given class context, many students ceased to feel that cheating was immoral.

The psychological mechanism by which students might judge for themselves whether cheating in a given class context is justifiable (i.e., a breach of conventional rules) or unjustifiable (i.e., a breach of moral imperatives) was hypothesized to behave like a “psychological contract.” The psychological teaching-learning contract represents a student’s expectations for reciprocal fairness between him or herself and a particular teacher or class context. (This does not imply that such contracts are ever objectively real, or that cheating is ever justifiable.) Perceiving that a teacher has failed to fulfill certain obligations could, by this view, make students feel that their corresponding obligations no longer apply. The word feel is used here very deliberately.

A long and growing tradition of research into moral psychology indicates that moral judgment is driven by feelings, especially in adolescents. Students did, in fact, appear to feel more morally obliged to be honest when they perceived that their teachers and classes upheld their duties to learners, such as being fair, competent, and respectful.

Feeling that circumstances nullify the moral imperative to be honest does not, of course, make it true. To the extent that such feelings are genuine, however, they may represent truth to the student—a problem that is only partially addressed through traditional moral education and logical consequence systems.

Gender differences

Male and female respondents differed most markedly in subject self-concept—i.e., how they regarded themselves as Science students. Male respondents’ self-ratings on this measure were consistently higher than those of female respondents. Males were also more likely in both years to report (1) perceiving competitive pressures, (2) perceiving that cheating was acceptable among their peers, (3) believing that cheating was justifiable, and (4) having cheated during the year.

Deterioration after the transition to Grade 9

Things seemed to go downhill for students who transitioned from Grade 8 to Grade 9. Grade 9 students rated their teachers more negatively, were more likely to report perceiving a performance goal structure in the classroom, and were more likely to use “surface” learning strategies (e.g., rote memorization) than they had in Grade 8. These changes also coincided with higher incidences of self-reported cheating behavior. No indicators were observed to become more positive among the students who transitioned to Grade 9.

These findings are consistent with prior research, including a four-year study of transition effects conducted by Brian Barber and Joseph Olsen, in which 933 families with adolescent children participated. Barber and Olsen noted in a 2004 publication entitled Assessing the Transitions to Middle and High School that Grade 9 students in their study “reported less liking of school, higher perceived need of school organization, lower support from teachers, lower support from principals and assistant principals, less monitoring from teachers, lower classroom autonomy, less involvement in school activities, lower self-esteem, and higher depression.”

While confidentiality agreements prevent me from listing the schools, students, teachers, and administrators who supported this research, I wish to express my deep gratitude to all of them. I would also encourage all international schools to support educational research, in order to help address the many deficits in what is known about our community.

Bradford Barnhardt is Secondary School Director at Tsinghua International School in Beijing, China.




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