Skip to content

What are the Motivations for Academic Misconduct? Episode 006 Guests Explore this Topic on The Score Podcast 

In episode 006 of The Score Podcast, Dr. Amy Smith and Dr. David Emerson discuss with host Kathryn Baron (@TchersPet), Emerson’s ground breaking research report on the motivations for academic misconduct, linking academic cheating to fraud. 

Dr. David Emerson is an associate professor and faculty advisor at Salisbury University. His research has some sobering implications for how institutions deal with the issue of academic integrity. And Dr. Amy Smith is the Chief Learning Officer for StraighterLine and a leader in online education. She has been outspoken on the need to fight cheating to protect the value and quality of online learning. She wrote a piece for the Hechinger Report in 2020 on this topic. 

Read on for selected portions of the podcast transcript. And listen to the full episode Apple, Spotify, and The Score WebsiteNote: Removal of filler words and minor edits have been made for clarity.

Kathryn Baron (01:34): Dr. Smith, I’m going to kick it off with you. You are definitely concerned about cheating. In your articles though, particularly one in EdSurge, and The Hechinger Report, you write that you don’t see it solely as a problem with integrity among students. Tell us what you see as the responsibilities that may often be lacking in colleges and universities.

Dr. Amy Smith (01:58): Oh yeah, great question. So, cheating, it’s a multifaceted problem, right? And it’s definitely an incredible challenge, particularly in the hybrid and online space in higher education. I think universities recently are stepping up, and they’re leaning into the fact that it’s happening, that it is more prolific than maybe we ever really thought. And I also think that there are things universities can actually do about it.

So on the one hand, students owe themselves and their own learning, the responsibility to act with integrity, but the universities also are the educators of those students, right? So, if we look at it from that lens, I think universities owe students clear expectations, definitions of what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable, what is actually considered cheating, and what isn’t.

The second thing I think universities really owe those students is training and coaching to know and understand those expectations. It’s one thing to set them out, it’s another thing to ensure that students really understand the ins and the outs, what is and isn’t cheating, what they can and can’t do.

And the third thing I think universities really owe students is accountability systems that are clear, that are well defined, and that are consistent. 

Kathryn Baron (05:46): Before I get to Dr. Emerson, Dr. Smith, one more quick follow-up to this, do students really not know what’s right or wrong, or is it that they don’t know what the college or university they attend thinks is right or wrong, or a combination?

Dr. Amy Smith (06:02): Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both. I think with the advent of technology, is it right or wrong that I’m reading a chapter, but I check Google to look up a specific fact? Is that wrong? I mean, it is if I’m taking a test. But is it if I’m just studying? Is that actually cheating, because I didn’t actually read something in a textbook, and I went online instead to consult a different source? So, I think technology has created marginally gray spaces that did not previously exist. So, I definitely think it’s really both, to answer your question. I’ll be curious to see what Dr. Emerson thinks about that one though, especially because he really studies the student motivation and the student angle.

Kathryn Baron (06:46): And that’s what we’re going to go to right now. Dr. Emerson, your research seems to point in a different direction. Specifically, your new study with colleagues found that, this one in The Journal of Accounting Education, it found that there were several different elements that contributed to a student’s decision to cheat. Could you briefly describe the framework that you used to predict cheating behavior?

Dr. David Emerson (07:08): Sure, and thank you for having me. Our research is premised on the notion that we want to understand the cheating decision, and we’re using the presumption that certain personality variables differentially affect different phases of that decision-making process. Now, specifically what we did is we took a model that was developed by some folks that were trying to model consumer fraud behavior, and applied it to the academic misconduct arena.

So, what we did is we looked at the constellation of personality traits known as the Dark Triad. These are psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, each of which individually have been shown to have negative influences on a variety of outcomes, but in concert, they exert and influence greater than their individual pieces. And we then extrapolated those personality traits and modeled them onto what we called the Fraud Diamond.

Dr. David Emerson (08:21): This is a decision-making process, an ethical decision-making process formulated originally by Cressey in the early 1950s, to model financial fraud. It was modified in the early 2000s to include an element called capability. 

So, the Fraud Diamond includes the elements of motivation, opportunity, capability, and rationalization, with rationalization being the culmination of the other three pieces. And we hypothesized and found that each of The Fraud Diamond elements is influenced by the Dark Triad elements, in predictable ways.

Kathryn Baron (09:08): Could you give an example?

Dr. David Emerson (09:11): So, narcissism, for example, is related to capability and motivation. Capability and motivation are then related to rationalization, which then leads to the action of… What we were modeling is the unauthorized use of homework assistance websites, is what we were looking at specifically within the cheating realm. 

Machiavellianism, we found to be related to opportunity and motivation. With again, opportunity and motivation being directly associated with rationalization. And then the intention and action associated with the actual cheating behaviors. And psychopathy, we found to be related to motivation, and directly related with rationalization, as well as related to intent.

Kathryn Baron (10:11): Let’s say that we’re looking at narcissism, and I’m a narcissist. What does that say about what I might do, given the opportunity, and why I might do that?

Dr. David Emerson (10:24): Well, narcissism is characterized by a need for admiration, a sense of self-importance and grandiosity, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited power, of success and brilliance. So, they’re going to be motivated to engage in the opportunity, the fraudulent behavior, but they’re also going to have a sense that their capabilities are greater as well. Whereas, Machiavellianism has a lack of empathy and belief that they’re manipulating others for their own benefit, it is of use to them, so they’ll exploit a wide range of duplicitous tactics in order to achieve the goals that they wish. So, that’s going to be directly associated with the opportunity.

And psychopathy, psychopathy is one of the primary drivers. Of the three elements of the Dark Triad, psychopathy is really the one that is most difficult to guard against, and greed, risk taking, deception, artificial charm, manipulation, and a wide variety of misconduct type behaviors. So, it’s typified by a true lack of conscience, whereas one author stated it as “Psychopaths know right from wrong, but they don’t care. They’re going to do what is ever in their best interest, regardless of the outcomes.” So, the only way you’re going to stop a psychopath from cheating is by denying them the opportunity to do so.

Dr. Amy Smith (16:05): So, let’s talk a little bit about deterrents, let me expand on that. So, take these 45,000 students. We have three things at StraighterLine that we set up to monitor or to prevent cheating, like you just have to try to prevent it. I’m going to go back to Dr. Emerson’s opportunity, you just don’t make it opportunistic. It isn’t available. One way we do that is everything you turn in at StraighterLine, you have to turn in through So, we have a mechanism to check, “Hey, is Amy’s paper really Amy’s, or did Amy borrow Kathryn’s paper, because it was a little bit better, and she submitted Kathryn’s sections as her own?” We definitely do that.

The second thing we also do is all final exams are live proctored. I mean, your browser will shut down if there is any hint of suspicious behavior in any way, while somebody’s watching you take your exam. So, that’s the second part.

And the third thing that we do at StraighterLine is there’s actually a team in the academics side of the house that watches postings, watches online constantly. This is their job, right? This is what they do. They make sure that Amy didn’t decide to post a quiz somewhere online, and then everybody’s got the answers to a StraighterLine course. So, we have preventative measures, which are, we feel, deterrents. But humans are humans, and that’s actually what Dr. Emerson’s talking about, that decision-making that really happens. I’ll pause with that. Dr. Emerson, thoughts about what I just said?

Dr. David Emerson (17:34): I agree completely. I mean, it sounds like you’re doing everything right within the online arena, right? It is denying them that opportunity. And like I said, we did find that these online real time lockdown browsers, and continuous monitoring, and proctoring of live exams is going to be effective, absolutely. I mean, the cheating behaviors I was referring to were unmonitored, unproctored. 

And in the experiment that we did, when we implemented an online proctoring service, the incidence of cheating went down 87%. It went from about half, down to about 5%. So, it didn’t eliminate it, but it greatly reduced it, because the problem is when you’re using an online assessment integrity tool, it only works on a machine on which you’re taking the assessment. There’s no preclusion that prevents them from looking up the answer on a different device. Now, you state that you’re not finding StraighterLine materials on other websites. Have you gone to Chegg to look to see whether or not the answers are there?

Dr. David Emerson (20:40): The students don’t like [exam monitoring] because it starts with a presumption, like Amy was saying, that everybody’s cheating. Well, they are, to a large extent. If you’re taking a class, especially if it’s a class you don’t care about very much, and your professor gives you a quiz directly out of the publisher’s textbook, out of their test bank, and you go online and take it, if you’re able to just copy that answer or question and go over to your browser, go to, and instantaneously the correct answer is there. And many times, from my publisher, I found the exact question with a test bank identifier attached to it, and with the correct answer immediately displayed.

So, one way to ameliorate that is to de-identify, camouflage those questions, change the name of, rather than Amy’s Flower Shop, which is given in the program, use Harry Potter had a Flower Shop. I found that using popular references to pop culture seemed to confuse the algorithm quite a bit, it provides way too many responses, even Chegg can’t get it. So actively de-identify the questions that you are using, or create your own questions, use essay questions, right? Especially in my advanced accounting class, I can write questions that you can look for all day, you’re never going to find the answers to the questions that I’m asking you. So, good luck with that, waste all the time you have available to take you trying to find the answer online. I guarantee you’ll be unsuccessful.

Kathryn Baron (25:49): Now, I know that we’ve talked a bit about what we’re doing to curb cheating, in terms of using these different technological fixes or efforts. Is there a way to create a culture where education is about learning and gaining knowledge, conversations, classes on ethics, perhaps, that could start to move us in that direction, so that even though maybe we all have some of those traits that say, “I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity,” that the angel on the other shoulder says, “Yeah, you could do that, but it’s not the right thing to do?”

Dr. David Emerson (26:34): What we believe is that each of the phases of the ethical decision-making framework, which is the Fraud Diamond, opportunity, motivation, and rationalization, can be targeted to help minimize the cheating behaviors by emphasizing those aspects of the decision-making process to minimize ultimate cheating.

Dr. David Emerson (28:02): So, there’s a wide [range] of motivations to it, and you hit on one of them which is whether they’re intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. If you can change their motivational focus to something that resembles, “This is my own best interest. I need to learn this because it’s important to me.” So, if you can change their focus, then they’ll recognize that “Cheating is not of any benefit to me. Even if I get the grade, if I don’t know it, I’ll be proven to be a dummy when I get to my job. And I’m not going to be able to keep my job, because I don’t have the requisite skills and abilities that my transcript says that I have.”

Dr. David Emerson (29:00): One of the ways to decrease their motivations to cheat is to counter the incentives that are provided, through disincentives, right? The cheating decision is made under the presumption that it’s a rational calculus of, “What do I get as a result of this activity?”, versus “What are the costs, if I’m caught?” So, one of the ways you can disincentivize this activity is to make sure that there is a heavy cost for every incidence of academic misconduct, regardless of the level of severity.

So, if they know what is expected of them, it goes to Amy’s point that they have to be acutely aware of, these are the rules, and if you break those rules, you are going to be harshly and swiftly punished, to the point that it is a disincentive that you do not want to pay. And I make this very clear to my students on day one, if you cheat and I catch you, not only will you be tossed out of the class, not only will you receive an F on your transcript, that F on your transcript will never go away. It will be a permanent F, so that 0.0 will be there in your GPA calculation for the rest of your college career. 

Now, I do not want to do this. It is a royal pain to go through the process to charge someone with academic misconduct, but it is the only thing, now, based on lots of research, that a harsh, severe, and certain negative outcome works, but you have to be consistent in applying it across all students, regardless of level, and regardless of the level of severity.

Kathryn Baron (33:40): And does that seem to reduce cheating in your classes, when the other students see what the repercussions are?

Dr. David Emerson (33:49): Well, that’s hard to say. One would hope, right? Because I mean, one of the ways that academic honor codes work is through peer pressure. If you can inculcate a culture where cheating is not acceptable, then presumably, peers will disincentivize them from engaging in that activity. But people are always going to be motivated, they want that diploma, they want the rewards that go with an education, but they don’t want to work for it. They will do whatever they need to do, and this is especially true more on the psychopathic end of the spectrum, where they’re there maybe because their parents want them to be there, they don’t have that intrinsic motivation.

Listen to the entire episode 007 of The Score with guests, Dr. Amy Smith and Dr. David Emerson.