For a student who loves history already, this class may work just fine. But for the average student in the lecture hall, a class like this one swims in extrinsic motivators. If you pass this class, you can take the classes you really want to take. If you find a way to do well on just three tests, you will earn the ultimate extrinsic motivator: a good grade. And if you earn a good enough grade, you will have the privilege of being considered one of “the best.”
An introductory course like this contains several other features that researchers suggest are likely to induce cheating. Courses that rely upon infrequent, high-stakes assessments (such as three exams and nothing else) put intense pressure on each of those grade-earning opportunities, and ratchet up the incentive to cheat on each one. The professor’s warning about the difficulty of his exams and the accolades for students who earn high grades emphasize performance over learning—which also encourages cheating. Finally, the large class size makes it difficult for the students to develop a personal relationship with the professor, and this impersonal learning environment leads to higher levels of academic dishonesty as well.
It should come as no surprise that students are less likely to cheat in upper-level classes in their majors: These tend to be smaller, more personal, more focused on the students’ own interests, and in general far more intrinsically motivating to students. But we welcome students to campus with required (and often overstuffed) classes that are designed to foster extrinsic motivation—and that nudge them toward academic dishonesty from the beginning.
T o tackle the cheating problem, we need to redesign college classes to help students develop motivation of their own. Educational theorists tell us that people learn best when they are trying to answer a question, solve a problem, or meet a challenge that matters to them. You engage in intrinsically motivated learning when you research medical treatments for your sick child, learn about plumbing techniques to renovate your bathroom, or study Italian history in preparation for your trip to Rome. In those cases, you are learning because you see your subject matter as relevant to your life or your future.
Many colleges and universities have made small-scale experiments with classes that tap into intrinsic motivation. Consider, for example, the Great Problems Seminars at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an interdisciplinary first-year sequence of courses that asks students to confront major world problems and devise solutions. Students can elect to “solve” the problem of feeding the ever-growing world population with limited resources, or powering the world through economically feasible, sustainable methods. Courses are team-taught by faculty from different disciplines, and driven by student research. The history of western civilization looks quite different to a student charged with solving a fascinating great problem than to his peer in that introductory lecture course. Instead of seeing an endless series of names and dates, the students in a great problems seminar learn to look to history as a trove of experiences that may be useful to apply in the present. In a course like this, it would seem, there is little incentive to cheat.
We know, in other words, how to build classes that lower incentives for cheating—they are the same type of classes that create better environments for learning. Unfortunately, many college and university administrators see dollar signs standing in the way of large-scale efforts to revamp the curriculum along these lines. Driven by budgetary pressures, they are turning in precisely the wrong direction, electing to push students toward massive, open online courses modeled on traditional classroom structures. An online course in the history of western civilization taught by a star professor giving high-tech video lectures just transfers the problems of an on-campus introductory lecture course to a larger and even more impersonal stage.
But in spite of what cost-conscious administrators may fear, the changes suggested by this research do not necessarily mean smaller (and hence more expensive) classes. Students do cheat more in larger classes than small ones, but I suspect this stems more from course design than course size. Large classes are most likely to take the traditional approach of “coverage” of a subject, with little thought for how the material being covered matters to the students. Though small classes are nice when possible, what colleges really need are courses that have been designed with intrinsic motivation in mind, and that tap into the problems, questions, and challenges that will inspire students to learn deeply—and honestly.Continued...