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versão On-line ISSN 2304-8557
versão impressa ISSN 0023-270X

Koers (Online) vol.80 no.1 Pretoria  2015 



Academic honesty: Perceptions of millennial university students and the role of moderating variables



Dr André van Zyl; Adele Thomas

Director: Academic Development Centre (ADC)University of Johannesburg





Student academic dishonesty is increasing locally and internationally and universities are devising strategies to address this problem. The first year of academic study lays the foundation for future years of study and, as such, is critical in the establishment of adherence to academic values. As part of a larger project, the perceptions about academic honesty of first-year students belonging to the millennial generation at a large South African public university were obtained with a view to identifying trends in perceptions between the 2011 and 2012 student cohorts as well as the relationship between student sub-groups and perceptions held about academic honesty. The present study also sought to validate the findings of the 2011 study.
The population comprised all 22 442 students entering the University for the first time during the 2011 and 2012 academic years. Combined Strategy Sampling, followed by cluster sampling was used to obtain a sample of 5 730 students (3 611 in 2011 and 2 119 in 2012), broadly representative of the institutional population. In this regard, the 2011 sample of Thomas and van Zyl (2012) (3 611 students) was combined with the sample of the present study (2 119). A questionnaire, developed from the literature, comprising 12 ethical statements was used as the survey instrument. The data for the 2012 student sample was compared to that obtained from the Thomas and van Zyl (2011) sample and, by means of Chi-square tests and Standardised Residuals, the statistical association between perceptions held by members of student sub-groups and perceptions about academic honesty was investigated.
The sample of both years of first-year students indicated a trend in perceptions and one that pointed to an understanding of the meaning of academic dishonesty yet a regard for it as a relative concept and one that is superseded by, for example, the belief that right and wrong is a matter of personal opinion, that ideas do not belong to anyone and that information is accessible and free. This implies that these students enter academia with perceptions about academic honesty that may differ to those founded on the value authenticity in academia. Differences in opinion were found amongst students of different language groups and the qualification for which they were registered.
It is recommended that the values of academia should be reinforced with this student group and that broad pedagogic approaches, whilst reinforcing these values, should be tailored and differentiated according to the specific nature of each faculty and with particular sensitivity to the writing needs of students who belong to different language groups.


Die insidensie van studente akademiese oneerlikheid is 'n toenemende probleem beide op nasionale en internasionale vlak en universiteite is besig om strategieë in plek te sit om hierdie problem aan te spreek. Die eerste studiejaar is 'n kritieke moment vir die vestiging van gepaste akademiese waardes omdat dit die fondament lê vir die daaropvolgende studiejare. Die huidige studie vorm deel van 'n groter projek wat die persepsies van sogenaamde milleniale generasie eerstejaarstudente oor akademiese eerlikheid by 'n groot publieke universiteit in Suid Afrika ondersoek het. Die doel van die ondersoek was om tendense in die persepsies van studente wat tussen 2011 en 2012 die universiteit betree het asook die onderlinge verwantskappe tussen verskeie sub-groepe in verband met akademiese eerlikheid te ondersoek. Die huidige studie het ook gepoog om die bevindinge van die 2011 studie te valideer.
Die populasie waaruit die steekproef geneem is het bestaan uit al 22 442 studente wat die Universiteit tydens die 2011 en 2012 akademiese jare vir die eerste keer betree het. Gekombineerde strategie steekproefneming, gevolg deur trossteekproefneming is gebruik om 'n steekproef van 5 730 studente (3 611 in 2011 en 2 119 in 2012) te selekteer. Die steekproef was demografies gesproke verteenwoordigend van die institusionele student profiel. Vir die doel van hierdie studie is die 2011 steekproef van Thomas en van Zyl (2012) (3 611 studente) en die 2012 steekproef (2 119 studente) gekombineer. 'n Vraelys wat vanuit die litteratuur ontwikkel is en wat uit 12 eties gelaaide stellings bestaan het, is as navorsingsinstrument gebruik. Die data van die 2012 steekproef is vergelyk met die data van Thomas en van Zyl (2011) en die chi-kwadraat toets met gestandardiseerde residue is gebruik om die statistiese verband tussen verskillende sub-groepe en hul persepsies oor akademiese eerlikheid te ondersoek.
Tendense wat daarop dui dat studente die betekenis van akademiese oneerlikheid verstaan, maar dit as 'n relatiewe konsep beskou, was waarneembaar in beide steekproewe wat hier ondersoek is. Die studente het aangedui dat hul oortuiging dat "reg en verkeerd slegs 'n kwessie van persoonlike oortuiging is" en dat "idees nie aan iemand kan behoort nie maar dat hulle vryelik beskikbaar en bruikbaar moet wees" belangriker is as konsepte wat tradisioneel verband hou met akademiese oneerlikheid. Dit impliseer dat hierdie studente dikwels die akademie betree met persepsies oor akademiese oneerlikheid wat verskil van die tradisionele akademiese verstaan wat op die belangrikheid van egtheid in die akdedemie gegrond is. Die huidige studie het verskille in sienings gevind tussen verskillende taalgroepe asook tussen die verskillende studierigtings.
Hierdie studie beveel aan dat die waardes wat eie is aan die akademie duidelik gekommunikeer sal word in die groter studentegroep. Dit moet gedoen word deur algemene pedagogiese benaderings asook op pasgemaakte maniere wat die behoeftes en aard van verskillende fakulteite asook die verskillende skryfbehoeftes van verskillende taalgroepe in ag neem.




The first year of academic study is crucial to students' entry into higher education. Vast amounts of learning take place, different in nature and in level to that which students previously experienced. This first year of study also provides the foundation on which further academic success is built (Reason, Terenzini & Domingo 2006). In addition, a link between student academic dishonesty and later dishonesty in the workplace has also been suggested (Jones 2011).

The present study is part of a larger study that explores the understanding of and perceptions about academic honesty amongst first-year or Millennial students at a large South African public university. While no exact generational definition exists, Millennial students are considered to be those of the generation born between 1982 and 2002 (Evering & Moorman 2012) and who enter universities roughly between 2001 and 2021 (Gross 2011).

In 2012, Thomas and van Zyl reported the findings that emanated from the first cohort of students in this study. These Millennial students appeared ambivalent with regard to practices that constitute academic honesty, and tended to disregard the ownership of knowledge. They did, however, evidence an understanding of the meaning of terms that related to academic dishonesty, for example, cheating and plagiarism, but appeared to consider adherence to such behaviours as being relative in nature. As an example, copying during a test was regarded as a serious transgression but using the answers of a classmate in homework required to be performed individually was considered a lesser serious offence.

This article reports the findings of the second cohort of students, one year later.

The objectives of the present study were: (a) to canvas the perceptions of academic honesty of first-year students entering a large public university in 2012 and to compare these findings with those of the previous 2011 study (Thomas & van Zyl 2012), with a view to validating the findings of the earlier study and, thereby identifying whether or not a trend in such perceptions exist; (b) to ascertain if significant differences exist among student sub-groups according to certain academic and demographic variables. The unique contribution of the present study is its extension of the Thomas and van Zyl (2012) study to include an investigation of the relationships between student perceptions of academic honesty according to the variables of gender, language, faculty of enrolment and qualification type.

Faculty and university administrators should understand the perceptions about academic honesty that first-year students hold. Such information could inform possible interventions to promote practices of academic honesty among students in this formative year.

Research into student academic dishonesty, or behaviour that runs counter to generally accepted norms of conduct (Shanahan et al. 2013), and perceptions regarding academic honesty/dishonesty is sparse in non-US countries (Teixeira & Rocha 2010) and in non-western countries (Imran & Nordin 2013). Accordingly, the present study also seeks to contribute to an understanding of the perceptions of student academic honesty in a country where, up to this point, little academic research has been published on this matter.



Millennial students

Millennials are characterised by self-confidence and self-reliance; they are technologically competent and are open to change; they are service-oriented, connected to family and social networks and expect immediate access to information (Young & Hinesly 2012). They are especially adept at using the World Wide Web as a primary source to access information (Holliday & Li 2004).

Millennial students pose a challenge to the traditional ways in which honesty and dishonesty have been framed in academia. This Internet generation of social communities interprets the concept of 'acceptable' according to their understanding of a free availability of knowledge, communal ownership of material and the bonds of social network relationships (Gross 2011). In this regard, the traditional academic values of academic honesty and the protection of the scientific record (Lewis et al. 2011) could be under threat by the 'borrowing' of the proprietary material by those who hold the view that information cannot be owned.

Millennial students regard technology as a primary source of communication which may shape their views on the value of intellectual property as the content of the Internet is free (Evering & Moorman 2012). They are the 'Net Generation' where belonging to social communities encourages plagiarism "through the development of a shared understanding of what is acceptable" (Ma et al. 2008:198). Gross (2011) proposes that millennials regard information as communal property and view the concept of merit as being subjective. In this vein, Hutton (2006) believes that the Internet promotes strong social networks between students and weaker relationships between students and faculty where the rules of academic ownership are set and reinforced. Gross (2011) notes the shift from the traditional standard of viewing cheating as wrong and dishonest, to a post-modern value orientation amongst these students that locates this behaviour within the context of the situation and relationships.

Student academic dishonesty and strategies to address the problem

There is no common definition for the set of behaviours that constitute student academic dishonesty (Comas-Forgas et al. 2010). Cheating behaviour is an integral component of student academic dishonesty and generally includes cheating during tests or examinations, collaborating on assignments set as individual tasks, plagiarising or taking the work or ideas of others without proper attribution, copying work, fabricating work and purchasing assignments. Regardless of the precise definition of student academic dishonesty, the evidence suggests that such behaviour is on the increase (Anitsal et al. 2009; Jones 2011), resulting in universities experiencing "an integrity recession" (Voelker et al. 2012:36). Perhaps the most comprehensive studies of student academic dishonesty over the years have been conducted by McCabe (2005 and McCabe et al. (2012). McCabe et al. (2012) note how the incidence of cheating has remained high over the past years in spite of academic effort to address this phenomenon. Similarly, Teixeira & Rocha (2010) report consistently high incidences of student cheating in an international study undertaken at 42 universities located in 21 countries. The ease of access to electronic sources has precipitated an increase, specifically, in one aspect of academic dishonesty, viz. plagiarism (Aasheim et al. 2012; Ma et al. 2008). The concept of 'student academic honesty' incorporates the opposite practices of those described above.

Measures to address academic dishonesty by students tend to be haphazard (Brimble & Stevenson-Clarke 2006) with sanctions and discipline being the main actions adopted (Aasheim et al. 2012). Some institutions have attempted to offer instruction in responsible academic writing (Elander et al. 2010; Löfström & Kupila 2013) along with clear examples of behaviours that are regarded as constituting cheating (Boehm et al. 2009) or have adopted assessment techniques that make cheating difficult (such as unusual or unique assignments and requirements to submit portfolios of evidence) (Hansen et al. 2011). Other institutions have attempted to promote moral reasoning in students (Schmidt et al. 2009) or have introduced courses on ethics (Beauvais et al. 2007). Honour codes and academic integrity programmes (Evering & Moorman 2012; McCabe 2005), with the related development of strategies to promote student commitment to the values of the institution (Dix et al. 2014), have also been used

Reasons for student academic dishonesty

Divergent views exist about the reasons for student academic dishonesty (Leask 2006) and, it is suggested, such reasons can be classified into two broad groupings - situational and demographic.

When considering situational factors, it has been suggested that student values impact academic dishonesty (Imran & Nordin 2013) and that such values are culturally-based (Peppas 2002). Anitsal et al. (2009) note the link between student cheating and the beliefs they hold as well as the norms to which they adhere. Teixeira & Rocha (2010) found culture to influence the tendency of students to cheat and also found that students who attended universities in countries perceived to be corrupt evidenced higher incidences of academic dishonesty, leading them to conclude that "curbing cheating in the classroom may not be just a matter of targeted (higher) education policies but rather a change in attitude that is transversal to society as a whole" (Teixeira & Rocha 2010:696). Leask (2006) reinforces the view that plagiarism, specifically, is a culturally constructed concept necessitating that academics recognise and engage with cultural diversity.

Ellery (2008), in a South African study, indicates that the schooling system poorly equips students with skills for academic writing. Similarly, Devlin & Gray (2007) note how poor academic skills lead to student plagiarism, together with a poor understanding of plagiarism, poor quality of teaching and assessment, and student laziness.

Student cheating has been strongly correlated with the observation of others cheating (Fulks et al. 2010; O'Rouke et al. 2010; Rettinger & Kramer 2009). In this regard, theorists have suggested that the broader institutional culture must be targeted to promote the spirit of integrity (Imran & Nordin 2013; Piascik & Brazeau 2010) and that the dishonesty of academic faculty themselves must be addressed (Parameswaran 2007).

Among others, demographic factors linked to student dishonesty include gender, intelligence, self-confidence, extrinsic-intrinsic orientation, behaviour patterns and age.

Male business students have been found to be more likely to cheat than female students (Kisamore et al. 2007) which Teixeira & Roche (2010) attribute to sex-role socialisation. Specifically, male millennial students evidence a higher incidence of academic dishonesty than female students depending on the form of academic dishonesty being considered (Hensley et al. 2013). Men are more likely to plagiarise and make false excuses but no gender differences have been found when considering undifferentiated practices of academic dishonesty (Williams et al. 2010).

Cheating has been linked to students who evidence low grades (Hensley et al. 2013), to those who lack self-confidence and have low self-esteem (Pittam et al. 2009), to those who lack knowledge of how to avoid cheating (Granitz & Loewy 2007; Voelker et al. 2012), and to those who are extrinsically motivated (Rettinger & Kramer 2009). Behaviour laziness or lack of conscientiousness (De Bruin & Rudnick 2007) and an inherent lack of integrity (Evering & Moorman 2012), have all been linked to student cheating. Older students have been found to be less likely to cheat than younger students (Kisamore et al. 2007).

Within the youthful age group, attributes of millennials, linked to the potential to behave dishonestly, have been noted to be: opportunism and expedience (Gross 2011), rule breaking where integrity is centred in the development of social relationships (Gross 2011), ambition and impatience, with feelings of entitlement based on social relationships not performance (Ng et al. 2010), and confidence and team-orientation (Wilson 2004). Millennials also appear to be more concerned about outcome than process (Piascik & Brazeau 2010). From the above, it is suggested the millennial students present a different academic profile to students of previous generations. Therefore the current intervention strategies to promote academic honesty amongst students may be ineffective for students from this new generation.



Population and sample

The institution at which this study was conducted is a comprehensive university offering both degree and diploma programmes. Extended degrees and diplomas (qualifications that extend the original offerings by one year to augment modules and to supplement the academic foundation) are also offered.

The population comprised all first-year students entering the University for the first time during the 2011 and 2012 academic years. For the 2011 academic year, the researchers had access to the questionnaire and data used by Thomas and van Zyl (2012) for means of comparison. The combined population for the two years was 22 442 (12 309 in 2011 and 10 133 in 2012). Combined Strategy Sampling (Gravetter & Forzano 2009) was used, involving stratified sampling of the population according to faculty, and then cluster sampling through subdivision within faculties according to qualification type. This technique ensured representation of the sample according to these strata. Convenience sampling was then used to gather data within each cluster.

This process resulted in the compilation of a database of 5 730 completed student questionnaires which complied with data quality requirements (3 611 in 2011 and 2 119 in 2012). The biographic distribution of the sample, broadly representative of the institutional population, is provided in Tables 1 to 4 in which the results for the completed fields are shown, hence reflecting different total sample numbers.

Data collection

A questionnaire comprising 12 ethically loaded statements, derived from the literature and the same as that used by Thomas & van Zyl (2012), was distributed to students within each faculty, by staff representatives involved with first-year students.

Data analysis

Respondents used a five-point Likert-type scale to indicate their choices ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The responses indicating agreement (strongly agree and agree) and the responses indicating disagreement (strongly disagree and disagree) were grouped as Agree and Disagree respectively, with a middle option for neither agreement nor disagreement.

Descriptive statistics were used to highlight similarities and differences in responses among the 2011 and 2012 cohorts using the combined data base for these years.

In order to develop a more nuanced understanding of respondent perceptions, a data mining approach, using descriptive statistics, was also employed to identify possible moderating predictive variables. The combined responses to the ethical statements were cross tabulated with a number of academic and demographic variables to investigate whether responses differed according to student sub-groups. The following moderating variables were considered: gender (biological), age (in completed years), self-identified first language, faculty of registration and qualification type.

As a component of the cross tabulations, the Chi-square test to investigate the statistical association between two variables (Agresti & Finlay 2009) was used and Standardised Residuals (SRs) were calculated in each instance. The null-hypothesis of the chi-square test states that there is no relationship between the dependent and independent variables. To be statistically significant, the Chi-square must bep = < 0.05. Cramer's V was also calculated to check the effect size and the power of the variables when analysing the cross-tabulations. The SRs were used in instances where statistically significant Chi-square results were found, in order to identify where, among the different variable options, the significant relationship was located. A SR with an absolut