July 8th, 2015

Research Highlights How Easily and Readily Students Fabricate Excuses


female college student smiling

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the article An examination of factors and attitudes that influence reporting fraudulent claims in an academic environment, Active Learning in Higher Education, 15 (2), 173-185. The Teaching Professor Blog named it to its list of top pedagogical articles late last year.

“My grandmother fell down on her patio and I had to go stay with her for a few days and she does not have internet or a computer and all of my research was in my dorm room …”

When students are unable to comply with some aspect of an academic task (e.g. due date, assignment length, quality of work), there is potential for them to communicate reasons as to why they were unable to complete the task to their instructor. At this point the students have a choice, in which case they can either provide legitimate reasons for not being able to complete or to submit their coursework, or they can communicate something which is a deliberate attempt to deceive the instructor. A student may communicate information designed to deceive or construct a fraudulent claim to an instructor in order to avoid the undesirable consequences (e.g. a bad grade that may hurt the student’s overall standing in a class) of not complying with the academic task. Roig and Caso (2005) found that the frequency of which providing fraudulent claims occurs in an academic environment is approximately equal to, if not greater than, more commonly identified forms of academic dishonesty such as cheating and plagiarism. Ferrari et al. (1998) indicated that fraudulent claim making was utilized by as many as 70% of American college students. However, this phenomenon has received limited empirical attention in recent time in comparison to other forms of academically dishonest behavior.

Participants, 319 undergraduate students, completed the study online via the online survey-hosting website SurveyMonkey. Upon providing consent, participants were randomly assigned to read one of four vignettes about a classmate who had not completed an assignment described below:

It is a Monday morning at 10 a.m. and Alex has an assignment due in a 300-level major’s class. The assignment is due in one hour at the beginning of class, and it is worth X% of Alex’s final grade in the class. Due to underestimating the difficulty and time consuming nature of the assignment, Alex began working on it the night before, and has completed less than half the assignment. Alex realizes that there is no way that the assignment will be completed in-time for class.

Participants assigned to the low academic consequence condition saw in the place of the X that the assignment was worth 5%, whereas the high academic consequences condition read that the assignment was worth 40%. Additionally, below this passage, participants read one of the following statements indicating the communication medium to contact the instructor: (1) Alex’s instructor, who has been teaching for 10 years, noted in the syllabus that if students needed to contact him about assignments or the course material, they should do so via email, or (2) Alex’s instructor, who has been teaching for 10 years, noted in the syllabus that if students needed to contact him about assignments or the course material, they must speak with him in person, at the beginning of class or via appointment.

Following reading the vignette, participants were asked to imagine that they were in the situation described in the vignette and answered whether they would contact their instructor to try to gain an extension. If they responded yes, then they were directed to a question asking them if they would “make up an excuse in order to gain an extension.” Participants who provided a “Yes” response were asked to report their reason and then rate their confidence on a scale of 0%–100% (0%, 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, or 100%) that the instructor would grant them an extension if given this reason.

The study did not reveal that those in the higher academic consequences condition were statistically more likely to produce a fraudulent claim than those in the low consequences condition. Yet while an incomplete assignment worth 5% of a grade is likely to have minimal effect on students’ academic standing in a particular class, an assignment worth 40% has potential to dramatically influence students’ overall grade. The lack of significant effect of academic consequences suggests that individuals are willing to create fraudulent claims, regardless of the severity of the negative consequences they are trying to avoid. The finding that 66% of individuals would engage in deceptive behavior to avoid what could be deemed as very minor negative consequences for those not completing an assignment worth 5% of their grade poses an interesting question for future studies in this area. Namely, do consequences matter in relation to fraudulent claim making, or is it the individuals’ beliefs about communicating information that is deceptive to instructors that matter?

The study described here found that family emergency was reported as the claim students would be most likely to utilize when faced with a potential situation to report a fraudulent claim in order to gain an extension on an assignment. The results suggest that students perceive family emergency as more believable by an instructor than the other claim types, and they also expressed higher confidence in claims about personal illness and computer troubles than did not understand an assignment. It is worthwhile to note that while participants reported fraudulent claims, a number of participants also indicated that they would tell the truth to their instructor when asking for an extension. However, participants reporting the truth expressed less confidence that the instructor would grant them an extension.

Consistent with literature (Ferrari et al., 1998; Jones, 2002; Roig and Caso, 2005), the study described here found that individuals do engage in reporting claims in an attempt to deceive their instructor even when motivated by academic tasks with low academic consequences and, possibly more alarmingly, that many students possess great confidence in their abilities to “get away with” reporting fraudulent claims.

Excerpted with permission from An examination of factors and attitudes that influence reporting fraudulent claims in an academic environment. Active Learning in Higher Education, 15 (2), 173-185.

References included in the excerpt:
Ferrari JR, Keane SM, Wolfe RN, et al. (1998) The antecedents and consequences of academic excusemaking: Examining individual differences in procrastination. Research in Higher Education, 39(2): 199–215.

Jones S (2002) The Internet goes to college: How students are living in the future with today’s technology. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Available at: pewInternet.org (accessed 26 August 2011).

Roig M and Caso M (2005) Lying and cheating: Fraudulent excuse making, cheating, and plagiarism. Journal of Psychology, 139(6): 485–94.

Lacy E. Krueger is an assistant professor of psychology in the College of Education and Human Services at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Anna M. Carmichael is a Doctor of Psychology (clinical neuropsychology) candidate at Monash University.

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  • Matt Birkenhauer

    No doubt, in over thirty years of teaching, I have had my fill of these stories . . . .

  • Joseph

    " …they can communicate something which is a deliberate attempt to deceive the instructor" = Lie! Why not call it what it is?

  • John Burton

    So what can be done about it?

    • Sue Talley

      Do we need to teach a section of Freshman seminar about college ethics? Would that help, I wonder? Do people think of cheating as "wrong" or simply clever? Because it is wrong and many students claim to care about doing right. I agree that a lie should be called a lie, and not "disinformation" or some other fancy term. Plagiarism is theft, and so is copyright violation.
      Do these things matter?

    • For me, I tighten my course policies. College students, even if they just finished high school, need to make better choices, take responsibility for their own actions, and be prepared for the consequences (positive and negative) for all their actions. Unless a student presents evidence that I deem valid and credible (I take into account uncertainties in life of course), there needs to be no room for excuses. Cheating or other forms of academic misconduct not only result in F grades but academic procedures would follow. No work submitted equals no earned grades. I've been teaching in higher education since 2001 and this has worked well for me.

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  • michael hasenstab

    The answer ought to be that the consequences of said action are whatever is stated in the syllabus. My students' grades are very much dependent upon their ability to follow directions as given, written or otherwise. If students say they are ill so they cannot come to class with the assignment, no problem. All they have to do is send me proof that they did it, and then give me a hard copy when they come to class the next session; otherwise, they did not, according to my syllabus. When I have given special considerations to some students, all hell breaks loose. They need to know who is boss, and that is the teacher, not them. Sound tyrannical? So be it. If I catch a lie, but cannot prove it, I tell students I am suspicious and they have one more chance to prove they are serious students or get an F. I am a humorous, well intentioned teacher who offers plenty of chances, but I do not put up with liars or cheaters of any kind. They learn that the hard way sometimes. No coddling. No pets. Some of my favorite students earn F's. Some of my most disagreeable ones earn A's. Be as strict as you are nice.