June 18, 2006
June 18, 2006
June 21, 2006
Educational Research and Methods
11.609.1 - 11.609.13
Examining the Underlying Motivations of Engineering Undergraduates to Behave Unethically
The need for ethical behavior in engineering professional practice has been demonstrated repeatedly over the years, and most, if not all, academic institutions provide opportunities for engineering students to learn about ethics and professional responsibility. While there has been some investigation of the effectiveness of these academic efforts on student learning of ethics, little attention has been paid to students’ ethical decision-making and behavior. The present study seeks to verify the use of a model of ethical decision-making to predict the tendency of engineering and humanities students to engage in cheating, an unethical behavior with which nearly all undergraduates are familiar.
The study surveyed 527 randomly selected engineering and humanities undergraduate students from three academic institutions. Comparison between engineering and humanities students showed that engineering students were statistically more likely to cheat on tests and homework than humanities students, even when controlling for the number of tests or assignments. Hierarchical regression analysis confirmed that the hypothesized model could explain a considerable portion of the variance in students’ intention to cheat and in their actual behavior. The strongest predictor of behavior was an individual’s intention to cheat, as predicted by the model. In turn, the strongest predictors of intention were an individual’s attitude toward cheating, their sense of moral obligation to avoid cheating, and his/her perception of subjective norms pertaining to cheating. Past cheating was shown to be an important predictor variable for both intention and behavior.
There is a growing emphasis in the United States on graduating engineering students who understand professional and ethical responsibility, as evidenced by The Engineer of 2020 report produced by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE)1. This report concludes that future engineers will need to “possess a working framework upon which high ethical standards and a strong sense of professionalism can be developed.” To date, most research on ethics education in engineering has focused on the effectiveness of various pedagogies as measured by in-class assessment of learning. While valuable, these efforts fail to recognize that the best measure of successful learning of ethical decision-making may be the extent to which an individual behaves ethically. The study described here details an effort by the authors to conduct an empirical study of the ethical decision-making of engineering undergraduates in comparison to that of humanities undergraduates. The paper will present the results of a self-report questionnaire administered to 527 engineering and humanities students, including a regression analysis of the data and an attempt to model the ethical decision-making process in these two populations.
The measurement and study of ethical behavior is a challenging proposition, given the difficulty in developing valid measures that are both common and recent for the population of interest. To deal with this challenge, the authors have developed a research design that is focused on using
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