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Examining The Underlying Motivations Of Engineering Undergraduates To Behave Unethically

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Knowing Our Students I

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.609.1 - 11.609.13



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Paper Authors


Trevor Harding Kettering University

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Dr. Trevor S. Harding is Associate Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Kettering University where he teaches courses in engineering materials and manufacturing. Dr. Harding's research interests include wear phenomenon in orthopeadic implants, ethical development in engineering undergraduates, and pedagogical innovations in environmental education. Currently, Trevor serves on the ERM Division Board of Directors and on the Kettering University Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning Advisory Board.

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Cynthia Finelli University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Cynthia J. Finelli is Managing Director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching North and Associate Research Scientist of Engineering Education at University of Michigan. Her current research interests include evaluating methods to improve teaching, exploring ethical decision-making in engineering, developing a tool for comprehensive assessment of team-member effectiveness, and assessing the effect of the first year experience on under-represented student retention. She serves on the Executive Board of the Educational Research and Methods Division (ERM) of ASEE and was the ERM Division Program Co-Chair for the 2003 Frontiers in Education Conference and the 2006 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition.

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Donald Carpenter Lawrence Technological University

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Dr. Donald D. Carpenter is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering. Dr. Carpenter also serves as Chair of the Educational Innovation Collaborative at LTU and Coordinator of the Civil Engineering Assessment Program. He is actively involved in ASEE and serves as Faculty Advisor for the ASCE Student Chapter at LTU. His research interests involve academic integrity, assessment tools, urban stream restoration, and watershed processes.

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Matthew Mayhew University of North Carolina-Wilmington

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Dr. Matt J. Mayhew is Director of Student Life Assessment at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He completed his Ph.D. in Higher Education with an emphasis on Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. His research interests include evaluation and assessment and student development, with particular focus on learning outcomes of postsecondary education, namely, moral reasoning, reflective judgment, spirituality, and intercultural sensitivity.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

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

Harding, T., & Finelli, C., & Carpenter, D., & Mayhew, M. (2006, June), Examining The Underlying Motivations Of Engineering Undergraduates To Behave Unethically Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--359

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2006 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015