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May 13, 2013

Investigations into stress, reading’s effect on cheating bring top honors to student researchers

By Cliff Foster

One student investigated the relationship between stress and depression. The other looked into reading ability and attitudes toward cheating. And both took top honors in separate categories in the 2nd annual Undergraduate Research Conference on May 3.

Best Oral Presentation went to Sharon Wharton, a senior human development major, who was mentored by Lisa Badanes, an assistant professor of psychology. Caitlin McConnell, a senior psychology/criminal justice major, won the Best Poster Presentation. She was mentored by Lesley Hathorn, an associate professor of psychology.

Awards for Outstanding and Honorable Mention were also given in both categories.

This year’s event attracted 170 presentations, some involving multiple students, says Karina Hultgren, undergraduate research program coordinator.

Wharton, the oral presentation winner, looked into the role self-compassion—basically giving yourself a break—plays in the link between stress and depression. She surveyed a sample of 192 Introduction to Psychology students and analyzed the data, aided by Badanes.

“The people least likely [to be depressed] have low stress and high self-compassion,” Wharton says. “People with the most risk for depression have a high number of stressors and low self-compassion.” But even respondents who reported a good deal of stress, but with high-self compassion, “scored just below the clinical cutoff for depression,” she says.

“Her presentation was graduate-level caliber,” says Badanes. “Her grasp of the material and her ability to understand the results and disseminate them was very high.”

McConnell wondered if there was a relationship between a student’s ability to read and understand information and their willingness to cheat.  Guided by Hathorn—who calls McConnell “the best research assistant I ever had”—she administered a reading and vocabulary test to 91 Introduction to Psychology students to determine their grade-level ability. McConnell  also asked them to complete a survey that measured their attitudes toward cheating in a variety of situations, including test taking.

The researchers wondered whether students who struggle to read might be tempted to cut corners to keep up with their coursework.  That’s not the case, the data shows. “The hypothesis that reading rates would influence willingness to cheat is not supported,” her poster says.

 But the research produced a surprising twist:  More students with higher vocabularies said cheating on an exam is justifiable, while those with lower vocabularies said it isn’t.

“Not at all what we were expecting,” McConnell says. “But there it is.”

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