September 22nd, 2011

Academic Integrity: Examining Two Common Approaches


Any effort to fundamentally change a school’s approach to academic integrity requires an understanding of its current organizational response to cheating (Bertram Gallant, 2008).

Organizational approaches to student cheating form a continuum from highly decentralized to highly centralized, and most schools fall somewhere on this spectrum.

The more decentralized a school’s response to cheating is, the more haphazard and, most likely, the more unfair, opaque, and inconsistent it is. For example, on campuses with highly decentralized responses, faculty members handle cheating as they see fit. Colleges and universities with somewhat decentralized responses might require faculty to report cheating to an academic chair, who then handles it within the department. At schools that fall somewhere in the middle, faculty might report cheating to a divisional dean, such as a psychology professor, who would report it to a social science dean. A centralized response to cheating would have faculty reporting directly to a provost. On highly centralized campuses, cheating would be reported to an academic integrity office.

Rule Compliance or Integrity: Examining the Two Approaches
The two dominant approaches to maintaining academic integrity on campus tend to be one of two centralized approaches. The rule compliance approach tells students what they can’t do, while the integrity approach offers guidelines for students on what they should do. The two approaches differ fundamentally in goal, method, and tone.

However, both approaches attribute the cause of the problem to the character of the individual student, who is assumed to be dysfunctional or acting in dysfunctional ways. The vernacular is morally laden and generally characterizes the student and his or her conduct as honest or dishonest, honorable or dishonorable, moral or immoral, good or bad, etc. This is true regardless of whether the cheating incident was the result of ignorance or malice.

Correspondingly, both strategies focus on resolving the problem primarily by either ridding the institution of the student, which is common in the compliance approach, or “fixing” the student, which is common in the integrity approach.

The rule compliance approach has a disciplinary, as opposed to a developmental, focus. In other words, it tries to increase the cost of misconduct.

The goal of this approach is to create a campus where students comply with the rules. The primary method used is discipline, and the tone is usually very legalistic and adversarial. There is heavy administrative involvement, which may include judicial affairs officers, student affairs professionals, and legal professionals or pre-professionals.

Alternately, the goal in the integrity approach is to create a campus where students choose to act with integrity. That is, they desire and choose to act ethically; they do not feel forced because of the possibility of discipline. Campuses that use the integrity strategy maintain that colleges are responsible for students’ ethical development; these schools use cheating as an opportunity for teaching.

The integrity approach is primarily developmental and uses discipline only as a tool. That is, discipline is used if it will help the student develop as a person and not merely to punish. The tone is generally more about forgiveness and second chances. Schools using the integrity approach rely heavily on faculty and student involvement; there is little administrative involvement. There is also significant corresponding campus talk about academic integrity and ethics. This includes any event or activity as part of a broader university initiative that brings awareness to ethics and integrity.

An example of the integrity approach can be found in part of the approach taken by the University of California San Diego (the approach at UCSD tends to be an amalgamation of rule compliance and integrity). The integrity approach is reflected in the requirement that all first-year students take an online academic integrity tutorial that aims to teach students about campus ethical standards. Academic integrity peer educators, both undergraduate and graduate students, engage in educational campaigns throughout the year in order to further reinforce the academic integrity message. And when students violate academic integrity standards, they are enrolled in an academic integrity seminar to further instill the core message that cheating, even in the smallest of acts, undermines the core purposes of the university and their own purposes for attending. This seminar also helps students learn from failure.

Bertram Gallant, T. (2008). Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Excepted from Building a Culture of Academic Integrity. Learn more about this white paper »