*This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on August 7, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
For the last seven years, I have had the absolute honor of working with college students who have committed academic misconduct. Every student at my university who is found in violation of academic misconduct is automatically sanctioned to the office of Integrity and Ethical Development, where we attempt to move students forward from this experience in a dignified, gracious, and positive manner.
Getting sent to our office can leave students feeling vulnerable, stigmatized, and overwhelmed by the impact this one bad choice could have on their future. I’ve heard more than 400 students tell me how they never thought they would move their moral compass so far. Over and over again, I hear them say, “Why did I not just take a zero?” Hearing this phrase repeatedly made me think that if these students had been told it was OK to receive a “C” or “B” letter grade, they might have made a different decision.
It is for this reason that our university came up with the Take the Zero campaign. In our College Life Skills Workshop Series, we focus on topics associated with academic integrity, ethical decision making, and professionalism, and we constantly speak with students about their reactions to grades. This generation seems to feel that a “C” in organic chemistry stands for “catastrophe.” A “B” in pre-calculus spells out, “But it should have been an A”. There are unrealistic messages surrounding the need to be perfect. For too many students, a perfect GPA means a perfect transcript which leads to a perfect job and then a perfect life.
This false expectation can lead a student to commit academic misconduct. Students will cheat on a 10-point quiz because the quest for perfection overrides their integrity. To counter this, we give students cards that read “Take the Zero.” We tell them to keep these cards close by so they will consider that option as opposed to cutting a corner. Believe it or not, many students have a hard time physically holding one of these cards.
Considering midnight seems to be a popular deadline for papers and online tests and quizzes, some of the poorest academic decisions are made between 11:45 and 11:59 p.m. Students become fixated on the worst-case scenario when they realize that their grade could be in jeopardy. Instead of playing the worst-case scenario game, we want students to consider other options—Take the Zero being one of them. We give away water bottles, highlighters, mouse pads, and other items emblazoned with the “Take the Zero” motto. These items were chosen specifically in the hope that they will be near students at that critical time, completing homework at 11:45 pm.
As faculty, we need to make it a priority throughout the semester to talk with students about their feelings regarding their class performance. Remind them of your grading philosophy and how you assess final grades. Speak with them about maintaining integrity in producing course work that parallels the talent and skills they have now. Give students a supportive atmosphere where they can make ethical decisions.
We’ve learned that saying “don’t,” “you better not,” or “don’t even think about cheating” does not work. Instead, give students an option. Students find it comforting to hear that one bad grade is not the end of the world. If you had to take a course again when you were an undergraduate, tell them about it. If you failed a quiz or a test, tell them about it. If you were insecure about making it in the real world, tell them about it. If you never moved your moral compass and committed academic misconduct, tell them why you took the high road. When students know that the person at the front of the room has survived similar challenges and temptations, they tend to feel less alone. Tell them that one bad grade will not end their dream, but moving one’s moral compass could.
Jennifer Wright is director of Integrity and Ethical Development at the University of Central Florida (UCF). In this capacity she is responsible for the promotion of academic integrity and prevention of academic misconduct.