April 22nd, 2015

Promoting Academic Integrity: Are We Doing Enough?


Cheating continues to be a pervasive problem in college courses. Institutions have policies designed to prevent it and faculty employ a range of strategies that aim to catch those who do. And still the problem persists. A study at a university in Australia, where it is the students’ responsibility to read and follow the academic integrity policy, found that only 50% of the students said they read the policy. Nonetheless, 80% rated their understanding of plagiarism 7 or above on an 11-point scale. However, when asked to identify a set of behaviors associated with academic dishonesty, their answers indicated confusion and misunderstanding of cheating, plagiarism, and other forms of collusion that occur in courses and on campus.

Could it be that in our efforts to prevent cheating we have failed to also promote academic integrity? Another study found that students understood they weren’t supposed to plagiarize, but they weren’t sure why. These students avoided plagiarizing so they wouldn’t get in trouble with the teacher, not because they really understood what it was or why it was a problem.

I can’t forget the comment of a student who compared cheating to speeding. You know you’re not supposed to exceed the speed limit, but almost everybody does and most don’t get caught. If lots of people do it and nobody considers it a serious offense, then our efforts to prevent cheating have failed to convey how much academic integrity matters. It’s become a power issue where teachers use radar guns to catch a few cheaters with the rest proudly evading any consequences. What’s been lost in the process is the recognition that it’s personal integrity and the viability of the academic enterprise that’s at stake here.

If we wanted to better balance efforts to prevent cheating and promote academic integrity, what could we do? We could talk more about personal integrity. Are students confronting themselves with what cheating does to them? The damage to the sense of self-worth is difficult to repair. Cheaters lie to themselves and they lie to others. By deciding to cheat, these students are telling themselves that it doesn’t matter that they haven’t learned or haven’t done the work, and that it’s OK to pretend to others that they have. And those aren’t the type of actions that make a person feel proud and accomplished. Cheating may improve a grade but the costs to personal integrity are high and far-reaching. Cheating is an addictive behavior that doesn’t stop with one assignments, one exam, or one course. And it doesn’t end at graduation.

We could talk more about the role of academic integrity in the advance of knowledge. What if researchers cheated on their studies? Doesn’t that change what we think we know … and don’t we act on what we believe to be true? Are there some examples you could use from your field? I think we may have made cheating too much of a local issue—something students should not do in courses. The reasons for academic integrity are so much larger. The implications may start with citing a source not consulted but can end with credibility compromised and sometimes careers destroyed.

Teachers need to exemplify high standards of academic integrity. Small actions can exemplify those standards. Tests, papers, and other assignments are returned when promised. Posted office hours are kept. Electronic queries are answered within a specified time period. Content details are not fudged. Mistakes are acknowledged and corrected.

I see two barriers to what I’m proposing here in terms of how we can address the imbalance between preventing cheating and promoting academic integrity. First, we need more concrete examples of things teachers can do to promote academic integrity. Second, rather than tell students that academic integrity matters, it is always more powerful if there’s an activity that enables students to make that discovery for themselves. Can you help out? Are there specific activities you use, not those that prevent cheating (which, of course, we need to continue doing), but actions that demonstrate why academic integrity matters, both personally and professionally. Please share your approach.

Gullifer, J. M., and Tyson, G. A., (2013). Who has read the policy on plagiarism? Unpacking students’ understanding of plagiarism. Studies in Higher Education, 39 (7), 1202-1218.

Power, L. G., (2009). University students’ perceptions of plagiarism. Journal of Higher Education, 80 (6), 643-662.