August 18th, 2011

Promoting Academic Integrity


In a recent conversation, a faculty member expressed great dismay at the amount of cheating taking place in higher education and the cavalier attitude of many students toward it. His dismay is well founded. Depending on the study (and there have been many) anywhere between 40 to 60% of students report that they have cheated and they indicate a much higher percentage of their peers have as well. The faculty member I was talking to then went into a detailed description of all the measures he took to prevent cheating.

Faculty should be vigilant about preventing cheating and dealing with cases of academic dishonesty when they occur. But you know, I almost never hear faculty talking about what they are doing to promote academic integrity and for many years now, I’ve wondered if efforts to prevent cheating might not be more successful if we worked equally hard promoting academic integrity.

I don’t think most students understand the role academic integrity plays in the discovery and advancement of knowledge within the academy. For example, the reference at the end of the post reports findings from an interview study in which students responded to queries about plagiarism. Every student interviewed knew it was wrong, but most of them described it as something teachers didn’t want them to do, as if it were some peculiar problem teachers had copying the ideas of others. Even more indicated that they didn’t know how to avoid doing it.

How do we promote academic integrity? I think we start by explaining why it is so important at the individual level. Learning to be honest with yourself is part of becoming a mature person. Cheating may seem harmless at the moment—so what, if you don’t know the fact you need to answer an exam question and get it from someone else? Maybe that fact won’t need to be known in the future, but pretending it’s known when it isn’t easily leads to self-delusion. Academic dishonest hurts the cheater much more than it hurts anybody else. Students also need to understand the role of academic integrity in the discovery of knowledge. It is how facts become verified. It becomes the foundation on which knowledge rests and new knowledge is built. In every discipline there are examples of professionals who were honest about their results even when those findings were deeply disappointing and examples of those who reported false findings, were found out and suffered severe consequences.

Second, I think teachers need to model academic integrity in very explicit ways. We need to religiously name our sources—whose idea was this originally? What’s the source of this statistic? Who first proposed this theory? Most of us faithfully cite sources in published material that will be read by our peers. We should do the same in our classrooms. If a student proposes an idea that we refer to later in the course or another course, we ought to acknowledge that student. I once observed a great example of that … “I’m going to put up on the board a unique solution to this problem,” the instructor announced, “but before I do I want to let you know that it was proposed by Joe Bentley. He took this course fall semester,1994. It’s a great way to solve this problem.”

I am not naïve enough to imagine that by promoting academic integrity we can stop our efforts to prevent cheating. In the research students list all sorts of “good” reasons why they cheat: to keep their scholarships, to retain their athletic eligibility, to maintain their GPA, to get into selective professional programs, or to get the best job interviews. These reasons are not going to go away. But I retain a strong belief that students are reasonable human beings, and that many of them do care about what they do to themselves and others. Perhaps we can turn the tide, even just a bit by calling them to a higher standard.

If you promote academic integrity in your classes, please share your techniques in the comment box below.

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