In this post, we continue our discussion of academic dishonesty in higher education and how it can best be prevented. Part 1 of this series looked at the evidence for dishonest behavior by students and explored some of the factors that can either promote or inhibit such behavior, while Part 2 of the series presented small steps that can help to make dishonest behavior less likely in the classroom. This installment will take a step back and explore ways faculty and instructors can rethink their course and assessment design, not simply to discourage dishonesty, but to actively promote a culture of integrity in the classroom.

The Background: Changing Attitudes toward Academic Dishonesty

To understand how the notion of a “culture of academic integrity” has evolved, it will help to consider how attitudes toward academic dishonesty and its causes have changed over time. Much early research on the topic of academic dishonesty regarded it chiefly as a moral shortcoming on the part of individual students. Scholars looked for personal factors that might predispose a given student to cheat, such as age, GPA, level of alcohol consumption while in college, and so forth (e.g. the many studies collected in Whitley Jr. 1998). The language that swirled around academic dishonesty in these studies could be strongly condemnatory; academic misconduct was often compared to crime (as noted by Zwagerman 2008) or disease. As scholars taking this moralizing approach broadly agreed on the causes of misconduct, so too they agreed on the solution: top-down surveillance. The measures they offered for keeping students “honest” were mostly reactive: creating multiple versions of exams, changing seating arrangements so that adjacent students cannot copy each other’s work, and the like.

It should be stressed that the methodological approach we have just outlined is by no means restricted to the past. It still appears today, perhaps most strongly in the vogue for electronic tools that claim to cut down on dishonest behavior. One article published within the last decade, for example, not only links academic dishonesty to “pathologies” such as Internet addiction or cyberbullying, but suggests that plagiarism-checking software and careful monitoring of a school’s Learning Management System (LMS) are good ways to keep students on the straight and narrow (Haughton, Yeh, Nworie, and Romero 2013).

In the last few decades, however, another way of thinking about academic dishonesty – and its flip side, academic integrity – has emerged. This approach is informed by compassionate pedagogy, or “pedagogy of care” as it is sometimes known, as well as by the critical approaches to educational theory taken by thinkers such as Paulo Freire. While not necessarily discarding altogether the role of personal traits in academic misconduct, it also points to broader situational and contextual factors that may make dishonest behavior more likely. Among these are peer behavior and social norms at a particular institution (Carrell, Malstrom, and West 2008); pedagogical factors, such as courses whose entire grade is determined by one or two exams; and even physical factors – for example, a classroom designed as a “lecture theater” with tiers of seats bolted in place is unlikely to help students feel engaged in the learning process (Pabian 2015, to whom I am indebted for the schema adopted in this section).

The “contextual” approach, as we may call it, is less interested in ex post facto detection and punishment of academic misconduct than in creating an environment where misconduct never occurs at all. This is not to say that blatant instances of dishonest behavior, such as buying a pre-written paper from an online mill, should go unpunished; but many scholars would draw a qualitative distinction between that case and, for example, a student who fails to cite a source properly because they have never received instruction in (or do not see the value of) academic citation methods. If the former is egregious and planned dishonesty, the latter is a teachable moment – an opportunity to help the student learn the norms and guidelines of academic integrity.

Both approaches we have outlined have their merits, but it is the contextual approach that will chiefly inform what follows. There are, of course, certain contextual factors that faculty and instructors have little or no power to change: how a physical classroom is constructed, for example. However, the individual faculty member or instructor can give some thought to how their course is designed, how knowledge is assessed in that course, and how principles of sound pedagogy can promote positive student engagement – which in turn helps cultivate an environment of integrity and good conduct.


Core Principles for an Environment of Academic Integrity

What might such a classroom environment look like? There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question, but there are certain core principles that are helpful to keep in mind when thinking through one’s pedagogical approach. These include:

  • Student-faculty cooperation. As we have seen in previous installments of this series, students and faculty do not always share an understanding of what academic integrity is and what constitutes honest or dishonest behavior (Schmelkin, Gilbert, Spencer, Pincus, and Silva 2008; Nelson, Nelson, and Tichenor 2013). If academic integrity is to move beyond detection and punishment, it is vital that faculty communicate clearly to their students what academic integrity means, so that they can achieve student “buy-in” to the shared project of integrity (McCabe 2005). Notably, on campuses where students have primary authority for enforcing academic codes of conduct, this sense of shared responsibility and communal values can help to inhibit dishonest behavior (McCabe and Trevino 2002).
  • Teaching norms of conduct. Following on from the point above, it is worth remembering that many students come to college without a basic awareness of the “rules of the road” where academia is concerned. (As we have seen in Part 1 of this series, cultural factors can play a role here.) Explaining to them not only what these rules are, but why they exist (e.g. why it is important to cite sources, or why certain forms of collaboration are permissible and others are not) will help them to adjust to academic life and make unintentional breaches of conduct less likely.
  • Internalized moral understanding. A recurrent theme throughout recent scholarly research on academic dishonesty is that punishment can only go so far: after a certain point, increasing the severity of consequences for cheating will produce diminishing returns. However, when students genuinely do not want to cheat – because they have developed ethical principles that reach beyond simple considerations of risk vs. reward – they are less likely to behave dishonestly (Miller, Shoptaugh, and Wooldridge 2011). Faculty and instructors can help to promote this ethical development in their students by explaining how dishonest behavior lessens the value of their education and prevents them from reaping its full rewards.


Course Design, Assessment Design, and Academic Integrity

Let us now move from general considerations to specifics. How can the faculty member or instructor reshape their course to foreground academic integrity? The following is far from an exhaustive list, but it may help to get you started. (For a much fuller treatment of these issues, see Lang 2013.)

  • Dedicate time to teaching about academic integrity. In a writing-intensive class, for example, you might devote an hour or so of class time early in the quarter to explaining the ins and outs of proper citation. In a STEM class, you might explain which resources are acceptable for getting help on problem sets and which are not (e.g. contract cheating sites). Then, reinforce this lesson with frequent reminders throughout the remainder of the course so that it remains at the forefront of students’ thinking.
  • Reduce the stakes. The stress of an exam or paper that counts for 50% or more of a final grade can pressure students to resort to dishonest shortcuts out of fear of failure. One way to combat this is to give students a number of low-stakes assessments. Not only are they less likely to cheat when an assessment is worth only 5% of their grade, but for classes where knowledge is cumulative (such as many courses in STEM), these frequent assessments promote retention of information and help make the eventual summative assessments less intimidating. The University supports a number of technological tools that can be used for quick, low-stakes assessments, such as Canvas Quizzes, graded poll questions with Poll Everywhere, and Panopto in-video quizzes; you can also offer assessments that need no technologies beyond pen and paper, such as daily writing reflections.
  • Give students choice. As we have seen earlier in this series, when students feel that a course is meaningful and that it relates to their daily lives, they are more likely to feel engaged and less likely to behave dishonestly. One way to evoke this feeling in students is to empower them to have a say in how they are assessed. For example: rather than requiring all students to write a traditional scholarly essay as their final project, you might give them a choice between an essay and a multimedia presentation. With Panopto, the University’s video management system, students can record or upload video easily; Panopto is also integrated with Canvas, so that you can easily make your students’ projects accessible to everyone in the course. You could also offer a podcasting assignment as an option. Academic Technology Solutions now offers workshops on effective video assignments and podcasting assignments, and all faculty and instructors are welcome to attend.
  • Scaffold major assessments. Whatever form a summative assessment takes, it can be worthwhile to split it into smaller parts. For a major writing project, this might entail having your students first write a thesis statement, then an opening paragraph, then an outline, and so forth. For multimedia, it might begin by having them practice using the tools, then assemble slides, then record audio, and so on. This “scaffolding” approach has many advantages. For the students, it makes the final project less daunting, as they have already laid the groundwork when it comes time to complete it. With these preliminary steps out of the way, it is more difficult for them to procrastinate, which helps avert the last-minute panic that often leads to cheating. Meanwhile, the faculty member or instructor can see their students’ thinking and creative process at every step; if at any point they detect a student falling behind, they can intervene, and they will also have an easier time detecting dishonest behavior if it does in fact occur.

We hope the ideas and suggestions put forward in this series have been useful to you. If you have any questions, we invite you to contact Academic Technology Solutions or visit our Office Hours.

Works Cited

Carrell, Scott E., Frederick V. Malstrom, and James E. West. “Peer Effects in Academic Cheating.” The Journal of Human Resources vol. 43 no. 1 (Winter 2008), pp. 173-207.

Haughton, Noela A., Kuo-Chuan (Martin) Yeh, John Nworie, and Liz Romero. “Digital Disturbances, Disorders, and Pathologies: A Discussion of Some Unintended Consequences of Technology in Higher Education.” Educational Technology vol. 53 no. 4 (Jul.-Aug. 2013), pp. 3-16.

Lang, James M. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

McCabe, Donald L. “It Takes a Village: Academic Dishonesty & Educational Opportunity.” Liberal Education vol. 91 no. 3 (2005), pp. 26-31.

McCabe, Donald L., and Linda Klebe Trevino. “Honesty and Honor Codes.” Academe vol. 88 no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2002), pp. 37-41.

Miller, Arden, Carol Shoptaugh, and Jessica Wooldridge. “Reasons Not to Cheat, Academic-Integrity Responsibility, and Frequency of Cheating.” The Journal of Experimental Education vol. 79 no. 2 (2011), pp. 169-184.

Nelson, Lynda P., Rodney K. Nelson, and Linda Tichenor. “Understanding Today’s Students: Entry-Level Science Student Involvement in Academic Dishonesty.” Journal of College Science Teaching vol. 42 no. 3 (Jan./Feb. 2013), pp. 52-57.

Pabian, Petr. “Why ‘cheating’ research is wrong: new departures for the studying of student copying in higher education.” Higher Education vol. 69 no. 5 (May 2015), pp. 809-821.

Schmelkin, Liora Pedhazur, Kim Gilbert, Karin J. Spencer, Holly S. Pincus, and Rebecca Silva. “A Multidimensional Scaling of College Students’ Perceptions of Academic Dishonesty.” The Journal of Higher Education vol. 79 no. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), pp. 587-607.

Whitley Jr., Bernard E. “Factors Associated with Cheating among College Students: A Review.” Research in Higher Education vol. 39 no. 3 (Jun. 1998), pp. 235-274.

Zwagerman, Sean. “The Scarlet P: Plagiarism, Panopticism, and the Rhetoric of Academic Integrity.” College Composition and Communication vol. 59 no. 4 (Jun. 2008), pp. 676-710.