Author’s Note: This is the latest installment in an ongoing series concerned with issues of academic integrity, particularly as they relate to classroom technologies. To view the previous installments, please see the Academic Integrity tag on our website. ATS instructional designers Michael Hernandez and Joe Olivier, together with Sam Harris of the Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning, provided valuable assistance in the writing of this installment.
It is easy to assume that “academic integrity” is an unchanging absolute whose meaning is, or should be, readily understood by instructors and students alike. Such is not the case, however. In this post, we will consider how student understanding of academic integrity may be affected by cultural and related factors. We will then present some strategies by which faculty and instructors can help to break down the barriers between themselves and their students, to cultivate a classroom environment where integrity is a joint pursuit.
Cultural Perspectives on Academic Integrity
Western educational institutions generally hold certain assumptions regarding “correct” academic conduct: students should use their sources as a springboard for synthesis and the creation of new knowledge, rather than simply regurgitating existing ideas; every quote or paraphrase of an existing source could be properly cited according to one of several citation systems; assessments are meant to reflect individual mastery of subject matter, with collaborative work permissible only in specified circumstances; and so on. If instructors take for granted that their students arrive in their class already familiar with these assumptions, they may be more inclined to conclude that missing citations, unauthorized student collaboration, and the like are deliberate acts of academic dishonesty. In some cases, of course, students do indeed know “the rules,” and wilfully choose to disregard them; but in others, students may genuinely be unaware that their behavior could be seen as dishonest.
Cultural factors, such as differing cultural conceptions of what constitutes “common knowledge,” can complicate this question. One student may see as part of the general knowledge pool what another student–or a faculty member–regards as specialist knowledge that should be cited. Similarly, in many countries collaborative work is the norm, and students often pool their resources to solve problems, even in cases where this would be frowned upon in Western institutions. This can lead to misunderstandings when an instructor expects individual work and is presented with collaborative work instead.
Nor is this issue simply a matter of national or cultural background. First-generation college students often struggle with what has been termed the “invisible curriculum” of higher education. Those from low-income backgrounds, in particular, may not have had the same level of high school preparation as those from affluent families, and as such may not know how to cite. They are also less likely to be aware of resources available on campus for students in academic difficulties, and may grapple with stigmas about asking for help. If they are unable or unwilling to use resources, they may in turn feel high levels of stress over their grades, especially if their ability to attend college is tied to an academic scholarship that requires a given GPA. Such circumstances certainly do not guarantee that students will resort to dishonest behavior, nor are they exclusive to students from low-income backgrounds, but they do increase the risk of a downward spiral.
Assumptions and Biases in Identifying Academic Misconduct
It should also be kept in mind that cultural differences may lead to unwarranted assumptions about which students are most likely to behave dishonestly. In a study of UK universities, Dr. Mary Davis (Bournemouth) found that international students, particularly those from China and Nigeria, were disproportionately represented among reports of possible academic misconduct.
This suggests that faculty and instructors may–consciously or otherwise–assume that students from certain backgrounds are more likely to cheat, operating under the erroneous assumption that they need to make up a gap between themselves and their peers, that “everyone from [a given place] cheats,” or that “they don’t know any better”.
To make matters worse, the process of defending oneself against charges of misconduct can be especially stressful and difficult for international and first-generation students. Just as with getting help in the classroom, so with negotiating the hurdles of the disciplinary process, these students are not necessarily familiar with “how things are done”. Even if a student has committed no wrongdoing, they may be overwhelmed and give in rather than (as they see it) getting themselves into deeper trouble.
Equitable Strategies for Promoting Academic Integrity
In the remainder of this post, we will outline some strategies that can help to support academic integrity while also being sensitive to cultural differences. Technologies supported at UChicago can help you to implement these strategies in your classroom pedagogy.
Craft Your Syllabus for Inclusivity
Simple though it may seem, a carefully thought-out syllabus can go far toward easing your students’ anxieties and helping them to avoid academic misconduct. When writing your syllabus and placing it on Canvas, consider adding a statement that explains both the academic integrity policy for the course and how students can get help if they need it. (Here is a sample statement.) Students will thus know both what is expected of them and how they can best meet those expectations; if they fall behind, they will be able to get help as soon as possible.
It can also be helpful to encourage discussion of your syllabus, rather than simply presenting it to students as a finished and unalterable document. You might, for example, invite your students to annotate your syllabus with Hypothesis, so that they feel themselves to be active participants in the process of constructing disciplinary boundaries.
If your Canvas syllabus is created or pasted in the Canvas Rich Content Editor, you can easily add hyperlinks to the text. Consider adding links to resources such as the UChicago Writing Program and the FLI (First-Generation, Low-income, Immigrant) Network, as well as library resources (see further below). Aside from the tangible support such resources provide, they will help your students know that you are invested in their progress and want to help them succeed.
Finally, Canvas allows you to schedule Office Hours. In your syllabus, you could add instructions on how to reserve a spot and stress that your door is open for students who are having difficulties, or simply for anyone who wishes to speak to you about exploring the material in greater depth. Again, this can help bridge the gap between students and instructors, especially for those students who may not know how best to approach their instructors with questions. (Note: As some students, particularly those unfamiliar with higher education terminology, may not know what “Office Hours” means, you might consider using a different term, such as “1:1 Meeting Time”.)
Study Examples of Proper Citation
Moving beyond the syllabus, you can also use readings in your course as a springboard for discussions around academic integrity and how to use sources. For example, you could invite students to do close reading (perhaps supplemented with Hypothesis annotation) of the bibliography and footnotes/endnotes of an article, and then use their findings to lead a discussion on how the author in question does (or does not) give due credit to their sources as they construct an original argument.
Use Canvas Quizzes to Check Understanding of Academic Integrity
If you are unsure whether your students are familiar with standards of academic integrity, you might consider using Canvas Quizzes as a concept-checking tool. For example, you can create a quiz, whether ungraded or a low-stakes graded assignment, that asks students about the various topics covered in your integrity statement. Using Canvas Quizzes’ built-in analytics, you can see which questions have the lowest scores, and this in turn will allow you to review and reinforce problem topics.
Get Help from the UChicago Library
As you tackle the issue of student understanding of academic integrity, the UChicago Library can help. Library sessions on citation managers such as Endnote and Zotero will help students understand how to cite properly. The Library also offers help sessions for classes; these can be either live via Zoom or recorded. You might consider making a recorded session available to all students through a link in Canvas, so that your students have ready access to it whenever they need a refresher on citation guidelines.
Set Ground Rules for Collaboration
You can help avert difficulties down the road by spelling out at the beginning of your course whether collaboration on assignments is permitted, and if so, under what circumstances. There are several methods of sharing this information. You can supply it in the prompt for individual Canvas assignments; specify it in a rubric attached to an assignment; or create a Canvas page explaining the guidelines in detail and then link to it on your syllabus and/or in prompts for individual assignments. In the end, the delivery method is less important than the core idea of making expectations clear and understandable for all students.
On assignments explicitly designed as group assignments, you may want to check in regularly, either in person or through Canvas messaging, to see how the various groups are progressing. This is a good opportunity for students to communicate to you any concerns they have about assignment guidelines, division of labor, etc. You can also assign group roles if you wish to help students know the areas in which they are expected to contribute to the end product.
Finally, scaffolding – breaking major assignments down into smaller, more manageable chunks – not only makes those assignments less intimidating, but also gives you more opportunities to monitor student progress. For example, if a paper is due at the end of the term, you might assign an annotated bibliography. This will help students get a grasp of the sources they need to use, and will also let them demonstrate that they have read and understood those sources. If the students submit this bibliography via Canvas, you could have them include hyperlinks so that you can “spot-check” sources and help ensure that your students are citing them correctly. Once again, this makes early intervention possible if anyone is struggling.
It is easy to assume that all students enter your class “knowing the ropes” of academic integrity, but this assumption should be challenged. Rather than taking their knowledge for granted, you should use every means at your disposal to help all students, including those from different backgrounds, understand the “invisible curriculum” of college. This is important for two reasons. In an accepting classroom environment where the instructor makes clear their willingness to help, students may feel less pressured and more likely to reach out before matters reach a boiling point, which in turn lessens the risk of student misconduct. What is more, if students know why it is important to learn the material, and if they feel supported by their instructors, the outcome is likely to be not simply better academic conduct, but an improved learning experience all around.