Zero cheating is a pipe dream, but we still need to push academic integrity

David Rettinger and Erica Price Burns offer key points for institutions to consider when creating systems that encourage academic integrity among students


University of Mary Washington
19 Aug 2022
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We may never stop university students cheating but we should still encourage academic integrity

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Every good prevention strategy relies on multiple layers. Today’s cars, for example, are safer than ever, thanks to technological advances such as blind spot detection and backup cameras. But even with these tools, human choices (distracted driving, speeding, driving while intoxicated) are the most common causes of accidents. As a result, modifying those behaviours, while still taking advantage of safety-supporting technology, is a powerful lever for preventing accidents.

We need to take a similar approach to preventing academic misconduct in higher education. The wholesale shift to online learning caused by Covid-19 led to several high-profile cases of academic dishonesty in the US. Not even West Point, known for its strict honour code, was immune. And the consequences can be far-reaching: academic dishonesty has the potential to undermine the value of a degree, impacting not only the cheaters but their peers as well.

Let’s be clear: we’ll never get to zero cheating at our colleges and universities. Some students will always cheat. Stress and pressure – either to meet their own expectations or due to external factors – can lead good students to make bad choices. And a subset may always seek the easier or faster way through a class.

Research has found that students are more likely to cheat when they see their peers doing so. When cheating becomes pervasive, students are less likely to see the act as wrong, creating a vicious cycle of cheating begetting cheating.

Given the potential consequences of academic dishonesty, it’s imperative that institutions turn this vicious cycle into a virtuous circle. Instead of focusing solely on catching a small number of determined students who cheat, institutions should focus on creating systems (coupled with fair-but-firm enforcement) that encourage academic integrity. Here are some key points to consider when attempting to do so:

1. Great teaching (and assessment) is the best way for individual faculty to support academic integrity

Assessment types matter to students. A survey of 850 undergraduates by Turnitin found that students think final projects and in-class discussions are better ways to demonstrate their learning, compared with exams or homework. Students also believe that open-response (including computational questions) or short written-response questions are better than multiple-choice questions for demonstrating their knowledge and skills – even though most students prefer exams with multiple-choice questions.

Some students cheat because so much is at stake for them – maybe a scholarship, entrance into graduate school or a job. Giving several low-stakes quizzes throughout the semester, as opposed to one final exam, gives them more of a sense of control over what they’re learning and reduces their perceived need to cheat. And open-book finals let students demonstrate what they’ve learned without the pressure to memorise facts out of context.

2. Cheating is far less likely when students believe in the value of what they’re learning and aren’t just focused on grades

Connecting course outcomes to students’ individual goals increases engagement and integrity-related buy-in. The Turnitin survey shows that students who expect to use all or most of what they learn in college for their career are also more likely to label certain behaviours as “definitely cheating”. That includes activities ranging from using unauthorised materials on exams and giving exam questions to students who will take the exam in the future to hiring someone to write essays on their behalf.

Similarly, students who said their primary reason for enrolling in their current course of study was to get training for a specific career or to prepare for graduate or professional school were more likely to consider things “definitely cheating” than students who said their primary reason for enrolling was to get a better job or to make more money. For example, 82 per cent of students who enrolled to get specific training said that looking at the tests of others during in-person exams is “definitely cheating”, compared with 65 per cent of those who enrolled to get a better job and 55 per cent who enrolled to make more money.

By creating a learning environment where students feel accountable to themselves – and their own futures – faculty can support students’ desire to do authentic work.

3. Build a shared understanding of academic integrity and why it’s important

Last year, 200 of 800 students in a statistics course at North Carolina State University were referred for disciplinary action for using online “tutors” to answer exam questions. The students said they didn’t realise that using these services on an exam is considered cheating. That aligns with Turnitin’s recent survey: 22 per cent of students say using unauthorised resources or materials during exams isn’t cheating, and 23 per cent say working with peers on individual-work-only exams isn’t cheating either.

Instructors and students must have a shared definition of academic integrity, with clear lines between ethical behaviour and cheating, and they must communicate expectations clearly. Faculty and students seem to disagree slightly on whether that’s happening: 92 per cent of faculty in the same survey said they regularly discuss academic integrity or honour codes with students, but only 79 per cent of students said the same.

Just because we’ll never get to zero cheating doesn’t mean we should abandon mitigation strategies. Having a layered approach (utilising pedagogical, policy-based and cultural strategies at the appropriate points in a student’s career) shows students that academic integrity is important while giving them the opportunity to learn – even in the face of a bad decision. They are students, after all, and part of the role of educators is to help them learn from their mistakes.

Discussions about integrity expectations can lead to important discoveries about the importance of authentic learning, how to connect schoolwork with their goals and interests, and how doing things the right way reinforces the fundamental values of academic integrity: honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility.

If we want society to value the expertise that comes from higher education, we must demonstrate that our graduates genuinely are capable of the things we claim for them. We must preserve the integrity of course assessments and subsequent grades. And we must demonstrate to employers and accreditors that the credentials our institutions issue are valid.

David Rettinger is professor of psychological science and director of academic integrity programmes at the University of Mary Washington and former president of the International Center for Academic Integrity.

Erica Price Burns leads the research practice at Whiteboard Advisors and conducted the survey commissioned by Turnitin.

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