What is academic integrity and why is it important?

Academic integrity is the commitment to and demonstration of honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility in the academic setting. It is relevant at levels of education and is the foundation of trust in all professions.  

Academic integrity is highly valued and seriously regarded at most, if not all, educational institutions. Students are expected to maintain integrity and a high standard of individual honor in academic work undertaken at their institution. At a minimum, faculty and administration expect students to complete any assignments, exams, and other scholastic endeavors with the utmost honesty to better measure their understanding and competency. 

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Why do students cheat?

There are many reasons why students choose to plagiarize or cheat, ranging from genuine lack of knowledge to outright dishonorable intentions. Research also shows that academic dishonesty in a post-secondary education runs particularly high among students in specific disciplines of engineering, business, and nursing. Collectively, the most frequently stated reasons students choose to plagiarize or cheat include:

  • Academic culture instills “by any means necessary” attitudes
  • High-stakes assignments, low expectations of success, and the fear of failing
  • Pressure to earn and maintain good grades and a high GPA
  • Fierce competition between other students and for jobs/graduate school
  • Cut-paste culture (file sharing, Google search, Wiki-style Internet resources)
  • Procrastination and/or poor time management 
  • Poor study skills
  • Disinterest in the assignment, class, or overall subject matter
  • The possibility of cheating without getting caught
  • Lack of understanding about what constitutes plagiarism or current university policies

Instructional technology has evolved significantly over the last several decades, becoming more advanced and more portable. This evolution has had an impact on academic integrity, resulting in an increased frequency of incidences of cheating. 

According to this article in the AABR academic journaI, incidences of cheating have increased over the past 5-10 years due to the proliferation of technology. Despite the advances in technology, cheating is not a new issue for many universities and educational institutions. Whatever the case, cheating is a problem, but how can educators mitigate this problem? How should a student who’s been caught cheating be treated?

Instructional Strategies for Conflict Avoidance and Resolution

1. Be upfront with students about expectations and set the standard for consequences and rewards

At the beginning of the semester, instructors should reiterate the importance of academic integrity. This should also be done throughout the year and especially when reviewing the syllabus ahead of any major assignments and exams. Be open and honest about the expectations you have for students. You should review what is and isn’t plagiarism with students, and provide strong examples of both — this will set the standard for consequences and rewards should students cheat or not.

2. Reduce the pressure

As previously stated, students often cheat due to immense pressure to earn and maintain good grades and fierce competition between other students for programs, jobs, and graduate school. It is not realistic to alleviate all the pressure, but some pressure can be addressed. By staggering due dates, instructors can ensure students have plenty of time to research papers. It’s also recommended to create due dates for collecting primary and secondary sources, writing outlines, intros, and rough drafts. 

3. Create several versions of tests and essay prompts, alternating them year-to-year

As technology continues to evolve and become more advanced, getting ahead of the copy-paste culture and students using technology to share answers is imperative. Not only should faculty create several versions of their tests and essay prompts — consider alternating them year-to-year. Also consider rearranging the order of the tests, the wording of the questions, and randomizing wherever possible. 

4. Be thoughtful about your language

Don’t hesitate when you suspect a student has cheated. Assess your mindset entering the conversation — if you are angry or resentful, your feelings may show/come out in the way you engage with the student. You want to be clear, compassionate, and candid by asking open-ended questions rather than closed or leading questions. 

For example, asking “Can you help me understand what happened?” instead of “Why did you cheat on my exam?” And be sure to listen and offer a reflection on what you heard to indicate understanding, rather than rebutting what the student shares. 

Above all, remain steadfast. Student reactions can vary when confronted about academic misconduct. Some students may cry, get angry, accuse, calmly admit to the misconduct, or deny it outright — even when the evidence is clear. Remain level-headed and present the information as objectively as possible. 

Finally, it would be wise to schedule a follow-up meeting with the student to allow them time to process the allegations.

5. Partner with your Student Conduct office to ensure the duty of adjudication falls on an outside party/reviewer

If necessary, you may need to partner with your institution's Student Conduct Office. Once the office receives an incident report, they will review the report and determine if the allegations have been substantiated. 

This allows you to put the duty of adjudication on an outside party or reviewer, providing for the most objective and unbiased outcomes. Student Conduct offices are designed to support students and provide them with due process, ensuring equal protection for all students. Depending on the severity of the incident and whether the student is found responsible, disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct will range from warnings, failure of a class, or even dismissal from the institution. 

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Academic integrity is important and addressing expectations, solutions, and concerns with students when it comes to cheating helps to create open and honest communication. 

For more tips on how to create a positive experience for students, check out these blogs: