Something other than catching cheaters, or why I like to teach about academic integrity and misconduct

Published on April 27, 2021

By Andrew Nurse

How do we teach about and respond to academic misconduct?  I confess that for a long time I found the subject almost distasteful. Whenever I brought it up, I felt like I was situating myself as something of an academic police force, patrolling the boundaries of students’ work. I’d issue a warning and post the university policy, perhaps running over a couple of common forms of cheating and how to avoid them. But, it always sounded to me like I was saying “if you cheat I will catch you,” in a finger wagging kind of way. At different points in time, concern over academic dishonesty has triggered broader concern in the academic community.[i] Recently, a series of high-profile cases mixed with unusual modes of course delivery in response to Covid-19 has triggered renewed discussion of the matter.[ii]

You may already have arrived at this point but I’ve come to think about teaching academic integrity differently. I don’t want to be naïve or utopian. Enforcing rules is part of job of in-class instruction. But, I also think this should be connected to a series of different ways of engaging integrity issues. The aim of this post is not to say the first and last word on academic integrity and misconduct. I doubt that is possible. Instead, what I’d like to do is encourage discussion of integrity issues in history education and invite others to become involved in the conversation.

Teaching about integrity and misconduct involves a number of important considerations. Here are some aspects of my approach.

1.     Have a discussion with your students about academic integrity, what it is, why it is important, and why it is important to you. I use a personal perspective when I speak to this issue (“here is why this is important to me …”) as well as an institutional perspective (“here is why this is important to the discipline …”). This discussion is something more than the standard warning. Instead, I try to make it interactive. It does not – and likely should not – be on the first day of class but the second day or third day is not a bad time. It doesn’t have to take up the whole class but making it part of class time indicates its importance to students. Brainstorm with your students, ask them to give examples of misconduct, or suggest reasons why people engage in dishonest behaviour. For me, this kind of discussion is not a moment of co-creating course rules. If students have suggestions, I listen to them, but I also use the opportunity to explain the course and university rules that we all have to follow.

2.     Have an approved citation and bibliographic format, make this available to you students (say, as a crib sheet on your learning management system) and have your teaching assistants run a workshop on it. You can run the workshop yourself but I find the message can come through even better when TAs give it. If you, like me, work at an institution without a graduate school, no worries.  An upper-level undergraduate can run this kind of workshop with a bit of training. I’d recommend assigning a small point value to the workshop (say, some small value for attending), and I’d recommend that it include a practical exercise. Approved citations methods get students used to documenting their work and thinking about it as a normal and natural part of historical writing.

3.     Be inventive with your assignments. I’ve been impressed by how considered and imaginative historians have been with regard to creating class assignments that limit academic misconduct. If you need some ideas on how to revise your assignments, you can look over this blog or activehistory.ca (or, feel free to send me a note). Not only does this ensure that materials from past years can’t be passed on, but it is a good way to keep course content fresh.

4.     Model the behaviour you want in your students. I suspect most of us do this already. We introduce historiography, provide sources to our data and maps, and indicate the provenance of the artwork we use. I try to find ways to take this modelling a step further by using language like “I really want to give credit to ….” This gives me space to show my respect for scholarship, including works I find problematic, and to highlight the ways my colleagues have helped me. It allows me to flag interpretive schools, heuristics, theoretical frameworks, and scholarly traditions. I’ll even pause to say “this is the oral footnote. I am citing my sources.” I’ve found that modeling this kind of behaviour can have an immediate payoff when it comes to student presentations because my students (rightly) assume that this is the way they should talk when they present their work.

5.     Say it, say it again, say it again. This is advice one of my graduate supervisors gave me when I started to teach. This advice was not about teaching academic integrity but it holds true and might even be more important. One of the key principles of Universal Design is that teaching and learning objectives are advanced when we provide information in more than one medium. A definition on a syllabus and descriptions of rules and penalties can be mirrored by a class discussion, a workshop, and a discussion board forum. Coming back to integrity issues over time serves to highlight the importance of academic honesty and show students what they have learned. One approach I take is to ask students to remind me what we’ve already discussed and add their perspective on it.

6.     Connect the discussion of academic misconduct to other key ethical issues related to historical research, particularly but not exclusively as it relates to Indigenous Peoples. This allows for a consideration of voice, respect of different historiographic traditions or different processes of memory, history, and its transmission over time. The other merit of this perspective is that it indicates a willingness to build history education as an inclusive space. If students come to see research ethics and personal integrity as connected to the intercultural dialogues needed for reconciliation it seems to have more of an impact.  A friend recently told me that there was no incompatibility, in her view, between academic integrity and the seven sacred teachings that are important among First Peoples in Mi’kma’ki.

7.     If there is a student who seems to be struggling (either with the concept of academic integrity or the mechanics of citation or, say, the looseness of their paraphrasing), talk to them. Again, you don’t necessarily need to do this yourself. A TA can do it, but some form of intervention to let the student know that they are drifting close to the line will both help pull them back and help them learn the skills they need to stay there. This is something I’ve just started doing. I make contact with students over email and then see if I can follow up with a virtual meeting. Some students are not interested but others are and it provides an opportunity to have a low-stakes discussion before serious problems occur. For a couple of my students, I thought it cleared confusion and allowed the student to acknowledge that they needed to spend more time on citation.

8.     Encourage deep learning. What is this? Studies suggest that there are different modes of learning and different modes of teaching. Most of us try to encourage a deeper form of learning that is not based in shallow knowledge, say the rote recitation of facts. This is not because facts are unimportant. I think they are. But, we are all trying to go beyond facts to generate different competencies and a deeper understanding of historical processes. Studies suggest that the more deep learning is encouraged, the less likely students are to cross the academic misconduct line.[iii] This might come with subject mastery, or because students come to grasp the dynamics of historical education, or because they’ve gained increased confidence. The key is that depth is valuable and seems to promote a fundamental appreciation of the ethics of historical research and writing.

9.     Show your passion for your subject. The same work that points to deep learning as a key to enhanced integrity also suggests that passion – “a desire to learn” -- is another factor.[iv] This makes sense. If I am passionate about a subject, I’m not trying to just get it done as quickly as I can. I care about my engagement with material, what I am taking from it, and how I am communicating that to others. Passion can also be self-selecting. Some students may not realize that they are allowed to be passionate about the subject they’re studying. It can help them realize that they want to take more courses when they discover they share that passion. The key is this: the more passionate students are about what they learn, the more they willingly engage in learning and the less likely they are to search for a shortcut.

The points I’ve tried to lay out here are about making our consideration of academic dishonesty something more than a discussion of catching cheaters. I don’t know about you, but there is something deeply unpleasant in that odd, sick feeling I get when I begin to realize that a student has committed some form of academic misconduct. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I started to devote more time to thinking and teaching about integrity and misconduct issues. I know that there are a group of students who make bad choices on the spur of the moment. Like the rest of us, I don’t want them to make that bad choice. In thinking about how I can speak in class to this problem, my thinking moved in different directions. I believe I’ve discovered a range of good reasons to integrate teaching about academic integrity and misconduct into my courses on an on-going basis. The way I approach this differs, of course, depending on the level of the course. The end result, however, seems to have some positive spin-off effects.  

Andrew Nurse is Purdy Crawford Professor of Teaching and Learning and Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison.

[i] Julia M. Christensen Hughes and Donald L. McCabe, “Academic Misconduct within Higher Education in Canada” Canadian Journal of Higher Education36,2 (2006), 1-21; Rozzet Jurdi, H. Sam Hage, and Henry P.H. Chow, “Academic Dishonesty in the Canadian Classroom: Behaviours of a Sample of University Students” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 41,3 (2011), 1-35.
[ii]Sheena Rossiter, “Cheating becoming and unexpected Covid-10 side effect for universities” CBC News (21 June 2020) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/cheating-becoming-an-unexpected-covid-19-side-effect-for-universities-1.5620442. (Accessed 16 April 2021); Paula Duhtschek, “Cheating skyrockets at UW amid pandemic” CBC News (14 December 2020) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/university-of-waterloo-student-cheating-skyrockets-amid-pandemic-1.5836508 (Accessed 18 April 2021);  Samantha Subin, “How college students learned new ways to cheat during pandemic remote schooling” CNBC (21 March 2021) https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/21/how-college-students-learned-new-ways-to-cheat-during-covid-.html (Accessed 16 April 2021).
[iii] Jurdi, Hage, and Chow, “Academic Dishonesty in the Canadian Classroom,” 8.
[iv] Ibid., 7.

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