Preventing Academic Integrity Violations: How to Right-Size and Right-Time the Message

We all face the same problem, and it’s a fairly intractable one. Incoming students don’t know enough about our local honor codes, the policies governing thresholds and processes regarding cheating or plagiarism, or why all of the above is important – but they also do not care about any of those things at precisely the only moment we have their attention; namely, as they undergo orientations and on boarding at their institutions.

 In late October, we joined the Southeast Regional Conference to discuss how often institutions gamely try to use orientation to educate anyway. This could take the form of a face-to-face encounter, but that likely means a one-to-many circumstance, or in other words, a “talking head” on stage. We all sense that this format faces challenges in keeping student attention. Another common approach is an online module, where lots of information can be presented. Usually that information takes the form of introducing the policies and diving into the details, such as what constitutes cheating and what does not. The risk exists that students will skip the text entirely if there’s too much to read, and even compelling videos might not hold their attention if they are too long or too numerous.

 At our institution, student orientation has historically been a fire-hose of information. We recently underwent changes to that event to focus on only those things the students care about at that time, such as parking, registering for classes, finding study spaces, or finding laundromats. In the context of such conversations, also occurring amid very intentional attempts to build excitement and affinity for the institution (and make early friends), neither a talking head nor a long online module seems a fit for this time period. And yet we must seize the time to do SOMETHING about academic integrity, as this is the only chance before they start classes.

 We determined that the ideal experience would be online, short (no more than ten minutes), and driven by student voices, preferably in a video. The learning outcomes would need to be trimmed for such a short engagement, and we prioritize explaining that an honor code exists, why it’s important, and how to find out more. That’s it.

 While this brief an encounter may match attention spans of today’s students, it leaves a lot left unexplained. We claimed earlier that students don’t want a large up-front education on topics like academic integrity, but they may need a resource at their fingertips at the moment they realize the need. Thus, we developed a Just in Time resource. In our case, it’s a “course” assigned to all new students as they join the institution, and it lives in the learning management system (Canvas, in our case) alongside their for-credit classes. It provides reminders on things they learned in orientation and forgot, but they’ll need later, like exactly where to click to register for classes. It also provides FAQ-type questions and answers, with links to appropriate resources, policies, and offices. Everything from “my midterm grades are low!” to “my classmate wants to collaborate on the research paper” can live here, providing help at the moment they care about it.

 This approach has one key downside: it does not inoculate students against thinking about cheating to begin with. Generally speaking, students cheat for one of four reasons: convenience, desperation (for the grade), ignorance (such as what constitutes plagiarism), or feeling like they won’t get caught. In none of those four situations would students feel a need to consult the Just in Time resource, and there wasn’t time to dive deeply into those topics in the very short online orientation encounter. Still, our plans are to include FAQ questions on the Just in Time resource going forward, feeling as if the effort can’t hurt even if we are uncertain it will enjoy wide-scale success in prevention.

 Once students have been caught cheating, they will undergo a remediation experience. At present our remediation effort is another online module—this one much longer, and with a rigorous cumulative testing schema that resists efforts by those skip the content and just take the tests over and over until passed. But we are looking at models for a face to face remediation instead, where much richer discussions could take place about scenarios and indeed the ethics of cheating. To enable scalability across the entire institution we are considering a model of peer mentors running these sessions. Many will volunteer to do so for the ethical rationale, but others may highlight the item on their resumes and applications to graduate schools. Obviously, we’d need to train these peer mentors heavily, but it’s an experiment we look forward to. It is the next phase of our evolution to right-size the message for today’s students, who themselves continue to evolve as well. 

Do you offer a Just in Time resource to your students? Comment below and share your experiences.

About the Author
Dr. Kevin Yee is the Director of the Academy of Teaching and Learning Excellence at the University of South Florida. Prior to joining USF, he was a faculty developer at the University of Central Florida. He has also held instructor and visiting appointments at Duke University, University of Iowa, University of California-Irvine, and Pomona College. Dr. Yee has always striven for highly interactive teaching. He collects ideas for innovative approaches in the classroom and curates an internationally-recognized list of interactive techniques.
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