In a 2019 installment of the popular NPR podcast, “Hidden Brain,” Shankar Vedantam explores the cognitive challenge of making good decisions in the heat of the moment, or what he calls a “hot state.” We are poorly equipped, he says, to anticipate how we will act when thrust into difficult “emotional states.” The intensity of those experiences can be so pronounced that we quickly forget what we may have learned; as a result, we are predisposed to making the same mistakes in the future.

This phenomenon is analogous to the predicament of students who find themselves the subject of an academic integrity allegation. Once the process is over and charged emotions have subsided, it is important to find ways to support our students in sorting through those difficult emotions so that they are better able to make right decisions moving forward. 

The research by Herdian Herdian and Euis Rahayu might help us do that. In “I Don’t want to Commit Academic Dishonesty: the Role of Grit and Growth Mindset in Reducing Academic Dishonesty,” the authors investigate the role of “grit” as a mediating factor between growth mindset—the perception of intellectual capacity as expansive instead of limited— and rates of academic dishonesty. They posit that higher levels of grit are correlated with strong growth mindset and suggest, therefore, that the development of growth mindset can prevent future acts of academic dishonesty. If grit and a growth mindset can serve a preventative function, perhaps they also provides us with a lens for framing conversations about academic integrity with students who have already engaged in academic misconduct.

The idea of focusing on growth and grit resonates with my work in advising. As a four-year advisor, I am often challenged to help students identify moments of success, centering conversations on what is within their control now as opposed to what occurred then. This practice of advising tends to emphasize the importance of starting from a place of strength, asking us to consider: to what accomplishments, however small, can we direct students’ attention when they are struggling? 

This is also important to do with students after an integrity violation. While it is easy to fixate on what went wrong (after all, we do not want to minimize the gravity of what occurred), it is also imperative that we shift students’ attention away from stark outcomes and toward what can be done differently.

One mechanism for promoting growth mindset for students after an integrity violation is to have the students write a mitigation letter. The mitigation letter is an invitation to take a step back. In addition to its focus on mitigating factors, which are often situational, it can help students reframe what happened in terms of what they might do to course correct. Students may choose to share what they write with their instructor with the goal of beginning to repair the harm that was done. It also provides the institution with a concrete way to identify underlying issues that need to be addressed.

Prompts for students to address in their letter include:

1. Identify the learning objectives for the assignment(s) on which you were alleged to have violated the policy. How did the violation impede the process of meeting those objectives?

2. Realizing that it is rarely anyone’s intention to commit an act of academic dishonesty, how might you have approached the assignment(s) in question differently?

3. Misunderstanding of policies does occur, but it is always a student’s responsibility to clarify the meaning behind those policies. What could you have done to clarify the policy?

4. Consider the position of the other students in the course and the campus community. In your opinion, why is it important to uphold a culture of integrity?

5. The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) defines several academic integrity values. Identify one value that resonates with you: How can you help foster this value in your daily life?

Because students can elect to share the letter, these questions help students clarify their experience as well as the significance of it. Students are able to communicate with their instructor in an institutionally sanctioned way that may reduce the harm that was done; instead of simply explaining away what happened, this exercise promotes accountability. Finally, because many students apply to graduate and professional school, writing about their experiences involves articulating a response that is clear and coherent.

If we can help students cultivate growth mindset by coaching them on how to present an organized narrative, we may also be able to build key skills like adaptability and resilience. Studies demonstrate that growth mindset interventions result in enhanced ability to monitor one’s performance, set goals, and meet desired outcomes; the mitigation letter, therefore, affords one way to connect failure with actions that encourage positive behaviors. Simply put, we are encouraging students to meet challenges with grit.

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