Words matter. I have carried this core belief from my past working life in English for academic purposes to my current career as an academic integrity administrator. How can we relate this belief to the education and training we offer incoming members of our campus communities? Can framing integrity as a matter of making choices rather than simply following rules improve the support we offer students? If so, how?

Working with colleagues from the Board on Academic Honesty in Arts, Sciences, & Engineering at the University of Rochester, we ran an experiment in Fall 2023 to address just such questions. Coming together across staff, faculty, and graduate student lines, we offered extra credit to students enrolled in first-year Biology and Psychology coursework for engaging in five online modules (adjusting to college life and relationships for those randomly assigned to our control group, and navigating difficult academic integrity situations for those randomly assigned to our intervention group). Thanks to our colleagues in Psychology, we used self-determination theory to design our study.2

In each module, we opened with a short explanation of that module’s theme (defining values, identifying barriers, overcoming barriers, and so on). We gave students the option3 to consider scenarios that illustrate the kind of stress and pressure that can lead to integrity breaches. We then gave students the option to review how others would advise they respond.4 Below are samples from intervention (integrity) group content that we ended up excluding from (1) and including in (2) our study:

Sample Scenario Response 1 (excluded)

This is a clear violation of academic honesty – using artificial intelligence goes directly against the rules of the course, and your deliberate attempt to mask that is a serious aggravating factor. If I ever found myself in such a situation, I would talk to the instructor, take ownership of my actions immediately, and accept any consequences.

Sample Scenario Response 2 (included)

This action seems to go against both the spirit and the letter of learning objectives set for the course. By taking this shortcut you are misrepresenting your own contributions to the course instructor. This seems especially unfortunate given all the effort they put in to being clear with you and your classmates about WHAT they expected from you in using artificial intelligence tools and WHY. In addition, it doesn’t sound like you are putting in the same amount of effort to learn as if you had completed the assignment honestly—so in the end, you are also cheating yourself.

Very simply, one of the main ideas behind self-determination theory is that to function well as human beings, each of us needs satisfaction and support in the following areas: autonomy (the extent to which we feel our perspectives and point of view are acknowledged and appreciated), competence (the extent to which we have experiences that challenge without overwhelming us, the extent to which we receive relevant feedback that enables us to meet these challenges), and relatedness (the extent to which we perceive others treat us with empathy, love and care).5 With that in mind, here are two more sample responses we excluded (3) and included (4) in our study:

Sample Scenario Response 3 (excluded)

You should follow through with your original plan: inform the TA of what you have witnessed, discreetly if possible, then go back to your seat and focus on finishing the exam by yourself. 

Sample Scenario Response 4 (included)

While you are not formally required to report suspected dishonesty at this institution, since your fellow test-taker’s actions are suspicious and distracting to you they are probably also suspicious and distracting to others. Plus, TAs and test proctors are there to help you—so you might want to consider letting them know what’s going on, as quietly as you need or want to, so that they can take it from there! 

Students completed questionnaires at three points (before starting modules, between modules two and three, and after finishing modules). Eventually, questionnaires will allow us to assess the potential impact modules may have had on students’ academic anxiety, sense of academic belonging, and intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation to uphold values of academic integrity.6

I say eventually because our experiment has only just run its course. Students completed their final questionnaires last week (December 12), and we have yet to analyze data. However, I can already see how intentionally reframing integrity as a matter of choice (autonomy) rather than of having to follow rules (compliance) has positively impacted the campus culture at Rochester.

One such improvement has been our outreach, including how we celebrated ICAI’s International Day of Action this year. (Flyers included with this blog post.)7 Another has been increased trust and collaboration built amongst members of our study team. Developing autonomy-supportive integrity content may not always be easy … yet as proven by our conversations and (very) long drafting sessions to develop scenario responses that support rather than frustrate students’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness, it can certainly be worthwhile. Heck, it can even be fun.

For colleagues at other institutions who want to refresh their integrity training but aren’t sure where to start, I strongly encourage you to explore taking a choice-based, autonomy-supportive approach. If you agree that words matter … which words will YOU choose?

AH Outreach Event Pic 1

AH Outreach Event Pic 2


 

References:

Anderman, E., Tilak, S., Perry, A. H., von Spiegel, J., & Black, A. (2022). Academic motivation and cheating: A psychological perspective. In D. A. Rettinger & T. Bertram Gallant (Eds.), Cheating Academic Integrity: Lessons from 30 Years of Research, pp. 65-98. Jossey-Bass.

International Center for Academic Integrity [ICAI] (2021). The Fundamental Values of Academic Integrity: https://academicintegrity.org/images/pdfs/20019_ICAI-Fundamental-Values_R12.pdf.

Niemiec, C. P. & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory & Research in Education, 7(2), 133-144. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878509104318.

 Footnotes:

(1) The colleagues with whom I collaborated are professors of Economics (Chair of the Board on Academic Honesty), Psychology (Board Member), and Biology (Board Member), respectively, as well as a grad student in Psychology. To be clear: Our title is a riff on classic joke structure. We did not walk into any bars or consume alcoholic beverages in the course of designing our study! J

(2) While I am not a self-determination theorist or a psychologist myself, I am lucky enough to work with one. For some helpful overviews of self-determination as it relates to motivation and integrity, see for example: Anderman et al. (2022), or Niemiec & Ryan (2009).

(3) While we encouraged and offered them this option, we did not require students to read or respond to any of the scenarios. This was a deliberate choice (no pun intended) on our part.

(4) For the first phase of our research, we developed the scenarios and scenario responses ourselves. For any future phases, we would at least consider using authentic peer-to-peer student responses from past study participants (as long as we obtained permission, of course).

(5) Again I want to emphasize: I am not a psychologist! Refer to sources from note 2, above.

(6) ICAI Fundamental Values: https://academicintegrity.org/images/pdfs/20019_ICAI-Fundamental-Values_R12.pdf.

(7) Flyer credits: Jasmine Ferris & Emma Rarich.