In this second edition within my blog series on academic integrity policy, I want to address three common questions that arise when developing or revising institutional policies and procedures.

Are we going to have a Zero-Tolerance approach to cheating?

Zero-tolerance policies, once a popular experiment in educational behavioral modification starting in the 1980s through the early 2000s, can still be found in many institutional policies across the world.  Zero-tolerance typically means that the institution will expel a student for their first reported policy violation. Such a policy is considered to have a two-fold deterrence benefit: a.) general deterrence, persuading anyone against even considering cheating due to the possible ramifications; and b.) specific deterrence, that a student will never cheat again and may never practice the art or science they were training for if they are removed from college all-together.

For an effective and ethical zero-tolerance policy, enforcement requires robust and ever-present awareness and advertisement mechanisms at the institution. Students must hear about this policy from orientation day to every class syllabus to each individual assignment so thats students are effectively put on notice.  Such policies often create a community atmosphere, where students and faculty join in a civic-minded approach to academia. An honor code regularly (but not always) coincides with the policy, asking students to report the transgressions of others to maintain responsibility and honesty in the institution. For an example of such a system, see the University of Virginia’s Honor Committee..

There are some drawbacks to this approach.  Some have questioned the equity involved, noting that those without robust socio-economic resources are more likely to be caught and put through the process.  These students are then ultimately expelled, without a possible benefit of the doubt that would be granted to a more connected student. Others note that while cheating should not be tolerated, some students under pressure may make poor choices and should be granted the lesson of failure and learning from one’s mistakes.

Who should facilitate the resolution of academic integrity violations?

An ongoing concern with all academic integrity policies is the equity or fairness of the process for reporting and resolving suspected violations..  Instructors sometimes well-meaningly do not report instances of cheating that they consider to be first-time offenses, when the student is sufficiently repentant, or the transgression is of low-enough egregiousness.  Towards the opposite side of the potential problem, some instructors may be inadvertently too harsh on some populations of students or is unknowingly uneven in their punishment from instance to instance.

To make enforcement more consistent and the rights of the student maximized, some institutions have moved to a facilitator model.  Whenever a report of an instance comes in, a neutral third-party is assigned to provide assistance for the case. They can serve as a mediator, explain the policies, and bridge to next steps if required.  This assures students remain aware of their right to appeal, feel empowered to take advantage of it, and instructors are free to make judgment calls with reduced chances of prejudicial treatment.

A challenge to this approach is its requirement for additional staffing, training, and follow-through.  Facilitators need to be trained, as do all faculty and, to a certain degree, students. Faculty may also be incentivized to not report instances of integrity violations, as doing so takes significant time and effort.  And it may lead to their decisions being appealed and decided against their opinion on the matter.

For more on this approach, see such an example as Ryerson University.

What’s an alternative to the zero-tolerance approach?

A modern approach to academic integrity has led to an increased desire for restorative justice.  Instead of traditional punishment, restorative practices look to see students not only learn from their mistakes, but to simultaneously re-establish their standing and give back to the institutional community.

In many versions of this method, the process begins with the student admitting to, and seeking to pay back, for their offence.  The student then meets with members of the community, including faculty, administration, and other students to verbally work through what they have done and how they can give back to the community.  In addition to a remedial assignment, a student may also volunteer their time to the process itself by helping others through similar situations or through other, varied opportunities. The process looks to rebuild trust and take public accountability for their actions. For more on this approach, see such an example at the University of Minnesota’s Academic Integrity Matters (AIM) program.

Some question the practical deterrence effect given the lack of real punishment. Without that punishment, the student may not feel the full ramifications of their transgression and the process may incentivize recidivism.  Opponents to a restorative approach tend to think that harsh punishment is deserved for wrongdoings, that a person deserves a failing grade, suspension, or expulsion for breaching the trust of an institution.


As always when considering developing or revising an academic policy, make sure to seek feedback from all of your institution’s stakeholders on which features will  be a good fit for your unique community.