August 2019

The International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating is due to run for the fourth time on Wednesday 16 October 2019. It’s an event that I feel is needed now as much as ever.

The International Day of Action, an International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) initiative, brings together universities, educational establishments, staff and students from around the world to discuss contract cheating and the benefits of working with integrity. I’ve been involved with the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating since it first ran in 2016. Back then, I was working at Coventry University with Dr Irene Glendinning. We ran a successful event alongside the Coventry University Students’ Union. Irene was instrumental in making sure that the event was effective, the information provided to students was helpful and the entire endeavour gained the right type of media publicity.

Although we’re no longer based at the same institution, Irene and I have continued to collaborative to promote academic integrity. We came together online in August 2019 to present a webinar discussing the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, why it continues to be so important and how institutions and individuals can get involved on 16 October 2019. The webinar was supported by the International Center for Academic Integrity and by Turnitin. You can watch the webinar recording here.

On the webinar, we discussed why contract cheating is such a problem today, probably more so than when I first published on this area in 2006, or when the first International Day of Action took place in 2016. Contract cheating has become a sophisticated industry. Essay writing firms are doing everything they can to make sure that students know about the services they offer. It is so important for us to warn students the danger the industry poses and to work with students as partners for integrity. Many students themselves feel just as strongly about contract cheating as we do.

The International Day of Action lets individual institutions generate a buzz around their own campus, but also to tie into all the activity going on internationally. Whiteboard declarations, where students and staff declare on a whiteboard why they do not contract cheat, then share the results on social media, have been an incredibly powerful tool to help people to think about academic integrity. You can see the results posted under the student selected hashtags #defeatthecheat and #excelwithintegrity. It’s fascinating to watch the collection of social media posts build up as the day rolls on in time zones around the world. The fantastic ideas for activities to use with students are too many to list, but many of my favourites involve games and puzzles. Anything to get students engaged and talking about integrity. Dare I add, it’s often useful to get staff engaged and talking about integrity too?

One of the webinar attendees shared a great idea for a contract cheating escape room, which I really hope comes off. We’ve seen institutions creating videos, asking for the International Day of Action to be discussed during teaching sessions, getting students to act out performances, bringing in guest speakers (last year I remotely delivered a keynote from London, United Kingdom to Calgary, Canada) and many places involving the local TV, radio and print media to get positive publicity about their day. A lot of the most powerful activities have been ones generated by students themselves.

There is still time to get involved with the fourth International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating on 16 October 2019. You can find out more and sign up with ICAI. If you have any questions about the day, or thoughts to share, Irene and I will be running an updated version of the webinar on 16 September 2019. Do virtually come along even if you attended the first webinar or watched the recording. We will be using some different examples and the discussion during the first webinar was one of the most useful parts.

When I visited Nanyang Technological University in Singapore a few years ago, I was sufficiently fortunate to discuss academic integrity with several people from across campus - including a group of graduate students. I distinctly remember my meeting with the graduate students because while we were talking about academic integrity, their struggles and their feedback on teaching, one graduate student said to me “we focus too much on the technicalities of citation and not enough on the spirit of citation”.

I loved this phrase because if we are concerned about students writing with integrity, how they cite doesn’t matter, but why and when they cite, does. Of all of my memories of writing as a psychology undergraduate, I recall most vividly my complete obsession with doing my APA citations correctly. This, in fact, caused me great stress and anxiety - far more than did the actual writing. I also believed it smothered my creativity; the girl who used to have poems and short stories flow out of her became the adult who could only write in certain structures (intro, body, conclusion) and formats (specifically APA).

So, if academia is interested in teaching students to write with integrity, and with independent and original thought, why are we so obsessed with teaching citation systems like APA, MLA, and Chicago? 

Jennie Young argues that it is because it is easy, much easier to focus on citation styles than the writing itself. This might be why, over time, the use of specific citation systems became a proxy for good, honest, academic writing. Education side-hustle businesses (like citation tools and editors-for-hire) even popped up to support this citation system obsession. 

To be sure, it’s likely that citation systems were developed for very good reasons, to solve one problem or another. But, like anything developed with good intentions, unintended and negative consequences can follow. And I think it is time to take back the spirit of citation from the systems and rules created by very “small powerful [and] influential groups”small powerful [and] influential groups”. After all, the rules, at times, seem arbitrary and capricious and nothing to do with what we might call “good writing”. One year we have to put two spaces after each period, the next, only one space. One citation system requires footnotes, the other, in-text citations. Do we put the first name of the author first, or the last name? Do I italicize the journal article title or the journal title? What’s the proper format for books versus book chapters versus journal articles versus websites nauseum.

I’m not the only one who thinks we should focus on the spirit and not the technicalities of citation. Barbara Fister, in her piece “Learning Why, Not How”, admits that “sources matter” but the academic citation systems are only way way of describing or notating sources. Jennie Young argues that our obsession with citation systems has been so destructive to teaching writing that we should immediately cease and desist from teaching citation systems to undergraduates.

This is for certain a tough argument to be made within an academy steeped in tradition and the 20th century ways of teaching. As Barbara Fister notes, some will argue that we must teach citation systems otherwise our students will not learn how to respect intellectual property, the importance of copyright or how to give credit where credit is due. This is a spurious argument though as there are other ways to teach students how to write with integrity without teaching them academic citation systems. After all, the author Jennie Young argues, “the vast majority of our students will never use an academic citation system after they hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing...there are other ways to attribute credit…[and] the citation systems change from style to style and update to update”

To be sure, if you paid attention at all to this blog, you’ll notice I cite everything I borrow from others, all without a care for the stylistic guidelines promulgated by any of the academic citation systems.

It’s time to move on from using citation systems as a proxy for integrity and quality and start focusing on teaching students how to speak and write honestly, respectfully, responsibly, and fairly so they can become trusted sources of knowledge and information within and outside the academy.

I recently had the good fortune of giving a keynote at the 20th anniversary conference of the National College Testing Association (NCTA). The conference is attended by people who work in educational test centers on school, college or university campuses or in independent testing centers, as well as those who work in the broader testing industry. 

I was there, of course, to talk academic integrity. And I was surprised at how resonate the message was with the attendees.To be sure, testing centers were created to protect the integrity of exams and therefore the integrity of our degree and diploma certification process. Yet, 

I got the feeling that those who work in testing centers on our campuses often feel underappreciated, perhaps even excluded, as valuable contributors to the academic integrity conversations. 

So, the question for those of us who run academic integrity systems on our campuses is this - how do we harness that passion for academic integrity and the energy of folks who desire to be part of the solution?

It’s clear - we include them. We ask them about their experiences with cheating and their solutions for enhancing academic integrity. We include testing professionals in our conversations about how we can create cultures of integrity on our campuses. We publicly acknowledge and appreciate the work that they do to protect the integrity of the certification process. And we invite them to work with us to make cheating the exception and integrity the norm.

To those testing center professionals out there reading this post - what can you do to create cultures of integrity on your campuses?

First, testing centers must communicate integrity. The meaning of integrity is not commonly understood. So, you must help the students who use your services understand what academic integrity and cheating means in your particular context. You can do this by:

    • Posting a clear academic integrity statement or policy for your center


    • Having students sign an integrity commitment when they first use the center, and then reaffirm that on every test thereafter



    • Provide students with a clear orientation to what integrity versus dishonesty looks like in the testing center context


    • Send annual reminders to the campus about the value the testing center places on integrity


    • Mention integrity in your social media postings and on your website.

Second, testing centers can create space for integrity by:

    • role modeling integrity (e.g., does your testing center have a code of ethics for their staff members and does the staff model integrity when they are proctoring?)


    • reducing cheating temptations and opportunities (by proctoring, by checking IDs)


    • creating an integrity infrastructure (i.e., do your students and staff understand how integrity violations will be responded to and according to what process?)

Third, testing centers can reach out to campus partners to work together on academic integrity. For example:

    • Volunteer to serve on an academic integrity campus communities 


    • Create an integrity advisory council for the testing center and invite faculty, staff and students to join in the dialogue with you


    • sponsor a campus integrity contest


    • Extend your proctoring services into the classrooms to supplement classroom proctors


    • create “testing with integrity tips” for students (e.g., “how to maintain integrity during stressful testing situations”) and faculty (e.g., “how to proctor for integrity” or “how to ensure integrity in large class testing situations”)

Collaborating with your campus partners in this way builds bridges but also helps to remind people what testing centers are really in the business of - protecting the integrity of our certification process.

Finally, testing center staff must report integrity violations when they occur. Ignoring violations simply encourages a cheating culture, along with undermining the integrity of your center and the possible future of the student. When you respond to cheating, you create a teachable moment for the student and your protect the value of the test and the integrity of the center. When cheating is not responded to, honesty, fairness, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness and courage are undermined.

Testing professionals are key partners in the global academic integrity movement and we should not forget about them - especially the colleagues on our own campuses. So, I challenge every reader of this post to think about what they can do create campus pathways for greater collaborations between testing professionals, academic integrity practitioners, faculty and students in quest of our shared goal of enhancing  integrity cultures.

Have you ever started a new job and thought “I wonder what they expect of me?”, “how will they evaluate my performance?” or “what does it take to be successful here?” Or, perhaps you have tried to play a board or card game with others only to realize that you all play by different rules so the official game rules must serve as the official arbitrar of the disagreement?

When we begin anything, it is natural to want to understand and digest the rules of the particular situation, as well as be on the same page as others. Not just the others with whom you might be competing (to win the game, to get the promotion) but the others who will be evaluating your performance and dolling out praise (or criticism).

To be sure, it’s almost impossible to understand all of the rules of the game or the expectations of your employer. After all, cultural norms and values are often elusive and difficult to articulate and understand, even for those who created the culture or established the values in the first place. In other words, cultural expectations often operate below our conscious awareness.

However, it is critical that we try. Not just as employers, but as classroom instructors.

The students in our classrooms are like the new players to the game and the new employees in the organization. Even those who are experienced students step into a new culture or organization every time they begin a new class or experience a new instructor. And, I might argue, students have to work even harder to understand expectations because they might have 3-5 different instructors in a term, all of whom might have different expectations and rules that the student has to decipher and act according to.

Thus, it seems only fair, responsible, respectful, honest and trustworthy, for each instructor to not only bring their own expectations to the clarity of their consciousness, but then to clearly articulate those expectations to their students. Otherwise, how can we truly ask students to meet those expectations and act with integrity?

So, what to do? 

First, instructors should back-up to the original design of their class and ask “what are the learning objectives or overall purpose of this class? What do I truly expect students to walk away from this class knowing what they didn’t know before or doing what they were unable to do before?”. An instructor cannot possibly articulate expectations without first succeeding in articulating learning objectives.

Second, once those learning objectives are clear to the instructor, the instructor should interrogate their own curriculum and assessments to ensure alignment with the learning objectives. Do your lectures, readings, classroom activities, assignments, exams (etc) really facilitate the reaching of those learning objectives or enable you to evaluate the meeting of those objectives? If not, change them. This alignment between learning objectives, activities, evaluations and assessments is critical for articulating expectations and realizing integrity.

Third, once the curriculum and assessments are matched to the learning objectives, instructors should drill down into the expectations they have on how the curriculum and assessments can be operationalized. For example, which activities and assignments must be individually completed versus completed in pairs or groups? What kind of “help” are students allowed to seek out for each activity or assignment? From whom can they seek out that help and are they expected to acknowledge those sources of help? What counts as “working individually” versus “working collaboratively” on each assignment or activity? Do you expect students to come to class? If so, can you articulate how attendance is related to the learning objectives? What are your expectations for classroom behaviors, not just for the students but for yourself and, if relevant, your instructional assistants?

These are just some of the key questions that instructors must ask themselves if they want to operate on the same page as their students. After all, it is the instructor who has the power to set the expectations and culture in the classroom - they are the role model and the leader and we know that people pay attention to what the leaders pay attention to it (shout out to Edgar Schein for that tidbit).

To be sure, students set culture too, but the environment in which they are situated has a disproportionate impact on their culture-setting abilities. So, whether you are just starting your academic term this month, starting later this fall or are in the midst of assignment and exam completion time, now is the time to make sure that you are clear on your expectations and you have clearly articulated them to your students.

When you do this, you will help your students learn with integrity.