She opened the door and you could see the fear on her face, and the shame in her eyes. She nervously sat down in front of the seven of us, afraid to look up, her hands trembling, and we began.

Thanks for meeting with us. We are the Academic Conduct Committee. Do you understand why we’ve brought you in?

Immediately her chin began to quiver, her eyes snapped tightly shut, her shoulders started to shake, and she finally started to cry. Snot ran down her face along with several tears as she blurted out one continuous sentence that tried desperately to make sense of how she’d gotten to this place. There were the standard apologies and reassurances that she’s not a cheater, that’s not who she was raised to be. She didn’t think through the consequences of her actions, didn’t understand at the time that what she did was misconduct. She was under tremendous pressure with some life circumstances, issues with her job, a sick family member, and a recent parking ticket. She can’t figure out where it went wrong, of how she was now sitting in front of us facing an F in her course – the last course she needed to finally graduate. Her parents would be so upset, and she’d probably lose her financial aid, and she felt embarrassed and humiliated.

To say it was uncomfortable to watch would be an understatement. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time we’d seen this reaction. Granted, sometimes there are no tears, just anger and defiance. Other times there are only excuses and threats of lawsuits.

It’s a torturous process—painful to watch, and painful for the students who, for whatever reason, made the choices they did that landed them in the hot seat.

That’s the problem with acts of misconduct though—students rarely consider the consequences until they’re caught, and by then it’s too late, no do-overs or take-backs. Of course we must assume most students are decent and upstanding with at least some moral compass and they don’t begin their semester with a premeditated intent to scam the educational system. However, some students are really good at rationalizing and justifying their misconduct in the moment, usually because of some life situation, circumstance, or inconvenience taking place at a crucial academic juncture. It’s only exacerbated by the pressure to get a good grade at any expense… and that’s when the panic sets in. At that point, it’s hardly possible to stop and consider the long-term effects of potential actions, and, therefore, students stay blissfully unaware (or purposefully ignorant) of the potential aftermath.

The struggle, of course, is getting students to think about these situations before they’re in them. But how do you manufacture a safe, low-stakes environment for students to experiment with academic choices and see the potential ramifications of their actions without suffering the fallout of poor choices? The answer came from the staple of any 80s kid’s bookshelf: A Choose Your Own Adventure book!

We created four fictitious characters, complete with backstory, based on our student population and demographics, and then wrote a narrative based on actual courses, assignments, and academic scenarios in our institution. We asked students to take on a persona and indulge in the circumstances of that persona in a live game. Then, just like in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, students were able to read through these narratives and make decisions for the main character in order to explore the potential consequences of their actions. Students could safely navigate through several different misconduct opportunities as many times as they wanted and discover the path each of their decisions might lead to.

Because not every act of misconduct is caught, incorporated within these narratives is an element of chance. At times, the game instructions directed students to roll a virtual die, which would determine their fate. For example, after choosing to start your research paper late, you ask the instructor if you can re-submit your own work from a previous course; Roll a 1-3 and they say yes—Roll a 4-6 and they say no. Or, after choosing to copy work from someone else, roll the die to see if the instructor pays attention to the Turnitin score on the assignment; Roll a 1 and you succeed at getting away with submitting someone else’s paper as your own—Roll a 2-6 and you get caught.  

These profiles were launched during our 2019 International Day of Action, first to instructors and then to students. To learn more about the profiles, find out how it was received, and how it’s helped our institution better focus our efforts on academic integrity, come view the poster session at the 2020 Annual Conference this March!