Motivating students to engage in college writing and understand principles of academic integrity can be challenging. Doing so when the language of instruction is a foreign one can be even more challenging. And doing all that during a pandemic is – tough. Following curfews, lockdowns, and a move to online classes, motivation has waned, frustration has soared. Yet, this year of Covid-induced struggles has shown that some techniques can help promote academic integrity and discourage contract cheating.

Existing techniques to discourage and address breaches of integrity such as plagiarism and collusion remain effective, but less so when it comes to ghost-writing. Academic dishonesty can be curbed by helping students feel they do not need to, and should not, cheat because their professor is acquainted with their work, through assignment scaffolding with consistent activities in and outside the classroom, plus regular feedback. The use of plagiarism detection software such as Turnitin as a learning tool can serve to explain ethical academic practices. And when a breach does happen, it can be identified. Turnitin is the perfect informant (why a student, knowing submissions will be discussed in class, submits plagiarized material eludes me!). What is now more difficult is handling ghost-written material. In face-to-face classes, professors are familiar with students’ writing styles and like other educators, I have begun reading an essay, initially smiling happily because the student had done so well, but then frowning despairingly because the essay was clearly not the product of the authorial voice I had witnessed in class.  A year ago, I would arrange a face-to-face meeting, and students usually, albeit grudgingly, accepted responsibility. With online classes, however, detecting and proving ghost-written material is sometimes impossible, given that you may have never met or spoken with the student, have never witnessed the drafting of even one sentence; and should you suspect, virtual meetings to discuss the incident may prove futile, with the student sometimes not even turning on their camera. What I have come to realize is the need for recursive demonstration that academic integrity a) matters to me b) should matter to them c) can be achieved d) is something desirable.

Some techniques I found worked to achieve this: 

  • Repeated class discussions on reasons for cheating and practical consequences. As students have told me:
  • They hear, especially now without a physical classroom, that others are struggling just as much as they are with topics, assignments, language. This sense of shared difficulty has served as a deterrent against asking for outside assistance. 
  • They realize long-term negative consequences of plagiarism for the social whole, through questions such as whether they would trust a doctor for performing heart surgery or a lawyer for handling a murder charge, knowing these individuals had cheated their way through university.  
  • They understand the value of learning, not just getting grades and a degree.
  • They view academic integrity as something positive to strive for, not something associated with penalties. 
  • Random selection of respondents, through an online dice roller (shared screen), instead of waiting for the usual two-three students to raise their hand. 
  • Surprisingly, students enjoy it, develop deeper understanding of material, and ultimately, feel sufficiently confident to not need outside assistance. 
  • I get the opportunity to become familiar with students’ way of expressing themselves, which may facilitate the detection of ghost-written material.
  • Submission of an integrity pledge that also states they are proud of their work and time invested, alongside each formal assignment. This serves as a recurrent opportunity to get students to assume ownership of their work and gradually, even if somewhat artificially, associate pride with their efforts, not just with a good grade. 
  • Additional evaluation of assignments (incorporated in the participation grade), to reduce potential involvement of a ghost-writer, on:  
  • Use of only assigned and annotated sources or, if own research was conducted, approved and annotated sources.
  • Inclusion of a complete Works Cited, of material actually used.
  • Attendance at an individual conference to discuss first drafts.
  • Extent of feedback consideration. 

When unethical practices are common in entertainment, business, politics, it is no wonder many young minds may feel that cheating in college is, comparatively, not that tragic. And, at a time when a pandemic is depriving them of their freedoms and possibly their loved ones, to be asked to care so much about a college-essay may be annoying and seem excessive. We, as educators, however, have the responsibility – and the privilege – to find ways to make integrity both achievable and desirable, for both that annoying college-essay and post-college life.