July 2021

Syllabus strategies that support academic integrity

Whether on a semester or trimester schedule, many faculty are refining course materials and syllabi at this time of year. I’m reminded of an earlier blog post Syllabus design with integrity in mind (August 2020) by Courtney Cullen offering food for thought embedding integrity in course specific ways. The course syllabus is the guiding document that sets the tone for how a course will run. With so many changes over the past few years, a reset and refresh are a welcome update for many courses.

While many institutions mandate an academic integrity or honesty statement, actively embedding academic integrity throughout the course syllabus is a helpful way to increase trust and support student success. Using the fundamental values of academic integrity, best practices by member institutions, and guidance from academic integrity leaders and scholars, here are some additional considerations when updating syllabi.

Start with structure

The overall structure of your course and its individual components set the tone for the classroom experience. Academic integrity core concepts, namely honesty, trust, fairness, and responsibility compel faculty to clearly structure courses and course guidance in a way that is transparent, systematic, and scaffolded.

When reviewing the syllabus,

  • Is there an easily understood, logical progression from one topic to the next?
  • Are there any concepts or skills that require proficiency before moving on?
  • How should the structure respond to changes in course modality or assignment structure?

Syllabus styles have their own advantages and disadvantages, so it is important to choose the right one (or combination thereof) for your course when embedding academic integrity concepts. Here are a few examples.

  • Chronological: A chronological syllabus lists the topics in order. This can be helpful for students who like to know what will be coming up next and when. It can also help with planning assignments and tests. Here, principles of academic integrity might be embedded, increasing in depth and complexity as the course unfolds.
  • Topical: A topical syllabus lists the topics by theme or category. This can be helpful for students who want to see all the topics at one time. It can also help group together related topics. Academic integrity may warrant its own module, set of modules, or remain embedded throughout.
  • Weekly: A weekly syllabus lists the topics by week. This can be helpful for students who want to see what is due each week. It can also help with time management. Linking to principles of academic integrity, or expectations governing specific assignments and learning outcomes are well suited here.

No matter which style, it is important to be clear and concise in organization. Students should be able to easily find the information they need and understand expectations. A well organized and consistent syllabus signals trust, care, and thoughtfulness. While questions will remain, a syllabus that is outlined and well introduced make it easy to revisit content.


Consider the unique communication preferences of students in syllabus design is important, for example:  

  • Does the syllabus include elements that appeal to students who benefit from diagrams, charts, or video?
  • Are explanations available in multiple locations?
  • Is there a low stakes opportunity to gauge understanding of the content of the syllabus?

The University of California, San Diego, offers actionable guidance on the importance of communicating institutional and personalized information on academic integrity, including a syllabus checklist!

Students who see language that speaks to them individually may be more likely to value independent learning. For example, a syllabus that explicitly lists independent assignments vs group work. Getting to know students and understanding how their identifies show up in the classroom is also necessary in building academic integrity. Personalization does not require invasive disclosure but offers students the opportunity to share their goals and needs, while offering faculty and instructional staff the opportunity to see how students make sense of material through independent work, learning preferences, class experience, and connection to real life events. Self-reflection as related to integrity and identity are one of the ways students may see the importance of academic integrity as a cornerstone of the coursework. Increasing communication through reflection is a benefit for faculty as well.

Including current events, diversifying texts, and perspectives, and offering opportunities to incorporate personally meaningful connections are curricular decisions that students value. Acknowledging these within the syllabus allow students to see the values of the class, department, and institution in a direct way, such as those featured in a Programming syllabus by Gary Miranda, a professor in the Computer Science department at University of California San Diego.

  • Who may be uncomfortable with course content and how can the syllabus address this?
  • What supports in the syllabus exist for students needing additional assistance?

Goals and Expectations

Often, faculty assume academic integrity is a goal and expectation in college. They must be explicit in the syllabus. In some countries, standards of academic integrity are set by governing or accrediting bodies. Amanda McKenzie offers an overview of quality assurance guidance and how they can be used to strengthen academic integrity in the classroom and within institutions.   Others rely on institutional or departmental policy language to offers a legally supported frame in setting expectations. Examples and rationale that are unique to course content, discipline, peer support, or future goals are meaningful supplements. For example, including the code of ethics associated with related professional standards as suggested by the University of California, San Diego. In addition, the rapidly changing nature of online resources and collaboration may be address in institutional policy. Specifying what you have seen and acknowledging that there may be other risks to academic integrity strengthen the goals and expectations set for the course. Examples, like those included in the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Teaching and Learning resource https://www.ctl.upenn.edu/resources/syllabus/academic-integrity-syllabus/ provide declarative statements addressing misconduct in the online environment, as well as promoting academic integrity.

  • More broadly, students who can quickly articulate how the course fits into their plans and needs are more likely to see the value of the independent learning necessary for success. Understanding this value bolsters the idea of academic integrity as a shared responsibility for all students.
  • As an academic community, consider co-creating community standards, or a classroom code of ethics as a part of the syllabus.

Assessment Alignment

Consider thinking of the syllabus as a summation of how expectations are communicated and assessed. Much is debated about the types of assessment that occur in the classroom. Many students often wonder how their professors will determine demonstrated success. Assessments can help students understand their strengths and weaknesses to help them improve. With clear assessment, students will be able to identify the areas they need to work on and be motivated to do so. Assessment may seem intuitive in course design, but syllabus language aids in bridging understanding of curriculum design and student understanding. The University of Toronto offers specific language examples for assignment, tests, and general academic work.

The pressure of assessment as a high stakes event in a course can shift a learning environment. Overwhelm is often a common threat to preserving academic. Furthermore, some students may feel anxious about being assessed in a way that feels uncomfortable. For example, a student who prefers to explain things may struggle with an exam that is entirely multiple choice. Similarly, a student who prefers to demonstrate learning in an active manner may find it difficult to answer essay questions that requires sitting still for extended periods of time. There is no way to satisfy everyone all the time, but by including information on assessment in the syllabus, there is a proactive effort to letting students know what to expect. In addition to strengthening trust with assessment description, a well-designed syllabus includes transparent assessment guidelines, including a description of proctoring and grading guidance.


A well-designed syllabus sets the stage for a course that can exemplify the fundamental values of academic integrity. A well-structured, clear, and personalized syllabus aids in communication and allows students to feel supported. When done well, the syllabus helps students affirm their membership within the academic community through acknowledgement and clear expectations. As seen in the examples above, the right tools and practices set the foundation for a culture of integrity and academic success.

As institutions gear up for another academic year, faculty are again tasked with setting up their courses for the upcoming semester. Whether your institution is fully online, continuing to operate in a hybrid/hyflex model, or returning fully in person, there is always room to discuss ethics and academic integrity. Looking at the current iteration of your course plans, consider these 5 topics:

  1. Subject Mastery Motivation: Faculty are already designing assignments to help students master the course content, but students may not realize this. When they do not understand this purpose, or why it matters for their future coursework, they may find themselves motivated solely by grade acheivement. Plan to motivate your students by discussing why the assignments were chosen and how they are created to help them move to future coursework and careers.

  2. Assignment Requirements: Do any assignments ask students how they made sure it was ethically completed? If the students' future professional codes of conduct need to be considered in the project, it may help familiarize them with the standards they will need to follow later in life. Further, having the students explain why that aspect of the code of conduct matters may help them connect their personal values to the ethical standards institutions and employers expect them to uphold.

  3. Rubrics: Rubrics help students understand how grades are assigned. Providing a rubric may be the bare minimum. Adding information telling students how they can complete an assignment with integrity may help you avoid some cheating issues. For example, if students are allowed to collaborate on the assignment, the rubric should lay out the parameters for appropriate collaboration vs. collusion. If faculty are assigning a writing project, the rubric should have links and information to the campus writing center, library, and any plagiarism resources. 

  4. Strategic Integrity Talks: It may be tempting to address academic integrity on the first day of class and assume students understand what is expected. However, each assignment offers an opportunity to discuss honest work both in the classroom and their careers. Connect assignments today to ethical conduct in the future. For example, faculty assigning a project that involves data collection and reporting may want to discuss the ethics of data falsification. They can address the consequences to individuals that have falsified data and the impact of data falsification.

  5. Flexibility: The pivot to distance and remote learning provided students with more flexibility, and it allowed faculty to see students as individuals. As institutions return to pre-pandemic formats, this flexibility does not need to disappear. Compassion for students may just be the key to their continued success. 

 This list is not exhaustive. There are many opportunities to embed integrity into every course, and institutions may have an office to help faculty develop their courses to promote honest student success. Students are often told to take advantage of the resources offered by the institutions, and faculty should do the same.

If you have examples of how you've embedded integrity in your courses, share them share them by commenting below or tweeting @TweetCAI.

Join the Southeast Regional Consortium for a free, virtual conference this fall! This year's conference theme is Transitioning Back - Planning to the Return to "Normal" and features two tracks for attendees. Join the Teaching and Learning Track to discuss connecting with faculty, integrating academic integrity curriculum into your courses, and student-centric approaches to academic misconduct. The Practitioners Track will review challenges, opportunities, and policy shifts from the last year. 

The conference is scheduled October 28 - October 29, and you can find more information here.

Have a topic you would like to share, use this link to submit a conference proposal. Conference proposals must be submitted prior to September 24, 2021 at 5 PM EST to be considered, and you will be notified via e-mail if your proposal has been accepted by October 1, 2021.

Registration is open! If you would like to attend, you can use this link to register through 5 PM EST on October 27, 2021. 

If you are interested in joining the Southeast Consortium or serving on a committee within the region, please contact 

Since March 2020 and the transition to remote learning, Conflict Resolution Services at Colorado State University experienced an exponential increase in referrals for students seeking support around academic integrity charges. Conflict Resolution staff do not serve as decision-makers in these cases but instead as a resource for students to confidentially seek support for understanding policies associated with academic misconduct, receive coaching for their student conduct hearing, and process their experience with being accused of violating the academic integrity policies.  

As someone who frequently meets with students and staff regarding academic integrity matters, I was invited to share some observations and recommendations for University faculty and staff.

Reflections from Student Meetings

Each student who violates academic integrity policies will behave differently when confronted. What I hear often from faculty is feeling confused after meeting with students who denies the allegation, even when the evidence is clear. From my experience meeting with students, it’s helpful to remember that accusations related to a crime of morality, such as cheating or stealing, can illicit a strong contrarian response because these are crimes of character that make students feel like their core morals are being questioned. It is not unusual to meet with students who feel as though they must go out of their way to defend their academic record, their virtues as a student, and how good of a person they are in spite of the evidence they violated the academic integrity policies. This insight can help make sense of a student who may initially deny these allegations and allow you to respond accordingly. Some options could include:

  • Scheduling a follow up meeting with the student to allow them time to process the allegations.
  • Partner with your Student Conduct office to ensure the duty of adjudication falls on an outside reviewer so that the faculty is not in the position of needing to investigate and make a decision if the student continues to deny the claim.

If a student accepts responsibility for violating academic integrity policies, another common reaction can be deep shame and embarrassment for some of the same reasons that cause a hostile reaction. Students can begin to deeply question their worth and value in the classroom for making a mistake that is shortsighted and often done from desperation. In my conversations with students, they often question if they even belong in the classroom or dread future class meetings where they wonder what their instructor thinks of them. It is understandable that faculty want students to be held accountable for violating academic integrity policies and when personal shame remains unchallenged it ultimately results in future escalated destructive behaviors. Shame says that the student is a bad person, whereas guilt says that the student did a bad thing but is still a good person.

The more we can encourage reflection on the behavior itself being bad rather than the person themselves being fundamentally flawed, the more productively the student can reflect and grow from their decision to violate the academic integrity policy. Some ways to put this into practice:

  • Ask open ended questions rather than closed or leading questions. (e.g., “Can you help me understand what happened” versus, “Why did you cheat on my exam?”)
  • Listen deeply and offer a reflection on what you’ve heard to indicate understanding rather than rebutting what the student shares.
  • Assess your mindset entering the conversation – if you are feeling angry or resentful it comes out in the way you will engage with the student.

Academic Integrity Prevention Efforts

It is not unusual to meet with students who genuinely did not understand that their behavior violated the University’s academic integrity policies. The abrupt switch to virtual learning in Spring 2020 presented an unprecedented time of instability and change in learning environments. Students needed to adjust to new options for communicating with peers. This often resulted in students unintentionally accessing spaces where cheating was taking place, such as in group message threads and on websites like Chegg.

I would encourage faculty to proactively reiterate the importance of academic integrity not only at the beginning of the semester when reviewing the syllabus but also before major assignments and exams as well. Where possible, it’s helpful to be specific with students by providing examples of behavior that you consider a violation of academic integrity policies rather than trusting they know how to interpret these policies on their own. As you design assignments, be as explicit as possible about course parameters. For example:

  • What (if any) outside resources are acceptable to use and when?
  • Is group work ever allowed?
  • If so, what’s the line between collaboration and misconduct?

When these matters are explicitly listed in the course materials, it leaves less room for ambiguity and allows students to more clearly understand expectations.

Finally, it’s possible that students are engaging in academic dishonesty because they feel out of other options. Consider sharing some of the support resources available for students who may be feeling overwhelmed such as the counseling center or tutoring services. While upholding the academic rigor of your course, also consider areas of flexibility that might make the difference for a student who might otherwise cheat in order to keep up in class.

With summer in full swing and the COVD-19 pandemic hopefully in our collective rearview mirror, the upcoming fall semester may be the first “normal” semester most students, faculty, and staff have experienced since Fall 2019. With this return, colleges are sure to implement new public health policies that are designed to give us a sense of normalcy, but still attempt to keep everyone healthy and prevent outbreaks. These decisions and policies are sure to raise questions and cause disagreements. Previous public health recommendations and subsequent updates from the CDC regarding mask usage, social distancing, indoor vs. outdoor gatherings with vaccinated/unvaccinated individuals caused understandable public confusion and even accusations, from some, that the science and scientists themselves were inconsistent, so their findings and recommendations could be disregarded. Given how politicized the pandemic became and continues to be and how partisan and polarized our country has become, it’s reasonable to expect this cycle to continue and for these questions and disagreements to find their way into campus classrooms as local health officials and college administrators make adjustments to policies in an attempt to keep transmission of COVID-19 to a minimum. In the meantime, we can prepare for these conversations by remembering a few things. First, science isn’t always perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for understanding the world. Second, maintaining integrity will help us avoid some of the pitfalls that organizations, like the NCAA, have recently failed to navigate.

I first want to highlight some components of integrity that are key to our understanding of the successful communication of science and changing of public behavior and attitudes to reduce infection rates. These components are honesty, transparency, and consistency. The public, including college students, want to see consistency in words and actions and when new evidence emerges that demands changing public health guidelines, they expect an honest and transparent explanation.

We also need to understand that as individuals working in higher education, we probably have a different perception of the scientific method and the relationship between science and integrity. To quote Sir Peter Medawar (1915-1987), “[i]n terms of fulfilment of declared intentions, science is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon.” Science is the light that is leading us out of an incredibly dark moment in the history of the world. Advancements in epidemiology, genetics, and communication technology allowed public health officials to detect and communicate about the spread of a novel coronavirus capable of triggering a global pandemic in order for public health policies to be put into place to slow the spread and minimize the human and financial cost. As bad as it was, it could have been much worse. Science also provided us the ability to map the virus’ genome and share this information almost instantaneously so that an international effort could be launched to develop vaccines. While the many variants of COVID-19 continue to spread and we don’t yet have a full grasp of how bad things were or how bad they could have been, it does seem as if, at least overall, the virus is abating and we have science to thank for that. However, that does not mean that science is perfect, that mistakes weren’t made, and that mistakes will not continue to be made. It’s understandable that in a climate where science seems to constantly be under attack, staunch defenders of science would want to overlook, ignore, or gloss over these mistakes and perceived inconsistencies. Yet, this is where we can remind students that these revisions and updates, that they view as inconsistencies, are proof of science’s integrity. Science may not always get it right and it’s always open to revision and criticism, but it's the best tool we have for understanding our world.

A recent example of an organization that found itself at the intersection of integrity and science-based public health policies is the NCAA. The NCAA’s decision to eliminate the NC State Wolfpack baseball team from the College World Series semifinals caused outrage among players and fans. I’m not connected to NC State in any way. In fact, I’m not even a big fan of baseball, but if this story caught my attention, there's a good chance it may be a topic of formal and informal discussion in our classrooms this fall.

For those who are unaware, the NCAA established clear guidelines for testing and vaccinations before the tournament started. Unvaccinated players were tested regularly and those that tested positive were not allowed to play. After 8 NC State players tested positive, NC State chose to not forfeit their third game against Vanderbilt despite only having an available roster of thirteen players. When even more players tested positive following that loss, four of which were vaccinated, the NCAA was forced to eliminate NC State from the tournament despite the fact NC State was leading the series 2-1 against Vanderbilt and one win away from the finals. NC State players, students, and fans were outraged and there is little doubt that, in the minds of many, there will always be an asterisk next to Mississippi State’s name in the record books. To be clear, players and fans may be upset, but the NCAA followed the established guidelines and the NC State coaches and administrators have publicly stated that they accept the NCAA’s decision.

However, let’s examine the optics surrounding the NCAA’s decision and how it hurts their integrity and credibility. While the decision itself followed their established guidelines, the NCAA also chose to allow unmasked/unvaccinated fans to attend these games and even posted photos to social media boasting of record attendance (Game 3 had 24,052 fans) which clearly show maskless fans not social distancing. A key component of integrity is consistency and here is where the NCAA’s integrity has fallen short. Players and fans are right to point out the hypocrisy of the NCAA posting photos with crowded maskless stadiums boasting of attendance records alongside news that the NCAA has also eliminated a potential national championship baseball team citing health safety concerns. It would be easy to shy away from this conversation in class or simply point out that the NC State players knew the risk they were taking in not being vaccinated. However, I believe this is an excellent opportunity to discuss why consistency and integrity matters and how the NCAA failed its players and fans. As educators, it’s our job to fully understand the facts surrounding the situation and address the responsibility of the players who chose to remain unvaccinated because there are numerous misunderstandings surrounding the NCAA’s decision. We should also point out the inconsistencies in the NCAA’s messaging and discuss how they could have maintained their integrity, regardless of their decision to eliminate NC State.

The science behind the NCAA’s decision to eliminate NC State was sound, but there is no science, except economics, behind their decision to also allow unmasked and unvaccinated fans to crowd into stadiums. Their silence and lack of transparency in how they arrived at two very different policies for fans and players hurts their integrity as an organization.

As we return to campus in August, we will most likely find ourselves dealing with new public health policies from college administrators and confused, possibly disgruntled students. Regardless of the discipline we teach, we need to be ready to have conversations with our students about the integrity of science and how it's the best available tool to help us understand our world. We may also need to guide discussions and conversations with students, both formally and informally, about some of the possible inconsistencies students see in the policies institutions implement, where the breakdown in integrity may have occurred, and what could have been done to prevent and/or repair the damaged integrity. In science, there is value to failure. The same can be said for public failures in integrity. There is always a lesson to be learned and I can't think of better place to learn these lessons than in our classrooms.