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.