One Weird Trick to Promote Academic Integrity

Patrick’s note, October 17, 2021: Though this post still represents my experience and thoughts, the Shu et al. (2012) paper cited below has been retracted due to evidence of fabricated data. I have addressed this in a subsequent post.

My Academic Integrity Baseline

My first academic teaching position was at Middlebury College, a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Vermont. During freshman orientation, students pledge to follow the school’s honor code. Faculty are expected to provide clear instructions and expectations regarding citation practices, collaboration, etc., and students are expected to follow these policies without faculty policing. When a Middlebury student submits an assignment or exam, they write and sign the honor pledge on that work.

“I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment.”

This made part of my job as a faculty member quite easy, as it was the students’ responsibility to follow and enforce academic integrity. If fact, faculty are not even allowed to proctor an exam without special permission of the Dean of the College.

Struck By Reality

Because of this background, academic integrity was not something I initially thought much about while teaching.  This came back to bite me pretty quickly. On an overseas teaching engagement, I was teaching a short, intensive course to students who were not native English speakers. I gave an exam, and due to the nature of the situation, I thought it was fairest to allow students the use of their notes, lecture slides, and online dictionaries. Few students had printed the slides, so I allowed them to use laptops or phones to view them, like they had been doing in lecture. I was caught flat-footed when, only minutes into the exam, a number of students were blatantly looking at their neighbors’ exams or texting answers to one another. (At this moment my inner monologue channelled Michael Bluth, “I’ve made a huge mistake”). While I was frustrated, I felt that I shared the blame because students had incentive to cheat (they were being taught and tested under high pressure), and I had given them opportunity to do so. Under similar circumstances, I now arrange for a large classroom so I can space students out, and in fairness to the students, I still allow laptops, but no phones. That way I can easily see everyone’s laptop screen, and these two changes have resolved the issue.

In an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University (and the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty), said a few things that resonated with me.

“What separates honest people from not honest people is not necessarily character. It’s opportunity.”

I think that’s a great point. To be clear, I’m not trying to single out or shame the group of students mentioned above. I believe everyone, given strong incentives and opportunity, is capable of behaving unethically. As an instructor, I think the best thing I can do to promote academic integrity is to minimize motivation and opportunity for cheating. Ariely also mentioned that several studies have replicated the findings of a PNAS paper I ran across a few years ago (Shu et al. 2012). We often encounter self-reporting situations (e.g., tax returns, insurance applications) where we are expected to volunteer some information, and then at the end of the document, we sign to verify that the information is true. The interesting finding is that people are more truthful if they sign to affirm their honesty prior to filling out the form instead of after.

One Weird Trick

Back to my click-bait title. I use regular, low-stakes online quizzes in my courses so my students have opportunities to engage in retrieval practice and distributed practice. Students are expected to complete these quizzes alone, so I try to minimize the incentive for unauthorized collaboration by making the stakes low. (Each quiz is worth ~1% of the final grade.) I do one more thing though, borrowing from Middlebury and the Shu study, my quizzes all start with a true/false question stating…

“I affirm that these quiz answers are my own. I have neither received assistance from, nor will I give assistance to, any other students with regard to this quiz.”

I don’t have direct evidence that this is effective, but I hope it emphasizes the importance of academic integrity and gives the students just a little pause if they are thinking about sharing their answers with others.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.