When it comes to academic integrity, what is the role of the instructor? Is it to punish instances of cheating as a warning for other students? Is it to minimize opportunities for dishonesty? Or should it be to teach students how to act with integrity? As we transition away from the pandemic that necessitated a move to remote teaching and learning, it is perhaps more critical than ever to evaluate the instructor’s roles and responsibilities in regard to academic integrity.

Too often our approach to academic integrity is an assumption of dishonesty on the part of the students. This approach is fraught with the danger of implicit bias, which leads to focusing our monitoring efforts on certain groups of students. A real concern is the implicit bias against Black individuals so prevalent in our discussion of policing in the traditional sense. This suggests an extremely high probability of implicit bias in the policing of Black students in the context of academic integrity. 

Academic integrity is a critical value for our community and needs to be emphasized and integrated into our culture. However, the focus on academic integrity must start from an assumption of integrity on the part of our students. Though this will not eliminate the risks of implicit bias, making this shift is an important first step. 

Developing a deep culturally-based understanding of integrity relies on making academic integrity a foundational part of learning at UCI. I encourage all instructors to explore the Anteater Virtues Project, which offers modules that facilitate the development of various positive intellectual characteristics, including academic integrity. Instructors can integrate these modules into their courses as an easy and effective way to add to UCI’s culture of integrity.

Still, our base assumptions about students and their supposed willingness to cheat when given the smallest opportunity were made clear to me when UCI first went remote in Spring 2020. More than any other time in my career, I had colleagues reach out to me about the problem of “too many students cheating.” I also had many students raising concerns that others were cheating and that this would have a negative impact on their grades. And yet, post-evaluation of Spring Quarter 2020 suggests that the fear of cheating did not match the reality. After all, data from the pandemic is showing that even under the worst possible conditions, over 90% of our students maintain academic integrity. This strongly supports starting from an assumption of integrity on the part of students, and this triggered the following thought experiment—how bad would it be if, for one year, we did not worry about whether or not a student cheated? (To be clear, at no point in this article do I intend my thoughts to be an endorsement of cheating!) 

My first thought was that spending less time worrying about cheating would free up faculty time. Presumably, we could use some of that time to reconsider our assessment strategies. If our goal is to provide each student an opportunity to reach their full potential, we need an assessment model that evaluates the entire trajectory of the student. Right now, the student who improves from earning Cs to As will inevitably have a lower GPA than the students who have earned As throughout their entire four years. This student’s GPA alone does not accurately reflect their journey from struggling with material to mastery and says nothing about their ability to overcome challenges and be successful. Unfortunately, there’s a greater possibility that this student will be overlooked or deemed under-prepared when compared to others with higher GPAs. And yet, there is no guarantee that these straight-A students are more prepared or actually know more!

After considering this example, it is clear that there are major limitations to our current assessment models. There is already a growing body of literature that addresses authentic assessment, and there are many creative ways to assess students while minimizing the possibility of cheating. Furthermore, the resources to do this are growing rapidly in response to the relatively universal shift to online instruction. Developing a more authentic assessment approach does not necessarily involve eliminating timed exams or academic essays. Instead, it invites us to utilize multiple modes of assessment, connect assessments more directly to course learning outcomes, and develop a more effective assessment of a student’s entire undergraduate experience. 

The second impact I imagined would be faculty realizing that norm-based grading actually incentivizes cheating. Here I am using norm-based grading to refer to grading schemes that fix the fraction of students receiving each letter grade. Naturally, this pits students against each other as only so many “good” grades are available. The pressure to outperform their peers and get a higher grade leads many students to cheat. 

This thought experiment strongly supports criterion-based grading. If you meet the criteria, you earn the corresponding grade. This ensures that students who do not cheat are not negatively affected by those that do. If someone else meets the criteria by cheating, this has no influence on their classmates’ grades. Creating an environment where a student’s success is based on their own work against set standards and not in comparison to another student’s level of performance eliminates some of the incentive to cheat. To be fair, even in a criterion-based grading system, students may still feel the need to cheat for individual reasons; it is really the removal of the peer-comparison aspect that is acknowledged here.

Finally, the third impact is that instructors might spend some of their saved time reflecting on what actually constitutes academic dishonesty in a world with smartphones, the internet, and careers that rely heavily on collaboration. For instance, we can consider making our assessments more indicative of how problem-solving works in so many careers. When given a task, the typical employee does not rely solely on memorized knowledge or work alone. Instead, they utilize the rich resources available on the internet and discuss the issue with their coworkers, leveraging their unique insights and experiences to develop a comprehensive solution. Doing the hard work of developing assessments grounded in how fields actually work will go a long way in preparing students for their future careers and improving the educational culture at the university. We should ask ourselves some questions:

  • Is it so bad for students to look up information during an assessment? 
  • What information is critical to have memorized, and what is it perfectly fine to look up? 
  • Can I design a series of assessments that can both emphasize this difference to students and allow me to determine where students fall on this spectrum? 
  • How am I assessing what students do with information and their ability to analyze and use information versus what information they have memorized? 
  • In a world where learning to collaborate is key, what elements of the course need to be purely students’ own work and what should be collaborative? 

The answers to these questions can significantly impact both our view of academic integrity and how we assess our students. In an ideal world, we can simultaneously improve our pedagogical approaches and overall assessment strategies while increasing student understanding of and commitment to academic integrity.

From my experience both teaching and in administration, even in disciplines where there appears to be “large-scale cheating,” the vast majority of students are honest and are here to learn. At least 90% of our students (and probably more) fully understand that doing the work themselves is what ensures future success. Even under the stress of a pandemic, they make good choices. 

At the end of the day, the few students who are determined to cheat will cheat, and extreme examples of cheating will nearly always be caught. Just because we are not “worrying” about cheating does not mean there would not be consequences when it is identified! However, instead of devoting precious time and energy policing our students, it is better to invest in the promotion of academic integrity and authentic assessments. In doing so, I believe that we can create a culture and university environment where our students no longer see cheating as a viable option.