January 19, 2021

A different perspective on academic integrity

Dan Laitsch (Faculty of Education) argues for a move away from competition and comparative approaches to assessment.

Dan Laitsch (associate professor, Faculty of Education, and founding director, Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy) thinks the conventional approach to enforcing academic integrity—by catching and punishing cheaters—is all wrong.

One reason is that he believes it rests on a mistaken assumption that students are generally inclined to be dishonest.

His other concern is that even when it works, the punitive approach creates an undesirable classroom culture.

“By making students afraid of the consequences of cheating, we can make them decide to tolerate whatever negative experience they are having that is driving them to consider cheating. To me, this behaviourist view of integrity based in extrinsic punishment offers a very dark view of academia, based in a culture of fear.”

But Laitsch isn’t enthusiastic about a commonly proposed alternative either.

“Another view rests in creating a virtuous culture, where positive behaviours are modelled and students rewarded for behaving with integrity. This often involves students committing to academic integrity pledges [and] engaging in conversations around the harms caused by cheating and the gains associated with virtuous behaviours, such as increased learning. It […] seeks to instill a sense of pride in students that can serve to inoculate them from the temptation to cheat. While this is a more positive view of integrity, it still rests largely on extrinsic incentives to manage behaviour.”

The “drivers of cheating”

The response he champions is based on addressing what he views as the underlying causes of academic dishonesty. He cites at least three “substantial drivers of cheating.”

The first is competition.

“When we compete students against each other, we build in a strong driver to view the ends as justifying the means. We compete students against each other in curved classes. We compete students against each other when we make decisions based solely on grades or GPAs. When we make clear that there are winners and losers—that winners get the rewards and the losers don’t (or get punished)—we create a system where winning becomes more important than learning, the ends are seen as justifying the means.”

The second is fairness; or rather, a misguided understanding of fairness.

“[Fairness in the context of competition is the idea that] we must treat all students the same, because to treat them differently advantages some over the others. […] In such a view we emphasize equality in its worst sense. For reasons of fairness we ensure students do the same work at the same time in the same way and are assessed the same. Individual interests and learning needs are ignored. Where a student enters and leaves your class isn’t a major consideration. Individual challenges and hardships are ignored, because to make changes is perceived to unfairly advantage those students receiving added support.”

The third driver is the limited capacity of both instructors and students.

“[For instructors,] as our class sizes increase, so does our workload. As the number of classes we teach increases, so does our workload. As the importance of research rises, the capacity we have for teaching decreases. We are left having to make instructional decisions to help us manage our workload, rather than maximize the learning in our classes. 

“Students also have substantial workloads. In addition to coursework, many have jobs and most have family and friends seeking their time and attention. Acknowledging these other demands on their time can help students behave with integrity.”

Creating an environment that promotes academic integrity

In his own classes, Laitsch promotes academic integrity—and shifts the focus from grades to learning—by minimizing competition, redefining fairness, and taking into account instructor and student capacity. 

He cites his non-comparative approach to assessment as an example.

“For most of my classes I’ve moved to providing ungraded feedback, offering students unlimited test and quiz retakes or revisions in response to my feedback until they get the product they are happy with, rather than the grade.

“At the end of the term, we then meet together and negotiate a final grade based on our own understanding of the student’s learning. That discussion is valuable to both the student and to me in thinking about and understanding their learning over the semester and, indirectly, it helps the student see how cheating has a negative impact on their own learning.”

He also takes a flexible approach to his course requirements.

“Rather than focusing on fairness and equality, I try to focus on fairness and equity—that is, how can I help each student get as much as possible out of my class and their time with me? To do that, I have to be open to each student’s story—both in my class and in their daily lives. If their workload becomes unmanageable, or deadlines untenable, to me it is fair and equitable for me to adjust my own expectations.”

Of course, that raises the issue of instructor capacity. Aren’t standardized, computer-scored tests the only way to cope when evaluating classes that can contain hundreds of students?

“In many ways,” says Laitsch, “this challenge requires an institutional response. However, moving away from a competitive view of education can empower better decisions, even in these contexts. If we aren’t trying to create an artificial grade distribution, we can allow students to retake tests and use their books and notes, empowering their learning without taxing our capacity to assess. After all, when was the last time any of us did work that prohibited us from consulting our notes, texts or other research?”

Shifting the discussion

Ultimately, he prefers to shift the academic integrity discussion toward a discussion of the “drivers of learning—that is, why are students in our classes to begin with, and how can we support their learning goals so that fully engaging in the course content becomes personally valuable to them to begin with?”

That, he suggests, will lead to solutions that help each student “work with integrity as a supportive member of an active learning community.”

Related links

Dan Laitsch’s faculty bio page