Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Teaching Academic Integrity

Over the course of the past year I have had dozens of opportunities to speak to faculty and student groups about academic integrity, and present the research that I conducted on the subject for Cheating Lessons.  I have found all of those conversations immensely rewarding, and they have continued to spur my own thinking about the subject, and about future directions for research in this field.

At the moment I am writing a book about teaching and learning in higher education more generally, and digging deeply into the research coming out of the cognitive sciences about how people learn.  As we all probably know from that research, and from our experiences as teachers, learners need to actively engage with material in order to learn it most deeply.  While lectures and readings can provide important first exposure to content, true learning comes when students find ways to interact with the course material--to respond to it, to internalize it, to generate their own responses to it, and more.  Equally important, their interactions with the material need to happen frequently, at thoughtfully spaced intervals.  These may be the most fundamental and easily comprehensible learning principles we know.

So with that in mind, the question that seems most relevant for us moving forward in academic integrity research is a simple one: how are we creating such active learning experiences for our students around issues of academic integrity?

Think about academic integrity as a body of knowledge, a set of skills, and an overarching value that students must learn.  Knowledge: students must understand the rules of academic integrity. Skill: they must learn how to appropriate and properly credit the ideas of other people in their work.  Value: they must believe that completing their work with integrity matters.

If we think of academic integrity in this way, we have to ask ourselves how we are teaching it.  Are we doing the equivalent of lecturing to students from the front of the room, and never allowing them to ask questions or make their own meaning of the material?  If so, we are doing something that we would never do in our courses: giving students a single, passive exposure to the material and expecting them to internalize it for the next four years. This kind of passive exposure to academic integrity typically happens when we present "the rules" in orientation sessions, in our handbooks, or on our websites, or in our syllabi.  These steps are important and necessary; obviously students need first exposure to the content of academic integrity.  But if we know anything about learning, we know this is not enough.

So are we asking students to engage in active learning of academic integrity?  Or are we asking them to complete projects that would qualify as activity-based learning?  Are we asking to engage in community-service learning on academic integrity?  In short, are we doing anything but giving them the rule book and then wagging our fingers at them and saying “Don’t!”?

If we are not, then I don’t think we should find ourselves surprised at the consistently high rates of cheating that continue to plague secondary and higher education.  By limiting our teaching of academic integrity to infrequent, passive exposure, we are setting them up to fail.

In the recent meetings I have been having with faculty on other campuses, we have been spending time thinking about this issue, and taking the opportunity to brainstorm ways in which institutions can build active learning experiences around academic integrity—precisely the kind of learning experiences that we try to build around everything else we teach.  Last week I had a really terrific session with the faculty at King’s Academy outside of Amman, Jordan (pictured: a view of Amman from the Citadel)—their ideas about how to engage their students with academic integrity were smart and creative ones. 

In general I have found that faculty have good ideas about how to teach academic integrity, when we provide them the opportunity to think about it.  Hence I would love to see the process of developing academic integrity teaching initiatives begin to work its way outside of academic integrity researchers and dedicated integrity offices and into the profession as a whole.  The faculty who are designing active learning experiences for their students on a daily basis have to become part of this conversation, and contribute their expertise to the teaching and learning of academic integrity.  If we want students to learn academic integrity, we have to be willing to teach it.  And if we want to teach it effectively, we have to do more than lecture at students; in other words, we have to do more than provide that first, one-time exposure, and then walk away and wash our hands of it.  

We can do better than that—we know how to teach more effectively than that, and we owe it to our students to do so.