Academic integrity

Our position: While academic integrity begins and ends with students, a school can foster an environment where cheating is socially unacceptable if grading and disciplinary systems reward and encourage academic honesty while punishing dishonesty.

Fortunately, high schools and colleges alike value academic integrity, which is the best protection of an academic meritocracy. It is, however, a tragedy that in some courses and in some environments, cheating is both common and socially acceptable.

Dishonesty and cheating are, of course, highly complicated. The motivations that lead a given student to make a choice of whether or not to cheat come from a variety of factors, including innate values and his or her upbringing. Beyond a certain point of academic development where long-lasting habits are already formed, it can be difficult to make students develop a sense of honor that will prevent them from accepting an unfairly earned academic result. Culture does matter, and certain schools, including the federal service academies and a handful of civilian schools, have successfully implemented honor concepts and codes, in which their students take considerable pride. Honor can become an integral part of a school’s culture, and cheating socially unacceptable, even in a high school.

But the biggest factor in initially determining whether a student will be academically honest is a simple calculation of risk and reward. This determination, which is usually subconscious, takes into account variables such as the cost of cheating (possibly even monetary) and the importance of the assignment.

More importantly, students also consider the likelihood of being caught cheating, the possible punishments, and the costs of not earning the grade students feel they need. Schools and teachers value academic honesty, no doubt. But whether or not they know it, students subjected to a given curriculum and disciplinary system will make these calculations and act accordingly.

Attitudes also have changed in recent years around cheating and plagiarism. A study at Duquesne University found that use of technology and access to internet tools corresponds to a higher likelihood for students to cheat. Emphasis on group work and access to digital tools also play a role. David M. Wasieleski, an author of the study, told the New York Times, “students are surprisingly unclear about what constitutes plagiarism or cheating.” Clear messaging about expectations and consequences is as important as the circumstances students think they find themselves in based on the workload assigned to them.

We should also be careful about how we define success and associate those definitions with status. If admission to schools with the best brand names (at all costs) is considered success, ethics go by the wayside and kids will cheat to get ahead. But the irony is that being admitted to and attending a school with a good reputation is not even an imperative for monetary success today.

As was mentioned before, it is, of course, not necessarily a school’s or teacher’s fault when a student cheats. Students have or lack a basic sense of integrity that leads them to act a certain way.

But schools can create systems where cheating is not worth the risk, and whatever cost may come with integrity is duly rewarded. We should not be afraid of harsh penalties for cheating (having to repeat the course over the summer, detention, revocation of privileges for seniors, or a failing grade on an assignment). We should decide to make it clear that it matters to be honest. Students should be allowed to report themselves for academic dishonesty for less harsh punishments. But more important than examples and punishments to avoid are examples for students to follow. The academic culture should be one where students are more satisfied with their honest best than an unearned grade.

There are students who will work diligently and honestly to complete even the most tedious and cruel assignments to the best of their own ability. But the scary reality is that many, maybe even most, might have a point where if an assignment is too time-consuming, tedious, and seemingly pointless, and if the penalties for cheating and likelihood of getting caught are just low enough, they’ll cut corners – big or small. These are factors that schools can and do control. And unfortunately, some will put a price on their own honor.

Staff Vote: 12-12