Academic dishonesty: Are we going about it the wrong way?

We have all witnessed the straining necks in the exam rooms trying to cheat off their colleagues’ answers; the last minute copy-cats getting it word-by-word from their friend’s work, or perhaps the copy paste nerds who get it easy from the internet — the list could go on and on. That academic dishonesty is eminent is a fact, that we have tried on a few policies to remedy it is another fact, and that these remedies are not working is factual too. This begs the question: could we be handling this the wrong way? How do we get the students to own the whole concept of honesty?

A good point to start from is focusing on academic honesty instead of dishonesty — re-focusing the conversation away from the “Don’t cheat—I’m warning you, don’t do it” proclamations to something about why it is important to do your own work. Students know that cheating is wrong; what they understand less is why academic integrity matters—what role it plays in how knowledge advances within our disciplines. They do not think much about cheating consequences beyond the pain of getting caught. If only we could expend the same energy on building on ‘why’ rather than ‘don’t’, things would be different.


Another thing we can do is to explore the influence of peers. Students cheat more when they think everybody else is doing it, if it’s socially acceptable, and not considered a big deal. Students would cheat less when peers they admire, or their friends, don’t. Honest students tend to keep a low profile. They think cheaters ought to be punished but they’d rather not be part of the process. Turning this around isn’t easy but students who care about academic and personal integrity must be empowered to take a stand. If enough of them do, that influences the decisions of others—potential cheaters and reporters alike.


Speaking of peers, you can consider challenging students to establish a class honour code that sets the standards for professional behaviour. The code could prohibit cheating of various sorts and consider those who enable cheating guilty of an incriminating offense. It could hold everyone in the course accountable for any cheating by their peers and make reporting incidents of cheating an expectation. It could provide whistle blower protections of anonymity and confidentiality. An honour code like this is probably not possible in a large, required entry-level course, but when students are on the cusp of their careers, shouldn’t professional standards be an expectation?


Finally, talking more about academic honesty will ignite a conscience against dishonesty. It needs to carry on across the course. There are more than enough topics: why personal integrity matters and how it develops; how cheating hurts those who don’t; how those who cheat in college continue to cheat later in life; how to respond when friends ask for actions that enable their cheating; when collaboration crosses the line and becomes cheating; what behaviours teachers expect regarding homework, take-home exams, and group projects; what kind of support is provided to those who report cheating; and samples of plagiarism with details on how to correct them.

Can we afford to just throw our hands up and carry on? Personal integrity is an individual choice. In this case, the place to start is with a hard look at our individual responses to cheating. That can profitably be followed by discussions in our programmes and departments and across the institution.

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