How school leaders can foster academic integrity online and offline

Personal student-teacher relationships are a crucial and central part of keeping academic dishonesty at bay.
Deborah Rayow
Deborah Rayow
Deborah Rayow is vice president of product management, courseware, at Imagine Learning.

Let’s get one thing out of the way to begin: cheating in schools has always happened and will continue, in some form or another, as long as education exists. Today, it is estimated that between 75% and 98% of college students surveyed each year report having cheated in high school, compared to an average of only 20% in the 1940s.

The Josephson Institute of Ethics surveyed 12,000 high school students between 2020 and 2021, and found that nearly three-quarters reported having cheated on a test before. Another study, conducted among 70,000 students over 12 years, confirmed the severity of the issue, finding that 95% of students have confessed to cheating in some form.

These studies all tell a similar narrative of academic dishonesty deeply rooted within the education sphere. But that doesn’t mean it’s a losing battle or one worth disregarding.

It’s not technology’s fault

Understandably, academic integrity is an area of growing concern for parents, teachers, and school administrators alike. All involved agree it’s a problem. However, finding a solution is going to require a modern approach to a centuries-old dilemma.

Online learning became a popular scapegoat for academic dishonesty during the COVID-19 pandemic. While rapid implementations, educator and student burnout, atrophied social and academic skills, and mental health concerns undeniably added stress to the already-overburdened students and educators alike, cheating was not (and is not!) a byproduct of technology in the classroom.

Broader awareness of cheating comes with broader obligations to combat it, rather than looking the other way. Though technology exposed us to new gaps in our academic integrity systems, it also equipped us with better, smarter tools for filling those gaps—as well as the insight and transparency necessary to address cheating behaviors before they become a pattern.

Working too fast?

Education technology may not be the underlying cause of cheating—but it did cast a new spotlight on academic integrity concerns and, if utilized in the right way, can offer new solutions to one of our oldest problems.

For instance, plagiarism checkers can scan student submissions to check for content matches across the internet and within submissions by other students, allowing teachers to spot similarities, decide what steps to take, and participate in improving the database’s accuracy over time.

Additionally, other software alerts teachers when students move through assigned content too quickly. Rather than blocking a student—who very well may be progressing ahead of schedule and need more advanced material—the tool searches for students completing too many activities in too short a time period, which is often associated with academic dishonesty, low engagement, or browser extension abuse.

Neither solution operates independently as a gatekeeping or penalization system; instead, they work together to alert educators to potential academic dishonesty so that they can intervene appropriately.

Relationships prevent dishonesty

Despite all the evolutions seen in education over the past few years, some things never change: fear of getting caught is still the top reported deterrent to students’ cheating. Unfortunately—similar to reports of students giving up on their academic progress during the pandemic due to feelings of hopelessness or being overwhelmed—combatting cheating is discussed more often than it’s put into practice.

For instance, although 93% of instructors think students are more likely to cheat online than in person, only one-third were taking steps to prevent it—and, because research broadly shows that instructors believe cheating happens much less often than students do, educators may not even be on the lookout for telltale signs.

Personal student-teacher relationships are a crucial and central part of keeping academic dishonesty at bay. The classroom is an influential part of a child’s growth and development, and learning about the necessity for integrity in an educational setting helps students to perform well in many aspects of their lives. In addition to being positive role models, teachers must continue to engage with students and provide opportunities for inquiry and discussion that can foster success throughout a student’s learning journey.

Fidelity in implementing any classroom management tool is key to its success. So, how can academic integrity be achieved? It’s not about zero percent cheating, but about 100% commitment to enhancing education quality—through parent and educator support—to help students reach their highest potential.

Instead of “How do I stop cheating in the moment?” ask, “How can I create a culture of academic integrity in the classroom?” Potential strategies for doing so include helping students understand:

  • Why It’s Important: Don’t assume that students know what is and is not considered cheating. Include lessons about integrity, plagiarism, and other topics in your curriculum.
  • What The Criteria Are: Set clear expectations ahead of time. For example, informing students upfront how many attempts they’ll have on an assignment can help them prioritize their study efforts, put their best foot forward when it matters, and understand how their grades will be weighted.
  • What The Consequences Are: Before students begin a course, have them and a parent or guardian sign an honor code or a contract. An honor code is a set of rules that defines acceptable behavior, sets expectations from the beginning, and outlines the consequences if a student is ever in violation. To help prevent cheating, consequences should be made clear upfront, match the seriousness of the offense, and be enforced consistently and equitably for all students. Additionally, be sure to highlight the bigger-picture consequences of continued cheating behavior by highlighting examples such as the stricter plagiarism consequences in college or academia, or the potential of being fired from a job.
  • Who’s On Their Side: Preventing cheating doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be!—rooted in an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. One of the best ways to check student understanding is to have students demonstrate their knowledge in a short conversation or by performing a related task using the skills learned. This not only highlights what they do or don’t know, but can also help highlight where learning or skills disconnects are happening, and help students to see their teacher as their partner for addressing those gaps.

Integrity goes further than academic integrity. It’s always been an important component of what children learn through school. It’s up to us to model it for them consistently.

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