Student-centered honor systems?

Since we didn’t get a chance to discuss the articles on cheating and plagiarism, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on the topic.

1) Both the technology article and the suggestions article imply that the responsibility for stopping or catching cheaters lies with either the university or the faculty. The tech article suggests that universities need honor codes with set penalties or sanctions, and the other suggests that faculty should go to great lengths to do what ever they can to reduce cheating (including denying bathroom breaks!).

Of course, Virginia Tech has both of these things. We have a very specific undergraduate honor system that assigns specific sanctions depending on the degree of cheating or plagiarism, and we have many faculty members that won’t allow cell phones or require ID’s before signing into a test. And yet I would say that cheating and plagiarism in our undergraduates is still shockingly common. 

So what’s missing? In neither article did either author suggest have a conversation with students about the importance of academic integrity. We tell students not to do it, but do we really ever talk about why? Honor systems are only functional with buy-in. Imagine a class that starts with a short conversation about why we have an honor system, engaging the students into discussing why they think it’s important. Talking about how each of them deserves recognition and credit for the work that they do.  From there, imagine asking to develop a contract between themselves, pledging, in person, to their fellow students that they will make the decision to act with integrity.

Perhaps it seems a bit crazy, but such systems already exists. At my undergraduate college, we had completely unproctored exams and quizzes, because we had committed, as a community, not to tolerate cheating.

Of course this won’t ever take the place of a formal system of dealing with violations of academic integrity, and I think it’s still very important to have a system that takes the decision-making outside of the faculty member’s hands. But what’s been proposed in these articles is not only ineffective, I think it’s contrary to the idea of student-centered teaching.

2) As future faculty members, we talk as if we have an obligation to our students. An obligation to do our best to help them learn. An obligation not to just mindlessly cover content. And obligation to care. And I would say that this obligation extends even further – we have an obligation to check for and call out plagiarism.

Imagine if a student came to you and lied. Blatantly. Would that be acceptable? If not, then why would it be acceptable for a student to come to you with a plagiarized paper and say, “Hi. This is my own academic work and is composed of my own ideas.” It’s just a lie wrapped up in a fancy word. I’ve seen students, graduate students, who have plagiarized on their dissertation. And after their honor system experience is over and they’ve been suspended or expelled, still come and say to me… “I just didn’t know. No one ever told me what I was doing wasn’t okay!” How many teachers must have failed them along the way, saying that it was just a sentence or two and not a big of a deal?

All the discussion we’ve had about grading schemes is important in its own right, but if students can cheat and pass without “getting it done”, then what are we accomplishing?

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