Achieving a culture of academic honesty takes a campus

Jennifer Ebbeler

Editor’s Note: This column is one in a series by associate classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler on the changing nature of higher education at UT-Austin and other institutions. Look for Prof. Ebbeler’s column in the Opinion section of this paper every other Wednesday.

This week, the University community celebrates academic integrity and reminds each member of that community — instructors, students, teaching assistants — of the necessary part we play in ensuring that academic integrity remains a core value at UT. Too often, it is assumed that cheating is an individual problem when, in actuality, it is a communal concern. Each of us has a role in ensuring that the playing field remains level. Instructors and teaching assistants must take every precaution to discourage cheating in their courses, including making it clear to students exactly what sorts of collaboration are permitted and disallowed. Students, of course, have a responsibility to behave honestly, but also to ensure that their peers are behaving honestly as well. 

As we move into a new age of instruction, one in which online quizzes and exams are playing an ever more central role, it is crucial that we all work together to nurture a culture of academic integrity and an intolerance of cheating. According to Marc Musick, senior associate dean for Student Affairs and professor of sociology, “The online environment may be a relatively new one for the university, but this code is no less important in that environment.  Indeed, it is in these new and novel situations, such as online education, that acting with integrity and fairness is especially important for helping the university maintain its core values of learning and discovery.”

Cheating happens. The Office of the Dean of Students’ website includes an extensive list of the ways students cheat (presumably to enlighten naive faculty rather than to inspire students). A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that, on average, 350 cases of cheating among all enrolled students (including professional school students) were reported each year at UT-Austin between 2003 and 2011. This number of reported incidents is surely just the tip of a very large iceberg. Episodes of academic dishonesty are seriously underreported, sometimes because they can be difficult to prove without candid cameras (for instance, when a student’s eyes wander during an exam), and sometimes the instructor prefers to handle it directly. More often, though, it is simply too much of a hassle to confront the issue through the formal channels. 

The most blatant cheating can be prevented with some basic precautions: change exam questions, require multiple drafts of a paper, use different forms of the exam (or essay topics), don’t give the same exam at different times to different students, don’t permit students to leave the room unaccompanied, require backpacks and phones at the front of the room, count exams, check IDs, and proctor with vigilance. Still, it is nearly impossible to prevent all cheating. The days of students writing answers on hands or brims of baseball caps have been replaced by sophisticated signaling systems, on demand research papers for purchase, changing answers on graded exams, claiming an exam has been lost, and screenshots of test questions (to name just a few of the more common tactics).

Given the many challenges instructors face in preserving academic integrity in traditional classrooms, it is difficult to imagine a world in which the University will be able to offer UT credit for courses taken entirely online. Technologies that prevent other windows from opening when taking an online quiz or exam are easily skirted by working with a second computer. It is possible to develop algorithms that identify collaboration between enrolled students, but there is little except personal integrity to prevent a student from collaborating with friends, a spouse, or even a professional with knowledge of the course material. 

“Some of the most exciting work at the University is about leveraging new technologies and educational delivery models to deliver more engaging and effective learning experiences,” said Dr. Harrison Keller, vice-provost for Higher Education Policy and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. “Yet, we know that these new approaches also create new temptations for students to subvert their own learning and undermine their peers. To ensure that course credit from UT-Austin conveys academic integrity and excellence, faculty and students have to work together to ensure that our new learning environments are carefully designed to give every student a fair opportunity to learn and compete.” 

The New York Times recently reported that cheating creates not shame and self-loathing but an increase in positive feelings among cheaters. These findings are troubling and also highlight the challenge that we as members of the University community face in confronting issues of academic integrity. We can create ever more sophisticated surveillance tools, but real change will come by changing the culture of the University to one with a zero-tolerance policy towards academic dishonesty. 

Ebbeler is an associate professor in the department of classics from Claremont, Calif.