"Partnering with the Students’ Union may not be the first thing to come to mind when designing an academic integrity module for your institution”, says Kit Messinger, Advice Development Consultant at Loughborough University Student Union, “But for Loughborough University, this was a natural fit, with a shared commitment to producing ethical and empowered scholars from the outset.”
With the Student Union Advice Service at Loughborough University seeing such a severe impact on students’ lives following academic misconduct allegations, Kit Messinger and Academic Misconduct Committee Chair, Sandie Dann, saw the urgent need to prioritise academic integrity awareness.
Although an unlikely partnership, through their joint on-campus and online student-focused campaigns, the university and its student union are seeing fewer students committing academic misconduct and more students engaging with misconduct allegations.
In early August, Sandie and Kit presented their best practices on deterring misconduct through meaningful support, student-friendly documentation, and complete clarity where academic integrity is concerned. If you missed their inspiring presentation, you can watch it on-demand here.
We were left with so many unanswered questions during the webinar that we’ve teamed up with Sandie and Kit once again for our final offline Q&A of the In the Spotlight series.
How many appeals do you see against your penalties? Have they reduced following your campaigns?
Sandie: The number of appeals is small. Students are most likely to appeal against the termination of studies decisions.
Kit: Campaigns, a clear penalty framework, and solid advice help to give students an accurate and realistic understanding of what to expect from their outcome. This level of clarity tends to reduce some of the more tenuous appeals. Likewise, encouraging and empowering students to be aware of the process means that any dubious outcomes given within school committees can be effectively and promptly appealed.
What social media platform works best for the dissemination of information to students?
Kit: In terms of communicating information, we have had success primarily with Facebook, but anticipate that this will continue to drop off as cohorts begin to favour alternative social media. It's important to remember that not everyone is 'on' social media, and various demographics may favour platforms with which staff are possibly less familiar.
As we move towards blended, if not remote participation, we must also consider students’ access to studying (not everyone has consistent internet access or full access to social media for various reasons). Emails may be an increasingly safer bet.
The proactive, student-centred campaigns are great. Have you seen a decline in the number of cases related to the misconduct topics you’ve covered in your campaign? Where will you go next with this focus?
Sandie: Yes, we have seen a reduction in misconduct cases as a direct result of the campaigns. There has not been a piece of blank paper in an exam for a long time and the mobile phone/smartwatch incidents have become fewer and farther between.
Due to the evermore devious behaviour by contract writing companies, we feel more work on highlighting the dangers—such as being blackmailed and identity theft—needs to be highlighted.
Kit: I’d love to place a greater focus on diverting students from committing misconduct in the first place, as well as developing resources for those found guilty to reduce the number of repeat offenders. In the hopefully not too distant future, we want to start work on designing an integrity awareness course for students to complete as part of their guilty or warning outcome.
Longer-term, I'd hope our advice service could play a more active role in providing an academic annual quiz for students, identifying any areas where assistance might be helpful and linking them to the relevant support (i.e. library workshops, mitigating circumstances, support/contact with personal tutors) to minimise academic misconduct.
The integrity test for all students is a great idea. Is this publicly available for use by another university?
Sandie: If you would like to get in touch, we would be happy to collaborate in this area. The same applies to anyone interested in partnering in this effort. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Penalty Framework
How do you determine the magnitude of punishment meant for different assessment misconducts?
Sandie: We operate a Penalty Framework to make the process as transparent as possible for all those involved and ensure consistent decisions across our nine minor panels. As I always chair the Major Academic Misconduct Committee and the admin support from the Registry is a small pool of only two staff, we are in a good position to make consistent decisions as there is good institutional memory.
The framework is quite wide-ranging but ranges from a formal warning for a technical breach where there was no way of gaining an unfair advantage and no intention to cheat all the way through to termination of their studies with immediate effect (and making no lesser award) for contract cheating.
There are various factors that determine the level of penalty such as whether there was intent to deceive, the extent of the offense, the amount of time the student has been in the UK system, and their level of experience. When reducing marks we can reduce by any or all marks down to a minimum of 1 for components and modules. We use 1 rather than 0 so that it is clearly flagged as academic misconduct rather than possibly being a non-engagement/missed assessment.
Do you publish your penalty framework and communicate the outcomes e.g. a summary of the cases that are completely anonymous?
Sandie: Our Penalty Framework is published and available to all staff and students to be completely transparent and manage expectations. An annual summary report of all major and minor cases is presented to the University Teaching Committee which reports to the Senate and Council. Analysis of the data is carried out according to a variety of different characteristics.
Kit: It's important for the Penalty Framework to be published and available to students as this can help manage their expectations and prepare themselves for the range of potential outcomes. Having a clear and consistent penalty framework also helps to reassure students whether their outcome is typical given the circumstances of the allegation, and allows appeals based on the proportionality of the penalty to be more informed/accurate.
Support and Communication
Why do you feel students are afraid to ask for help regarding misconduct?
Sandie: For some students, the process of having been accused of misconduct can move beyond being mildly embarrassed—it can have really quite severe cultural or social shame attached to it. In other cases, students may feel confronted and caught out (if they are guilty) and feel like the game is already up, not realising that it can be helpful for them to still engage with the process.
Another reason students might feel afraid to ask for help is if they have other challenging circumstances going on in their lives that they are reluctant to disclose and in some way, this may have prompted their actions. For all of these reasons (and more!), it's important that your Students' Union/advisory service establishes a tone with students that allows them to feel safe, heard, and able to discuss honestly what has happened without fear of judgment.
Do you have difficulties communicating academic standards to international students at your University?
Sandie: Expectations in relation to acceptable academic practice and referencing conventions vary from country to country, institution to institution, and subject to subject. In my view, it is not a surprise that students become confused. This is why it is so important to make it clear at the outset what applies in your subject in your institution and allow students to demonstrate that they understand before we think about penalising anyone. Training essentially needs to be provided.
One area that continues to cause headaches is joint honours programmes where the different subjects have different expectations. This is why in 'getting your referencing right', we make it clear that you need to clarify with individual module leaders which conventions are expected. Some students who join us on Post-Graduate Taught (PGT) programmes from other institutions have an unhealthy obsession with their Turnitin similarity score, because at their previous institution if the index was below 30% (it’s normally 30 or 25%) they were deemed not to have committed misconduct. This promotes the poor practice of getting the score down by changing a few words rather than concentrating on improving their academic practice in terms of writing/paraphrasing.
A huge thanks to Sandie and Kit for providing their expertise on raising integrity awareness through student-centered campaigns.
To catch up on the Taking Integrity Online series and their respective offline Q&A’s, you can find all resources here.
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