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As instructors, we welcome a new cohort of students into our classrooms, whether they are virtual or in-person with each passing cycle. Each term starts with a clean slate; the students are new to us and we are new to them. We make clear learning goals and expectations. We set a clear tone for communication. The beginning of a new classroom is full of hope and anticipation, both nerve wracking and thrilling.
The last thing we want is to start off with suspicion. But some of us come with battle scars, and we can’t help but wonder who the “trouble makers” might be and we may, whether unconsciously or consciously, adjust our classroom management to our preconceptions.
And some of us come with battle scars specific to academic misconduct. Life can intervene and send students off course. It’s easy to be lured by “essay bots” or finding shortcut “work arounds” and as instructors, we understand these realities. But sometimes, we can’t help but ask who is prone to plagiarism or vulnerable to contract cheating? Who are the students engaging in collusion? Googling for test banks? Using word spinners to evade similarity?
The reality is that cheaters are struggling students, whether the struggle is psychological or academic. The reality, too, is that these heartbreaks can be mitigated by instructor intervention and curriculum.
Cheaters look like high-achieving students, they look like struggling students, international students, domestic students, as well as historically marginalized students. They are straight-A students and they are students on the verge of failing. They are students under pressure coping with lofty expectations, multiple languages, and other headwinds.
It's important to ask why students are engaging in shortcut solutions.
The motivations behind cheating are often internal. And additionally, the drivers for cheating are many. Some students engage in academic misconduct:
The above are just some of the more common reasons students engage in academic misconduct.
According to leading academic integrity researcher Dr. David Rettinger, students don’t want to see themselves as immoral; in fact, they may often rationalize their cheating as legitimate behavior–for instance, if they find little value in the assignment (Simmons, 2018). They don’t think they are cheating, even if instructors do. Consequently, a clear knowledge of academic integrity is very important to ensure that students value learning and avoid misconduct. More importantly, aligning definitions supports learning. Having foundational knowledge of academic integrity makes it that much harder for students to rationalize shortcut solutions. Additionally, when instructors understand the student perspective, we have insights into how to help students in their learning journey.
This lack of knowledge is what makes students vulnerable to cheating; and because academic integrity is aligned with Western ideals, international students, for example, may have a difficult transition when traveling overseas for an education. Additionally, cultural context regarding individual reputation when it comes to academic performance may increase pressure and make learning very very high-stakes for someone struggling with multiple languages.
Providing scaffolding support for vulnerable students is critical to academic integrity. Figuring out what our students need to connect with the learning materials is distinctly different from having suspicions, which is adversarial and punitive in nature.
What are the benefits of supporting at-risk students and how can we help them get back on track? As stated above, at-risk students aren’t always obvious; but the risk factors, such as disconnection from learning, stress, and pressure, are. Mitigating these factors is part of supporting students and their relationship to learning academic integrity. Moreover, supporting at-risk students can prevent serious misconduct issues and punitive outcomes; this benefits both students who can then graduate embracing original thinking and institutions who can safeguard reputations and—let’s face it—not suffer financial attrition.
Research from the Harvard School of Education states, “Our youth informants describe a type of vertical support that centers on listening and responding to students’ needs. They want teachers to enable ethical behavior through holistic support of individual learning styles and goals” (Goldman, 2016).
These methods are proactive in nature and more holistic, rather than targeted to specific individuals.
Cheaters aren’t obvious. They can be everywhere. But there are solutions. With the right support structures and a culture that helps students feel seen, educators can ensure that learning is the goal of students. And that shortcut solutions like cheating don’t feel accessible or viable.