Under Pressure

Designing for Academic Honesty

Just like we are, our students are struggling to regain their focus and catch up on their work after a major disruption. With exams and projects looming (or rescheduled), and 150 minutes to make up in each course, they’re probably feeling overwhelmed. The weeks (and the learning) before the deluge may feel very distant. Unfortunately, it’s when they’re feeling like they’ll never catch up, or the work has lost its meaning, that students are likeliest to cut corners.

National data show that students are more likely to cheat or plagiarize when they believe that circumstances make it impossible to succeed, so this exceptionally stressful moment seems like a good time to consider what research tells us about the conditions that foster (or discourage) academic integrity. James Lang’s illuminating study, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (2013) identifies the major factors that make a learning environment prone or resistant to cheating—and, maybe surprisingly, many of those factors are under our control. Lang’s extensive research revealed that cheating is rampant under certain conditions, and almost nonexistent in others.

We shouldn’t be surprised that students who feel confident that they’re learning, and learning something meaningful, are rarely tempted to cheat. The four critical factors that Lang found increase the likelihood of cheating are high stakes; low expectations of success; an emphasis on performance, as opposed to mastery or learning; and extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. In other words, people are likelier to cheat when there’s a lot of weight on their performance on an exam or paper; when they’re afraid they won’t be able to do well on their own; and when they don’t have a good sense of the value or utility of the work they’re doing.

As Lang explains, “Cheating is an inappropriate response to a learning environment that’s not working for the student.  Both sides of that sentence are important. It’s inappropriate, which means that we have to hold the student accountable for the dishonest action, and ensure that we maintain high standards of academic integrity.  But it’s equally true that something in that learning environment doesn’t seem to be working for that student. He might see the course as a curricular requirement that means nothing to him; he might be confused by the assignment or see it as busywork; he might see himself as not having the knowledge or skills he needs to complete the assignment.”

This means that our course design and our communication with our students can alleviate the pressures that too often lead to cheating, if we take care. Even at midterm, there are tweaks we can make.

Students who have lots of opportunities for feedback, opportunities to see how they’re doing and correct their errors, have less incentive to cheat. Students also need to see their own progress, and ideally, that their grades are distributed across many assignments, rather than just a few high-stakes tests or projects. Although you can’t change your grading scheme at this point in the term, you can add opportunities for practice and feedback; give non-graded quizzes that help students to see how they’re doing and how to adjust; or add peer-review opportunities before final due dates.

You can also help to create conditions that emphasize learning and discourage cheating by taking time post-Michael to help your students rediscover enthusiasm for your material. You can help them see how exciting, and how valuable, the skills and ideas they’re acquiring can be. You can also help them gauge how far they’d already come before the unexpected gap in the semester, so that they can hang on to and build on that progress.

We’re here to help! If you’d like to consult with us about strategies for helping students to see value in the learning they are doing, or for designing courses in a way that discourages cheating/plagiarism, please email us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu.

Upcoming Events

Exam Design Workshop
Tues., Oct. 23rd | 2:00-4:00 p.m. | DIF 432 | Sign up to attend

Test what you want to be testing. During this session, we’ll work on designing exams that are not only accurate measures of student learning in your course, but also learning opportunities themselves.

Open Textbook Workshop

Thurs., Oct. 25rd | 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. | Bradley Reading Room, Strozier Library

The Office of the Provost is sponsoring a workshop to introduce faculty to open textbooks and the benefits they can bring to student learning, faculty pedagogical practice, and social justice on campus. Participating faculty will be invited to engage with an open textbook in their discipline by writing a brief review, for which they will be eligible to receive a $200 stipend. Interested faculty are invited to apply by Friday, October 12th.

If you have questions about this workshop or open textbooks, please contact Devin Soper, Scholarly Communications Librarian, at 850-645-2600 or dsoper@fsu.edu. You can also visit the Open & Affordable Textbook Initiative website for more information about open education initiatives at FSU.