Ethics at Work: The Importance of Academic Honesty in Our Schools, Part III

by Wendy Fischman

In the previous two blogs (Part I and Part II), I reflected on the recent admissions cheating scandal in light of our earlier research of young workers and our large, national study of higher education. In this blog, I describe some takeaways based on our study—ways we might begin to address these issues on the college campus.

In brief, in our national study of higher education, we find a troubling misalignment: on one hand, rarely, do individuals—including students and faculty—acknowledge that academic dishonesty is one of the most important problems on campus; and yet, on the other hand, the majority of students and faculty admit that cheating occurs in many forms, both in and out of the classroom. In the second blog, I outline four reasons for this disconnect:

  • Perception that academic dishonesty occurs more (or less) as a result of professors’ attentiveness to the issue;
  • Perception that academic dishonesty occurs more (or less) as a result of institutional policies;
  • Misconceptions among students about what constitutes “academic dishonesty”; and
  • Perception that academic dishonesty occurs more among certain students.

Here I offer some suggestions for how educational settings might address this troubling situation.

1. Take responsibility: honesty should be an expectation.

Many students and faculty described both the inattentiveness of some faculty members and some of the institutional policies (whether they were too flexible or too strict) as contributing factors to the prevalence of academic dishonesty. 

When students live in an environment where cutting corners is the norm, or even admired, then of course kids will use dishonest means. Young people pick up milieu norms, whether at home (perhaps from parents) or at school (from peers and/or mixed messages from faculty). If students get away with dishonest work in college (or even high school), and feel justified to do so, they may never be forced to change the pattern.

Turning a “blind eye,” not explicitly discussing and/or teaching the boundaries of academic dishonesty in class, or just relying on “Turn it In,” clearly does not change the outcome—students describe innovative ways to get around these obstacles. 

Instead, incorporating understandings and expectations of honest work into the curriculum and infusing it in campus culture, will help to create a community based on honesty.

Some schools, for example, have created an “honor code”—core values whereby everyone in a community is expected to live. At two campuses participating in our study, students and faculty refer to their respective honor code as the reason why they do not regularly observe or hear about academic dishonesty. Indeed, honor codes help to make expectations, responsibilities, and consequences for ethical behavior crystal clear. In many cases, honor codes also give students helpful context for their existence and information about the implications for the school community if the codes are not followed—if you can’t “play by the rules,” you are not welcome.

As described in a previous blog, it is imperative that schools help students to onboard to a school culture that is positive as well as punitive for ethical misconduct. This onboarding process will help introduce students to important values (such as honesty, integrity, ethics) that should be intertwined into the curriculum, rather than be treated as a free-standing “extra.”

2. Facilitating conversations about academic dishonesty as a dilemma that need to be recognized, wrestled with, and resolved in an affirmative manner.

Many students and faculty admit that students do not fully understand the boundaries of “academic dishonesty”—including rules and standards for citation and appropriation as well as collaboration.

Several years ago, upon completion of data analyses for The Good Project, we developed an approach to help young students become aware of and prepared for ethical dilemmas—situations in which they feel torn among responsibilities. In this research, we found that young people did not frame these decisions as ethical dilemmas because they did not see them as such—much like the students in the higher education study who do not see copying someone else’s homework as an “ethical dilemma.” Young people often rationalized their decisions based on goals and desires, rather than on ethical considerations. Focusing on high school students, we developed The Good Work Toolkit, comprised of authentic narratives (based on our interviews), as well as reflective questions. These materials have also been used in college settings.

In particular, the Toolkit models an approach involving 4 important “D’s,” which, when aligned, increase the likelihood for positive change:

  • Dilemmas: Longtime experience in developmental psychology, dating back to the time of Jean Piaget, and cultivated with respect to ethical dilemmas posed by Lawrence Kohlberg, confirms that posing real-life dilemmas to young people is an excellent way to engage their thinking and their feelings.
  • Deliberation: Among themselves, or with competent guidance or modeling from elders, young people should learn how to discuss the dilemmas, possible options, pros and cons, probably consequences.
  • Decisions: Ultimately, faced with a dilemma, one has to decide what to do, what action to take, and then carry out that action. Of course, with hypothetical dilemmas, the stakes are lower.  With respect to real life dilemmas, the consequences can be great and immediate.
  • Debriefing after a period: Whether one is dealing with a hypothetical dilemma, or with a genuine dilemma which was confronted and then a resolution was reached, it is valuable to revisit the dilemma and decision after a period, and reflect on what might have been done differently, and with what consequence. Among other benefits, this debriefing process helps one to prepare for the next time that a similar dilemma arises.

3. Know your community of students.

The majority of students and faculty report that academic dishonesty seems to occur as a result of the personal motivations, challenges, and attitudes of particular students. The perceived reasons why a student might use dishonest means run the gamut—from being uber-motivated to achieve academic success to being lazy about academic work—as well as dealing with distractions such as paid work outside of school, athletic commitments, maintaining a social life, etc. These students may well represent the wide range of students on all campuses.

It is important for professors and support staff to get to know their students—their goals, their struggles, and their approaches to work. In our terms, we strongly urge the on-campus adults to think about how students’ mental models of the purpose(s) of college may guide students’ decisions and behavior, including contemplating or partaking in academic dishonesty. For example, is it possible that “transactional” students (who go to college primarily to get a degree so that they can advance to a job or graduate school) view academic dishonesty differently than those who are “exploratory” (who go to college to learn new things and meet different people)?

A Hypothesis: In our initial analysis, we find that “transactional” students are significantly more likely to rank academic dishonesty as the most important, or second most important issue on campus, as compared to “exploratory” students. We wonder: Are those students who are “transactional” more aware of academic dishonesty because they are more focused on the outcomes of academic success, and less interested in the process, or journey, of the learning experience per se?

To be sure, there are many approaches individuals can use in addition to (or instead of) these suggestions. And much important work is already being done to emphasize honesty and integrity in our schools. For example, our colleagues at Making Caring Common of the Harvard Graduate School of Education have created a major initiative called Turning the Tide, which brings together college admissions officers to encourage high school students to focus on meaningful and ethical work. Their reports give clear recommendations about how to create “concern for others” and a “common good” through the admission process.

If students—in high school or college—get away with cheating and cutting corners—they may never be forced to change. They will then help to spawn a society without ethical norms, one where cheating scandals may well proliferate—one in which I would not like to live.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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