Improving students’ understanding by building a culture of academic integrity

Profile Image

Dr Lynette Pretorius

Contact details

Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

Credit: This blog post is an adapted form of a case study I wrote for Advance HE.

Universities have been cracking down on cheating and all sorts of dishonest academic behaviour recently. They’ve rolled out a bunch of strict rules related to academic integrity and use fancy software to keep an eye out for academic misconduct. In this space, there’s this idea floating around that you should either focus your attention entirely on fighting cheating or you should only be championing academic honesty (Dawson, 2021). However, I believe that this is a false dichotomy. It’s not just about telling students what not to do, even though this is of course important; it’s also about getting them involved in the process, making them understand and own up to their responsibilities. It’s teaching them the ropes of being academically honest through real experiences. In this way, we create a culture of academic integrity (Cutri et al., 2021). This means encouraging students to think about their own academic integrity practices, talking about academic integrity openly, and using mistakes as teachable moments, especially when it comes to plagiarism.

Encouraging students to think about their own academic integrity practices

I’m a big believer in the power of self-reflection because I know that reflecting on your own experiences and beliefs can really open your eyes, spark growth, and sharpen your skills (Cahusac de Caux et al., 2017). That’s why I always make sure my students get the chance to think about their own academic integrity practices. For example, I recently completed a project with some PhD students where we dived into the research on academic integrity and they got to reflect on why they approached academic integrity in certain ways. It was eye-opening for them to see how their academic identities shaped their approaches to academic integrity. One student, for example, mentioned how coming from a country where textbooks were almost worshipped, they found it difficult to critically analyse other studies. They weren’t used to pointing out flaws or gaps in research, which led them to rely a lot on direct quotes. This project showed us that sometimes it’s a lack of confidence that drives how students write. We ended up developing a model of academic integrity at the doctoral level, which highlighted how feeling like an impostor can lead to plagiarism and other dishonest academic practices. We published our findings in an open-access paper in 2021 and you can access it by clicking on the button below.

Talking about academic integrity openly

Over the last decade, I’ve been developing different ways to help students get better at playing by the academic rules, including workshops, online videos, and something I call the Practice Turnitin Assignment. Every semester, I run a workshop named “Referencing and Academic Integrity”. It’s open to all the students in my faculty, and it’s all about understanding what counts as plagiarism, how to make sure work is original, and what is considered the right way to reference sources in our faculty. All the notes for this workshop are provided beforehand and are also publicly available through our Doing Assignments Booklet. If you would like to use these notes, you can download them by clicking on the button below.

I’ve been teaming up with my colleagues to improve how we describe assignments, design our marking guides, and give feedback. We’ve been making a real point of showing how crucial it is to back up arguments with solid evidence. It’s all about emphasising the importance of being honest in your work. This includes explicit marking rubric criteria linked to the use of references to support work as well as clear criteria associated with formatting the references correctly. This is because these two things are separate academic skills – one focuses on being able to support your arguments while the other emphasises being able to follow a template.

I also decided to develop a bunch of snappy videos in YouTube. I’ve played around with different styles for these videos, and students can pick and choose what they watch and in what order. It’s great for giving students the info they need, right when they need it. You can learn more about how I designed these videos here. Turns out, my YouTube channel’s a bit of a hit – it’s racked up over a million views last time I checked! Over 8,000 people have also subscribed so that they can be notified when I create new videos. The best bit? I’ve made all my videos freely available, so any educator out there can use them in their classes. Check out my channel by clicking on the button below.

Finally, I developed a resource called the “Practice Turnitin Assignment” which is available to all students in my faculty. My university uses Turnitin to spot any copied work, but I figured why not use it as a teaching tool as well? I set up a special Turnitin assignment where students can submit their work, but no staff checks it and it doesn’t get stored in Turnitin’s database. This means students can use the Practice Turnitin Assignment to test their summarising and paraphrasing skills, see where they might be going wrong, and fix their work before they submit it. In this way, I am encouraging students to check the academic integrity of their work as part of their assignment writing process.

Using mistakes as teachable moments

Let’s be real, though. Even with all my hard work, my colleagues and I will still spot cases of plagiarism every semester. Most of the time, it’s not because students are trying to purposely cheat. More often than not they just don’t understand how to apply the rules (e.g., they just don’t know how to reference properly). Sure, this does necessitate penalties, like failing the assignment, but I also see this as a chance for a teachable moment.

That’s why I’ve set up a process where, when a student slips up and it’s clear they didn’t mean to, their lecturer can send them my way. I sit down with them and we go over how they can improve their academic integrity practices in the future. After our discussion, I give them a special hurdle task that is all about taking a piece of text and rewriting it in their own words, in just one paragraph. This way, they get to apply the skills we talked about, demonstrating that they’re ready to apply improved academic integrity skills in their future assignments. If this sounds like something you would like to use yourself, you can download the task below.

Questions to ponder

Have you ever had a moment of realisation about your own academic integrity practices? How did this awareness influence your approach to academic work, and what steps did you take to enhance your understanding and application of academic integrity principles?

In your opinion, what is the right balance between using technology to prevent cheating and educating students about academic integrity?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *