Op-Ed: Let’s re-imagine academic Academic Integrity

Ranen Miao | Class of 2023

In the past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic and a shift to online learning, incidents of academic integrity violations have skyrocketed. With a nearly 200% increase in questions submitted to Chegg, it’s clear that more students are turning to the Internet, classmates and friends for assistance on homework assignments. However, our discourse surrounding this issue has been incredibly narrow, accepting a broken paradigm institutionalized by higher education. To fix the problems with academic integrity, we must start by redefining it.

Before the start of the pandemic, the International Center for Academic Integrity polled over 71,000 undergraduate students over a period of 12 years. They found that 68% admitted to cheating while in college, with 62% cheating on written assignments and 39% cheating on tests—yet clearly, 7 in 10 students at Washington University and around the country have not been investigated or suspended. That’s because our current conduct process, which threatens to reprimand, fail, suspend or expel students found guilty, only affects students who are caught and opts to seek punitive consequences. Because this system fails to discipline the vast majority of students who commit academic integrity violations and offers little to no room for redemption or forgiveness, it does nothing to deter cheating and encourages students to not get caught instead of not violating our conduct code. Furthermore, because cheating is so pervasive, students who abide by the academic integrity standards are at an inherent comparative disadvantage. This creates even more incentives to cheat and violate the rules that currently exist.

Addressing this problem requires us to attack the roots of academic integrity violations, namely archaic academic standards and student mental health. First, we must end higher education’s outdated refusal to allow students to access the Internet or work collaboratively on assignments. We do not live in a world without Internet access, co-workers and information. To prepare students to work and thrive in a modern society, all professors should end the use of closed-book exams and anti-collaborative policies, replacing questions that test memorization with ones that require application. This would solve for the vast majority of academic integrity violations which occur because the academic standards we are held to do not align with the real world we live in.

Second, we need to address students who are struggling. We know that when students experience mental illness or face intense external stress, they become more predisposed to make regrettable decisions. Instead of treating these students as irredeemable, we should approach them with empathy—and instead of using a conduct process that treats punishment as the end goal, we should find ways to attack the root causes of these issues. If a student experiences a death in the family, are we giving them enough time to heal, or do we force them to choose between sacrificing their mental health or failing their class? If a student is struggling to balance schoolwork and employment, how can we support them, instead of expecting the same of them as a wealthier student who doesn’t work? Punishment does not fix underlying problems of mental strain or anguish, and certainly doesn’t help students’ mental health.

This does not mean we don’t need to value academic integrity. Plagiarism, fabricating data and stealing answer keys are obviously not good academic practices we should endorse. At the same time, there’s a lot of room for re-evaluation and critique: When our models of testing evaluate memorization over application and critical thinking, they fail to prepare students for a technologically advanced, collaborative job market and society. When we focus on punishment over education, forgiveness and second chances, we impose long-standing scars on a student’s conduct record without a chance for redemption. Most importantly, when we fail to address the root causes of this problem, we will never be able to make meaningful strides in upholding academic integrity.

At its core, testing principles from the 19th century do not belong in the 21st—and denying people second chances is, at best, deeply regressive. This is not the only option. Together, we can create a new academic system that both preserves academic integrity while also acknowledging that students make mistakes and seeking to solve the roots of the problem. Most importantly, in more ways than one, a new system will allow us to truly set up our students for success instead of trapping them in a dystopian, archaic world where they are all by themselves.

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