A New Look at Academic Honesty

Posted October 6, 2014

By Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener

If you teach long enough you’ll experience it: you’ll recognize plagiarized passages in a paper or catch a student glancing at his neighbor’s test. Academic dishonesty represents students at their worst and it is often as much a hassle as it is a disappointment for instructors. Catching dishonesty typically mandates a difficult conversation, the assigning of a failing grade and—at the more extreme end—academic hearings or similar formal procedures. It is easy to see why so many instructors look at instances of cheating as a colossal professional headache.

Instructors in psychology are in a privileged position in that we can—to some extent—sidestep the normal hassle associated with academic dishonesty. Because our discipline is fundamentally about how people think, feel and behave moments of ethical lapses are potential teaching opportunities. Sure, it can be off-putting to have students cheat but it can also offer an opportunity for learning.

Many years ago, for instance, I caught a young woman copying answers to a multiple choice question from her neighbor’s paper. After the test I set aside both answer sheets and compared the patterns of response. Both students missed exactly the same items. I then confronted the student concerning her wrong-doing. She became defensive and denied my accusations. A day later she phoned me and admitted that she had cheated. She was crying, contrite, and was shocked at her own behavior which she described as “out of character.”

I reflected on how difficult it must have been for her to make that call and how agonizing those 24 hours must have been. I explained to the student that I was going to award her a zero for the test. Because the test counted for so much of the overall grade it seemed unlikely that she would pass the course even with her B and C level work from homework and earlier quizzes. I offered her a deal.

I told her that she could write an optional paper. I explained that the paper should be on the emotion of guilt. I expected it to review the relevant research and to address certain topics: what are the behavioral consequences of guilt, who feels guilt and when? If she completed the paper, I told her, I would raise her grade from failing to a D. The offer, I thought, allowed her an opportunity to learn from her mistake, to find some sense of redemption, to take a deeper dive into psychology, and to eke out a passing grade, all while still holding her accountable for cheating. She opted for the paper.

My experience with this young woman has informed my thinking regarding subsequent instances of cheating in the classroom. The most impactful, perhaps, involved a woman I will call Janice who attended a course of mine in 2009. I noticed, at the end of the term, that Janice—in all other ways a good student—did not hand in her final paper. When I contacted her about it she made a confession: “I had a paper to hand in however "I" didn't write it, my friend did. I had been pretty stressed lately with some personal stuff and when whining about my ‘to do’ list for the end of term, my friend offered to help with the paper and in a temporary lapse of judgment, I said ok (which will NEVER happen again). When it came time to hand the papers in, I couldn't bring myself to do it.”

Once again, I was forced to give a student a zero grade. Even so, I could not help but feel a grudging admiration for her to come clean and accept the consequences of her actions. I wrote her and told her the truth: I told her that I admired her. A snippet from that e-mail: “you listened to your own nagging doubts and took the grade hit rather than compromise your integrity and I think that is laudable.”

In the interests of life-long education I did not stop there. I put our e-mail correspondence in a folder so that I could follow up with her. Five years later I did. Janice was a college graduate and home owner. I wrote to her and asked whether she ever thought about that episode and what lasting effects it might have had on her. Here is her answer:

“The best I can answer is that yes, from time to time, I do think of the situation I put myself in back then. It was a defining moment for me. When I think about it, I feel nauseous and it bothers me and I'm GRATEFUL that it does bother me. If it didn't bother me then that would mean I have no conscience of right and wrong and would have lost part of the person I pride myself to be.”

When I compare my interactions with Janice to other times I have wrangled with cheating students I feel good. Rather than playing hardball and complaining to my colleagues about the terrible state of students I have decided to engage with some students—those who appear willing—in an effort to craft a worthwhile “teaching moment.”

Do you have similar experiences? Do you have clever policies or procedures with regards to academic dishonesty? We would love to hear about them!
Please write to us - http://nobaproject.com/contact-noba
or Post to our Facebook Page

[Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.]