Reflections Newsletter

Academic Integrity in Canadian Higher Education: A Conversation with Julia Christensen Hughes, Spring 2012

By Ken N. Meadows, Educational Researcher, Teaching and Learning Services

Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes is Dean of the College of Management and Economics (CME) at the University of Guelph. She (along with Don McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity in the US) spearheaded the Canada-wide administration of the Academic Integrity Survey in 2002 and is collaborating with Don once more on the 10-year follow up in which Western will participate in October 2012. Julia will be giving the keynote presentation entitled Integrity in the Academy: Imperatives, Incentives and Innovations at the Teaching Support Centre’s Fall Perspectives on Teaching Conference on Friday, August 24, 2012 (9:00 a.m., Social Science Centre, Room 2050).

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Christensen Hughes about what we learned from the 2002 Academic Integrity Survey and what we might expect from the 2012 survey.

What is the Academic Integrity Survey?
The survey captures the perceptions and self-reported behaviours of students and faculty concerning academic misconduct by students. The idea behind the survey is to raise awareness amongst students, faculty, and administrators about questionable behaviours that are occurring on their campuses and to generate ideas forwhat might be done about them.

What were a few of the key findings from the 2002 survey?
There are so many interesting findings, where do I start? To begin with, there are significant differences of opinion between students and faculty about what constitutes academic misconduct. There are behaviours that many faculty consider serious forms of cheating that students do not see in the same way. For example, an area in which there are differences of opinion concerns student collaboration. This is an area of a lot of confusion. When is it appropriate to collaborate and when is it not? Is it realistic or appropriate to require students not to collaborate on an online quiz, or on a take-home assignment for which there are right and wrong responses? Another example is getting questions and answers in advance of writing an exam. When faculty use the same exam from semester to semester and believe they have controlled access, some students inevitably manage to get hold of old copies. Is this cheating or a sensible approach to studying? Who cheated who? Understanding these differences in perception is important because not surprisingly, behaviours students tend to see as not cheating or trivial cheating are the most common behaviours they report participating in. At the other end of the spectrum, where there is strong agreement between faculty and students that the behavior is wrong, there is still a fairly high percentageof students—as many as 9%, for example—who report turning in work that has entirely been done by someone else. The question here is do we have the mechanisms in place to appropriately detect and respond to the most serious kinds of academic misconduct? Are the faculty adequately aware of the institution’s policies, are they prepared to follow them and do they feel supported when they do so? And, are the penalties sufficiently severe to serve as a deterrent?In reading the open-ended responses to the study, I got the impression that many students who break the rules do a kind of cost-benefit analysis or risk assessment. Some explained having engaged in serious forms of cheating, like paying a friend to write a paper, because they believed they would likely fail if they didn’t, that there was little chance that they would be caught, and even if they were caught, the penalties would likely not be all that severe.

Think of these as two separate issues: Where there is a lot of confusion--we need to engage in meaningful conversations, try to resolve disparate points of view, reflect on our assessment practices, and then educate the community at large. The serious types of misconduct need a clear and significant response. We need to make sure that we have policies the faculty support and are prepared to follow. [Note: The results of the 2002 study are summarized in Christensen Hughes & McCabe, 2006b; see references below.]

What were some of the most surprising findings for you?
I was certainly surprised by the self-reported rates of participation in some of the more serious behaviours. This really concerns me. I believe these rates reflect a sentiment shared by a minority of students that they are at university simply to get a credential, and they plan to get that credential as ‘efficiently’ as possible.

Reflecting on the open-ended responses to the study, I drew a number of different conclusions and coined two phrases: ‘Students cheat when they feel cheated’ and ‘When faculty create game-playing conditions, students will engage in game-playing behaviour.’ A lot of students expressed sincere concern for some of the things they saw going on in the academy and said that it created an environment conducive to academic misconduct. For example, once an exam is set or an assignment is given, it is out there. If a faculty member uses the same exam or assignment again, the student ‘game’ for many becomes simply getting hold of last year’s exam or paper and replicating it without necessarily having understood the material. You then have some students who have access and some who don’t. This breeds resentment and cynicism among students.  They then try to win the game rather than authentically engage with the course material.  To me it was surprising to see how many students wrote passionately about feeling cheated by the assessment approach taken by faculty. They felt the focus was more on supporting the faculty member’s need to assign grades as opposed to encouraging learning. A similar dynamic takes place when students are assessed on short-term recall.  If students don’t see such an examination approach as legitimate, they might be tempted to bring notes or electronic aids into the exam room.

My advice to faculty is to make sure the assessment approach truly reflects the learning objectives of the course and to explicitly explain to students how the approach will support their learning. Also, always change assignments and exam questions from semester to semester. If that’s not possible, make old assignments and exams available to all students--either on-line or on reserve at the library. At least then there will be a level playing field.

In my book Taking Stock (Christensen Hughes & Mighty, 2010), I summarize research that demonstrates there is a relationship between the learning environment created by the faculty and the learning approach taken by students. I am certainly not saying that faculty are to blame for all forms of student misconduct, but the way faculty approach the assessment of learning has a profound effect on the approach students take to their learning.

Another thing that surprised me was some of the criticism of the survey. I was told by both faculty and students that the survey should not have focused exclusively on the misconduct of students. A common sentiment was, ‘You said this was a survey on academic misconduct and it is not, it is actually a survey on student cheating.’
One faculty member suggested that as faculty we need to look in the mirror first and ask ourselves what behaviours we are modeling to our students. He admitted to taking ‘short cuts’ in his own work due to deadlines and other pressures, such as not being fully prepared for class and hastily preparing exams. I was equally struck by student comments such as ‘We see faculty lecturing all the time who don’t give attribution for the ideas they share with us.’ Challenging the notion that students shouldn’t submit the same piece of work for more than one course, one student wrote, "We come across papers that faculty have written and published in several different journals that are not all that different, yet they get credit for having published multiple articles."

Why a 10-year follow up? Why is it important to replicate the research at this time?
Academic integrity is at the core of the academy yet it is constantly under threat.  Technological innovation continues to challenge. Understanding how profound--how systemic--the barriers are to its achievement is important. We need to be able to hear the voices of faculty and students as to why academic misconduct is occurring and what else we can be doing about it. The survey is tangible evidence of an institution’s concern and commitment to doing what it can to create a culture of integrity.

What do you expect might have changed in 10 years?
My hunch is that, sadly, despite increased awareness and the efforts of many universities to establish offices of integrity, clarify their policies, and offer workshops for faculty and students, I do not know that we will see the numbers go down. Our institutions exist within a broader societal culture that to some extent condones ‘cheating to win’ or relates success to wealth and celebrity, regardless of how it was earned. I believe that notions of character and honesty do not get the attention they should. This is a major cultural influence that we need to acknowledge.  For significant change to happen I believe we need to have deep learning experiences become the reality for the majority of our students. Until that happens, I do not think that we are going to see much change.

What are the key messages you want faculty members to take away from discussions of academic integrity?
Model the behavior you want your students to engage in. For example, model citation when you lecture, really be clear on the sources and show how your own ideas have built on them. If you hand something out to your students, again cite it--have a reference.  Live that expectation. Think about integrity in your own work.
In addition, I would tell faculty to have a hard look at their approach to assessment.  This is most important. Look at your course and ask yourself what you most want your students to learn. Ask yourself to what extent your learning activities and approach to assessment are congruent with the objectives. Are there things you could do differently that will motivate students to engage more deeply--more authentically--with the material? When students believe the faculty member is sincerely interested in their learning, is highly motivated to help them learn, is passionate, and is giving fully of themselves to the course, students are more likely to mirror those behaviours.  How we approach the course, how we construct activities in class, what we ask our students to do--does it all drive deep learning? If it does, students will be less likely to engage in misconduct.


Christensen Hughes, J. M., & McCabe, D. L. (2006a).  Understanding academic misconduct. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 36(1), 49-63.

Christensen Hughes, J. M., & McCabe, D. L. (2006b).  Academic misconduct within higher education in Canada. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 36(2), 1-21.

Christensen Hughes, J. M., & Mighty, J. (Eds.). (2010).  Taking Stock: Research on teaching and learning in higher education. Montréal, Quebec: McGill- Queen’s University Press.

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