Personal Integrity

It’s happened again.  Two students submitted the same file. Other than the file names, they turned in IDENTICAL content, down to the spellings and a line by line comparison of their Excel spreadsheet. The course is online, but I’ve seen the same behavior in face-to-face classes. I hesitate to say that catching students is becoming “routine” (too depressing to admit that) but sometimes it feels that way.

Honesty. Integrity. Character.

Are these old-fashioned traits?

In the Teaching Professor blog, Maryellen Weimer suggests we place too much emphasis on catching violations and making sure students know what the penalties will be if caught. She suggests we spend more time and attention on helping students see the personal costs of violating academic integrity. I agree.

Here’s a link to that post:

Some suggest students don’t really understand what plagiarism is, or what constitutes cheating. Perhaps in some cases that’s true. But at it’s simplest, a statement that says “All work submitted must be your own” is pretty clear in my book. Collaboration is allowed, and indeed I welcome it. But a collaborative effort should mean each student is working. It means each student is writing or typing. All their answers might be the same, but each submission is written/typed individually, not one document that is photocopied. And not one Excel file that’s been saved with two different names.

Since I couldn’t tell who did the work, neither student earned credit. I sent an email to both with an explanation for the zeroes, reiterating the policy from the syllabus and acknowledging that we could file the necessary paperwork with the University if they dispute my handling of the situation. I concluded with a warning that a second incident would result in course failure due to academic dishonesty.

Their response: SILENCE. No explanations. No disagreement or pleas. No apologies. No mitigating circumstances. SILENCE. How should I interpret that? What does it mean? I’m not sure. Are they too embarrassed to respond? Or, is this too unimportant to deserve a response?

I decided to use this as a teachable moment. I sent a class-wide message. Historically, I would have issued a warning-like missive. But “I will catch you” threats aren’t really what I wanted to convey. Instead, I wrote the following:

Subject: Personal Integrity

Just a friendly reminder…  it’s important to submit work that is your own.

It’s important, not because the University says so (which it does), or because the syllabus says so (which it also does).

It’s important because the decisions we make today shape who we become tomorrow, for better or worse.  It’s as simple as that.  You may get away with cutting corners and think no big deal. But each time we get away with doing less than our best, or gain something dishonestly… there’s a cost. And that cost isn’t really about getting caught.  Cheating is like a stain… you can clean it, but somehow a slight imperfection remains, even if it’s only visible to the one who made it.

I hope you won’t have to look back upon your years at Penn State and wonder what might have been if I really applied myself?  Or, what could I have accomplished if…?

Do you have a personal code of conduct?  Have you decided what lines you will or won’t cross?  

I encourage you to consider more than the risks of getting caught for there is so much more at stake than that.

End of sermon.  🙂

Dr. Paff

Since then, one of the two students who submitted the same file late-dropped the course. The other included a note with his next submission stating “This is MY assignment.” Sigh.

Recently students were asked to perform outside research, and despite exhortations to cite their sources, and restate others’ ideas in their own words (if they aren’t in quotations), a few submitted shoddy cut and pastes. Bigger SIGH. I responded with another note to the class:

Hi everyone,

Hope you are enjoying a bit of a break from assignments and quiz deadlines today.  I finished grading the Deadbeats assignment.  Overall, well done.  Please remember:

  1. Penn State is categorized as a Research I university.  We have a WORLD CLASS library.  You have access to expensive, top quality publications… for no additional cost.  You can access these rich materials in your jammies!  No need to schlep to the library.  Please use QUALITY references in your work.  No more infomercial nonsense from banks please.  
  2. If you get material from the web-CITE IT ACCURATELY. Free, higher-quality sites online include Yahoo Finance; Investopedia; Accounting Coach.  I bet you can’t guess how many people googled “how to set credit guidelines” or something similar, and then clicked the first thing that came up.  Search-Engine-Optimization (SEO) doesn’t guarantee quality. (Though it does make it easy for me to figure out who did a hasty cut and paste).  Take the time to do a library database search.  I’ll notice, and the effort will be rewarded.
  3. REWRITE in YOUR WORDS.  Again, please think about the kind of professional you are becoming as you proceed through college.  Regardless of major- strive to be the best, most honorable person you can be. These cautions will be particularly important in Unit 3.  Much of the work here is qualitative.  Do your own work.  Strive for quality. Be creative.  I look forward to reviewing your thoughtful and creative assignments over the next week.

Best regards,

Dr. Paff

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about attendance policies and self-regulated learning. The literature suggests teachers should routinely exhort students about the importance of attendance. This is more effective than penalties in motivating students to attend. I’m hoping continued messages from me, about honesty, character, integrity, may have some positive impact. Sad part is, I’ll probably never know.

Is it unrealistic to expect students to know what “your own work” means? Is that phrase so vague that it requires explanation? I don’t think so… but if you disagree, please comment below to help me see the flaws in my reasoning. Do you use or know of other strategies to help students see the bigger picture about personal integrity? Please share!


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on June 8, 2015, in Learning, Professional Development, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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