Academic Integrity

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant On Academic Honesty in Remote-First Instruction

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Since March 2020, instructors and students have been facing a lot of stress, which turned into something even more devastating—despair and burnout. But what could motivate them to overcome these?

In our latest, inspiring conversation with Dr.Tricia Bertram Gallant, we dived into many burning questions like that one. We touched on the ways remote instruction influences academic honesty, essential arrangements for reconnecting with students, navigating between teaching students to use tools, and how educators can use these tools to discourage academic honesty violations. So many questions, so many great insights!

So, please welcome, Dr.Tricia Bertram Gallant, an expert in academic integrity with over 18 years of experience. As an active member of the Advisory Council at the International Center for Academic Integrity since 2002, Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant has made a series of publications on the ethical academy, cheating in school, and academic integrity in the 21st century. Currently, she’s managing the academic integrity initiative for about 28,000 students at UC San Diego.

Now that the intro’s been made, it’s time to explore the insights shared!

Unicheck: In your opinion, how has a rapid switch to remote instruction affected academic honesty and the level of students cheating?

Tricia: We don’t know for sure. Because we don’t have international data. It’s really hard to know exactly how many students cheat, because we either have to study it and find out their actual behaviors or we have to depend on their self-reports of cheating.

And so it’s always an imperfect measurement, but we know from research about why people cheat, that we can expect that more students were cheating during this time because people tend to make bad decisions under stress and pressure.

That’s when we start to lose our personal moral and ethical compasses, and we will do things that we wouldn’t do in other circumstances. And so, you take that, plus the remote instruction, where people all of a sudden who were used to being proctored—used to sitting in an exam room with an instructor watching them, and maybe some teaching assistants watching them, other students around them, watching them. That sense of being watched actually does help people internally regulate their behaviors. And all of a sudden, that was gone. So we had a perfect storm.

The stress of COVID-19, of threats to safety and security and survival—plus, all the sudden unfettered temptations and opportunities when I’m doing assessments—a perfect storm to create more cheating than might otherwise happen.

Unicheck: What would you recommend doing to motivate students to follow the principles of academic honesty, even during these difficult times?

Tricia: I think we’ve gotten through the worst of it in the sense that people have now spent several months in remote instruction. I hate to say that we’re getting used to COVID or the stay at home things, but people are getting used to it now. There’re still some people who are mightily struggling. But for the average student, they’re probably kind of leveled off in terms of “this is what it is.” It’s not that big of a deal anymore in terms of remote instruction: “I’m used to it.”

And so, we should have the opportunity now to reconnect people to their own desire to have integrity. The majority of our students don’t want to cheat. They’re not coming into higher education saying, “I’m going to cheat my way through. I have no desire to learn. Who cares?” That’s not the majority of our students; the majority of our students actually want to learn. They want to be engaged. They want to be taught.

They want to develop skills and knowledge and abilities that will help them get jobs and be successful in their life. We just have to refocus now on that internal desire for those things. We need to enhance them by instructors designing their classes so they’d focus on learning and mastery and not just performance and showing up. Designing authentic assessments, creating a sense of community in this online class.

We really do have to make extra efforts to connect with our students, make sure they feel heard and seen and noticed. And so we have to create a sense of community. We have to show care and support.

Instead of just saying, “well, I guess they’re failing.” We could say, “I’m going to reach out to that student and see how they’re doing.” Maybe something’s going on that I can’t help them with, but at least if I show care, they’re less likely to cheat to solve those problems because they would feel bad about cheating on us.

So, designing great, engaged learning environments, showing care and support, creating community. And then, of course, talking about integrity. We have to talk about it. It’s proven in research that reminders of integrity can help reduce cheating. So we have to talk about it regularly and on every assignment, reminding students what the purpose of the assignment is, why integrity is important, and putting it in language that they understand: fairness, honesty, trust, the value of their degree is upheld if people aren’t cheating.

Unicheck: In this new reality, it’s also the instructors who might be struggling with burnout. What would you advise to keep them in their high spirits to care about integrity?

Tricia: I’ve definitely seen the burnout, and truth be told, I felt burnt out in June and July because it felt like we all were tired. We all had experienced this huge transition suddenly, and it exhausted instructors and students and everybody alike. There are some discouraged, disappointed faculty right now at the actions of students who took advantage of the temptations and opportunities that were presented to them. And they’re a bit dispirited.

So, what I’ve been trying to do is remind them that it’s still not the majority of students. And I think we forget that when the numbers of cheating go up, we still forget that the majority of students are not cheating all of the time.

It’s still young people if we’re talking about the traditional age for students. It’s 17 to 21, very young. So, I remind professors of how many bad decisions they made at that age that they regretted. It’s hard with faculty cause they’re learners, they’re PhDs. And so, they would never probably have cheated in school, but they would have done some other stuff that was dishonest, disrespectful, irresponsible, unfair, and untrustworthy. Reminding them of the human nature of our students could help.

Our job is to start fresh every time because we do teach a brand new set of students every time we start a course and to respect the dignity of those students and trust in their abilities to join the community and act with integrity, given the right environment, and to not give up in that sense and not let the past dictate how they approach the next generation of students.

But professors, in general, feel unappreciated because there’s a lot of talk about remote instruction and its low efficacy. So, showing our instructors some great appreciation would be a lot of help.

Unicheck: As for technology, is it capable of preventing plagiarism and improving the learning process itself?

Tricia: I always say technology is a tool. Students are using technology to cheat, and it’s unfair to expect faculty to detect and prevent cheating without the same technology. At the same time, we don’t want to engage in a technological arms race with our students because they will win, because younger people always win with technology. They’re always ahead of us, old people. What’s the newest, latest, greatest thing to do whatever they want to do.

Tools are helpful. And what I say to faculty or anybody who’s grading assignments is that you have two responsibilities when it comes to your role as a teacher, one is to facilitate learning, that involves the course design, the assessment design, showing up, being a good, engaged teacher, but you also have a responsibility to honestly and fairly assess learning. So, you use the tools to check for integrity to first make sure that you’re grading something that the student wrote that is an honest representation of their knowledge and abilities.

A degree says that this student has a bachelor’s level knowledge. And that comes with a lot of expectations of communication skills and interpersonal skills and critical thinking skills. And if we go ahead and grade submissions without first checking for integrity, then those degrees lose their value, and society can’t trust us anymore for what it is we say we do.

Unicheck: If you were to draw a picture of an ideal academic integrity environment, what would it be like?

Tricia: My dream for a future of academic integrity is that we really take a pause and go back to basics. We think about the right environments, the right assessments, the right kind of teaching, not for the 20th century, but for the 21st century.

That will refocus all of us in education on the most important thing, which is learning and growth of our students because our students are the future citizens and professionals, and we not only want them to be ethical, but we want them to be smart and not just intellectually smart, but emotionally intelligent.

So, my dream, if I was in charge, would be to stop the race, and rethink it all. I guess, probably one thing that most people have heard me say came from my first book in 2008, which was, “we have to stop asking how do we stop cheating? And we have to start asking how we can best facilitate learning?” And, if we don’t do that, we’re just going to be caught in this technological arms race with students, which not only we won’t win, but it puts us as adversaries against them rather than partners in learning with them. And I’d rather us be partners in learning with our students than not.

PS: Enjoyed reading this conversation? Explore another one with Teresa Fishman, educator, integrity consultant, and the former Director of ICAI.

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