TLEF snapshot: Helping to teach academic integrity

By Heather McCabe posted on January 9th, 2018

Laurie McNeill is Chair of First-Year Programs in the Faculty of Arts and an Instructor in the Department of English at UBC. She discussed how her Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) project , which received funding in 2017, is helping to teach students about ethical research and academic integrity.

How did the idea for this project emerge?

Laurie McNeill: This project emerged out of my own experience, and my co-applicant’s, Stefania Burk’s, experiences as part of the institutional apparatus that responds to academic misconduct. So as Chair of First-Year programs, academic misconduct cases in Arts One, CAP [the Coordinated Arts Program] and ASRW [Arts Studies in Research Writing] are reported up to me, and then I meet with those students. In Stefania’s case, as Associate Dean Academic, cases that I report up go to her and then she also meets with students.

So I had been having these encounters with students under very challenging circumstances for them. By the time they got up to me, they realize they’re in some serious trouble. But I had such productive, interesting, informative experiences in working with those students in what were supposed to be disciplinary meetings; they gave me real insights into where we as an institution were failing to meet the needs of students. Most of the cases were not students who had intended to cheat, but who either ran into a set of circumstances that made it impossible for them to see what other options they had or who just lacked basic understanding of how to do research in ethical ways.

In my non-administrative role, I’m an instructor of academic writing. So it’s my job to teach that very course in which students are supposed to get this grounding in academic integrity or avoiding academic misconduct. I could bring that understanding to these cases in ways that other department heads may not. This is my bread and butter, and so in the student meetings I could ask the kind of follow-up questions about how did you end up making this particular kind of error and see that they have this particular kind of gap.

Stefania and I would meet to talk about these cases and we realized that surely there were things that we could do better for these students because there were not only very clear gaps in practical knowledge (how you do ethical research), but also one thing that was really missing was a kind of theoretical knowledge: why you would bother doing ethical research other than not getting caught. Why do we care about academic integrity at this institution? And that’s where we saw opportunities to really intervene and make a change in how we teach this topic.

How will this project help enrich student learning and how will it impact teaching?

LM: I’m going to start with the teaching part first if that’s okay. We have a working group of faculty from Arts One, CAP and ASRW, the three first-year programs that teach the writing course in those three units. What we have done as a group is collaborate to develop a series of exercises that approach different parts of this concept. For example, we teach an exercise in which we have students read the academic calendar as well as other documents that help them understand not only how the institution disciplines academic misconduct but also why the institution cares about academic integrity. In taking this approach, one of the things we’re trying to do is shift the language away from cheating and misconduct to integrity.

The working group is also assessing the effectiveness of our new academic integrity curriculum, as well as testing student understanding, in a series of surveys, focus groups, and interviews. We’re interviewing faculty as well as students so that we can assess faculty attitudes as well because many faculty bring implicit bias into their engagements with students with a sort of default assumption that cheating is some kind of moral violation and therefore should be responded to in a certain kind of way, and we’re trying to change that mindset, as well, and think about how faculty can better articulate—for themselves and for their students—why it’s a topic that makes people react so strongly.

So that’s the teaching side. In terms of how this will impact student learning, the goals of the project are to have students having gone through this revised curriculum have a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be a member of this academic community and academic integrity’s role in that. At the university, they are student-scholars, and they need to understand how to take up their responsibilities in this community; understanding the values and the practices of academic integrity helps them take their place at the table.

On a less lofty side, it also should result in fewer cases of students being reported for academic misconduct. It’s a very stressful situation and therefore could address issues of student wellness and anxiety.

What are your main goals with this project?

LM: The different understanding of academic integrity as an essential part of the ethics of learning, of knowledge production. Students should be able to leave our courses and understand how to do ethical research at the university writ large, no matter what disciplinary setting they’re in. One of the things we’re trying to do is also cut the cord that associates academic integrity as only mattering in the writing course. It matters when you’re in your history class. It matters in your psychology class. It matters when you’re in graduate school, when you have a job at the Royal Bank of Canada after graduation. Yes, this is a value that matters here at university, but of course integrity matters more broadly. So they will leave our courses with a portable and flexible understanding of this concept as well as the practical aspects, such as how to cite a website, for example, and these kinds of things. And if they don’t know how to do it, they will be able to find out how to do it in the different settings that matter.

That’s a big goal, and the other goal I touched on earlier, as well, is to change the conversation within the faculty who are teaching not only these courses, but ultimately more broadly. We would like to take this conversation outside of just first-year writing in Arts to think about how this matters at the university, so a cross-campus conversation, because certainly all of our colleagues are engaged in these questions; they matter for us as scholars doing our own research, as well as teaching.

And the third is another faculty goal, which is to support faculty in learning how to teach, giving them some practical plug-and-play models of examples of exercises, assignments, learning techniques they can use to teach this topic.

Have you started to implement the project?

LM: Yes, it’s in play in multiple sections of these three courses. We did a pilot last year, so we’re building on the pilot now that we got the TLEF funding. So we’ve scaled it up.