How Two U.S. Universities are Preventing and Combating Academic Integrity Breaches in Higher Education

On left: Kevin Pitt, Director of the Office of Student Conduct, Rutgers University. Photo: AFP Eduardo Muñoz. On right: Brett Christie, Director of Quality Learning & Teaching, California State University. Photo: AFP John Hefti.

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Quick take: With proper tools and data analysis, Rutgers University and California State University are fighting academic violations such as plagiarism.

Competitiveness, non-affordable textbooks, and international students used to different standards when it comes to plagiarism, are amongst the biggest challenges for universities when it comes to academic integrity. Despite all the obstacles, directors at Rutgers University and California State University, reveal strategies to prevent and stop the increasing cases of academic dishonesty in America’s higher education institutions.

With more than 250 years of academic history, never before has Rutgers University encountered so many cases of academic integrity violations. During the 2016-2017 school year, 686 cases of academic dishonesty were registered, a 77% increase since 2011, and an average of 16% increase per year in the 2011-2017 time period. “Our numbers are exploding,” says Kevin Pitt, director of the Office of Student Conduct – a department that supports the educational goals of Rutgers University by facilitating processes that assist students in making better choices in regards to their behavior. The fact that the university currently has only one staff member fully dedicated to this issue is not stopping them from improving their methods. “This is a huge issue, to the point where we have a task force here on our campus to look deeper into it,” he adds.

Kevin Pitt, Director de la Oficina de Conducta Estudiantil de la Universidad de Rutgers. Foto: AFP Eduardo Muñoz.
Kevin Pitt, Director of the Office of Student Conduct, Rutgers University. Photo: AFP Eduardo Muñoz.

Pitt is concerned, but he’s not the only one. The number of violations is also becoming one of the main concerns nationally amongst Rutgers’ peers. But they are not waiting for the problem to go away. Rutgers and many other schools are working harder than ever to face academic dishonesty, especially when technology plays a major part of students’ lives, and makes it easier to cheat, plagiarize and fabricate papers. In fact, Rutgers defines violations into seven types, which also include facilitation of dishonesty, academic sabotage, violation of research or professional ethics, and violations involving potentially criminal activity.

But who are the main ‘villains’ in this tale? Well, there’s no doubt that social media has a lot to do with the increasing numbers of violations in American universities. But not just that: technology, in general, can and is being used to get straight A’s, even when students haven’t got a clue of what’s been going on in the classroom – especially virtual ones.

“Well, there’s no doubt that social media has a lot to do with the increasing numbers of violations in American universities. But not just that.”

“Of course, with technology, it’s easier than ever. With smartphones, smartwatches, all types of devices that facilitate to download a paper, to solve a math problem, to Google an answer. There are so many websites that you can use that make it a lot easier to cheat,” says Pitt. But technology can also be used to find who is cheating. “You can use technology to trace them,” he admits. “But it’s like, when you build a wall, you just need to get a bigger ladder. And technology, in general, is always changing. So that’s what makes it more difficult for us to keep up with cheaters.”

Competitiveness and international students are key factors in the growth of violations

However, technology can’t take all the blame. There’s a multitude of reasons as to why students are breaking the rules. Getting a great GPA (Grade Point Average), going to an amazing college and succeeding in the job market, is becoming more and more competitive each year. One point in a student’s GPA could make the difference between getting into the law or medical school of their choice, or even getting a position in an exclusive firm on Wall Street, for that matter.

“They’re more out of the classroom now in an attempt to distinguish themselves and their resumes. The pressure is there to cut corners,” Pitt says. Which bring up a good point. To get that A, or that extra advantage point, students are becoming busier and trying to do more with their time. But there’s just not enough hours in a day to do everything they set themselves to accomplish. Also, the cost of higher education has increased in America, so a lot of students are working to pay their tuition. “The demands and the pressures are high, and if they can’t maintain the academic rigor, they end up making poor choices,” believes Pitt.

Gráfico: el número creciente de violaciones académicas en la Universidad de Rutgers. 2011 - 2012: 270 violaciones. 2012 - 2013: 220. 2013 - 2014: 314. 2014 - 2015: 472. 2015 - 2016: 478. 2016 - 2017: 686. Ha habido un aumento del 77% desde 2011, y un aumento promedio del 16% cada año, de 2011 a 2017

Another issue is that the international student population is in a boom right now in the United States. More often than not, international students’ standards are very different when it comes to plagiarism and other kinds of violations. So there’s an effort to educate them on the American standards that need to be met, but that also takes time to produce noticeable results.

Affordability is also an issue that can lead students to violate tests

Dr. Brett Christie is the Director of Quality Learning & Teaching at California State University (CSU), Academic Technology Services. Although he agrees that technology and international students are in part responsible for the growing numbers of academic violations all over America, there’s another side to that coin.

Brett Christie, Director de Quality Learning & Teaching, California State University. Foto: AFP John Hefti.
Brett Christie, Director of Quality Learning & Teaching, California State University. Photo: AFP John Hefti.

“Another cause I would mention is affordability, which is a huge issue for students,” says Christie. “We know that the majority of students report not buying at least one required textbook each semester, due to the cost of it. That’s because they have to make critical decisions based on their livelihood.”

“It gets to a point where they have to balance it out: how well are they going to eat versus the number of textbooks they’re going to purchase. And that’s a big reality in our system,” Christie alerts. Naturally, some students might try to cheat on tests so they can go on with the course and still keep their stomachs full.

At Cal State, offering affordable solutions to get the content they need is part of their strategy to lower violation cases. “I think that’s something unique that we’re doing here at CSU. We partner with bookstores, vendors and libraries. And we also work to increase faculty awareness about more affordable content options for their courses, so this is less of an obstacle for students and less of a temptation for them in trying to go around the content and sometimes cheat,” says the director.

Most popular violations

Both at Rutgers and Cal State University, plagiarism is considered, by far, the most popular form of academic violation. Cheating and fabrication complete the “greatest hits” list of preferred methods used by students at these schools.

There are many types of violations, as listed on Rutgers University’s Academic Integrity Policy:

PlagiarismThe use of another person’s words, ideas, or results without giving that person appropriate credit.
CheatingThe use of inappropriate or prohibited materials, information, sources, or aids in any academic exercise.
FabricationThe invention or falsification of sources, citations, data, or results, and recording or reporting them in any academic exercise.
Facilitation of dishonestyKnowingly or negligently allowing one’s work to be used by other students without prior approval of the instructor or otherwise aiding others in committing violations of academic integrity.
Academic sabotageDeliberately impeding the academic progress of others.
Violation of Research or Professional EthicsViolations of the code of ethics specific to a particular profession and violations of more generally applicable ethical requirements for the acquisition, analysis, and reporting of research data and the preparation and submission of scholarly work for publication.
Violations Involving Potentially Criminal ActivityViolations in this category include theft, fraud, forgery, or distribution of ill-gotten materials committed as part of an act of academic dishonesty.

Knowing your data and visiting the countries your students are coming from is the answer to fighting academic violations at Rutgers

Rutgers also has unique ways to fight this ‘academic epidemic.’ “We’re really focused on data,” says Pitt. “We’re digging in our data here at Rutgers and finding out what classes they are cheating the most on, what year they are, what their typical GPA is, their gender and race. We’re doing all that we can to find out more.”

What they found out, until now, is that universities have to come up with new languages to educate this population.

Rutgers has been trying different trainings, reproducing videos, trying to meet students where they are – be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or… their native country. Evidently, Rutgers has visited China, for instance, in order to meet with students before they go to the United States. “Not all universities are doing this, actually flying staff to other countries, to try and educate them on our standards. Of course, we don’t just talk about academic integrity, but that’s certainly a big part of what we do on those trips,” Pitt clarifies.

Rutgers’ next move is trying to become more relevant on social media: Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the main focuses in target advertising to their students on academic integrity.

What to do when online learning becomes the preferential target for cheaters

With an academic integrity policy that covers online and traditional classes, Rutgers is studying new ways to prevent violations from happening on their virtual education environments. One possibility for the near future, is for students who take online classes to visit one of Rutgers’ 3 campuses to write their examinations. “They would have to show their IDs to prove who they are. When the tests happen remotely, it’s harder to be certain about who is taking them,” says Pitt.

At Cal State, the Quality Assurance in Online Learning program, which was implemented in 2011, was awarded for Outstanding Impact by an Organization, at the Annual Quality Matters Conference, last year. “We started this program in 2011, based on the development of Quality Online Learning and Teaching (QOLT), which was informed by Quality Matters and other existing instruments. By developing these instruments, we’ve been able to create training courses for faculty and instructional staff, and it helps them most effectively to develop and deliver online courses,” Christie explains.

Related to that, Cal State’s campuses and instructors have a number of tools to fight academic dishonesty, such as SafeAssign, one of the many tools developed by Blackboard Open LMS, and which helps students identify how to properly attribute sources rather than paraphrase. Exam proctoring solutions are also in use at Cal State – amongst their actions are lockdowns on students’ computers and testing sessions, identification of areas of possible cheating in recorded videos, and watching test takers via webcam.

Also at Cal State, course design is another alternative to get students more interested in their classes and, as a consequence, less inclined to cheat. “We really try to get the instructor to think about their student learning outcomes. That’s what guides the course and the students. So, if the instructor designs the course in a way that’s more aligned with the outcomes, writes it more effectively, and shows students how it aligns with different activities and experiences, I think that’s a more effective way and guide for students to complete the course and be prepared for the various assessments,” Christie believes.

In online learning environments, in particular, instructors have to think of different assessment methods in their course design in order to challenge students, so more personalized responses are found, and therefore more grades based on individual performance can be given, as opposed to answering automated questions that have just one right option. “But with online courses, sometimes people use it as a way to scale the number of students in a course, and the downside of that is using forms of assessments that are more automated and efficient. The more automated they are, sometimes the more problematic areas you’re going to have, as far as academic integrity and cheating,” observes Christie.

The founding father of research on academic integrity

At Rutgers, prof. Donald McCabe (1944-2016) is considered the ‘founding father’ of research on academic integrity. Amongst his discoveries is the fact that universities with honor codes can play a part in reducing dishonest behavior, especially when strongly embedded in the organizational culture.

“What do you want to do with your life?”

There are no easy answers and solutions to end academic integrity violations. Both Pitt and Christie agree that raising awareness on the issue and focusing on preventing violations from happening is what will get the number of cases down in the years to come. “Keeping close to students and faculty and talking about it is what can make the difference to build a healthier learning environment for everyone,” Christie affirms.

Also, making students think about the consequences of their actions, not only on campus, but in the world out there, can be very helpful in these situations. “Here at Rutgers, we try to connect the micro to the macro. We try to show them that their actions have consequences and if they did something similar when working at a top firm, for example, that could lead to serious punishments. We believe in this tie, so they can think about their actions and, hopefully, try to follow a better path in their studies and careers in the future,” concludes Pitt.

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