Building a Culture of Integrity, Part 1: “Cheating Lessons” book club

Over the last 9 months, I’ve had the privilege of working with a group of dedicated educators in the Dalhousie Faculty of Engineering to explore building a culture of integrity. In this, the first of three posts about our work and its outcomes, I’ll describe our faculty learning community. Part 2 is about a survey we ran with Engineering students and how we analyzed their responses. Part 3 brings it all together with a resource we created for course instructors. Our analysis of responses and the resource for course instructors are still drafts. The co-authors are not ready to have their names appear in public so while I can’t give their names, I want to acknowledge these were collaborative projects and I wouldn’t have anything to write about without these colleagues.

Like every other Department, Faculty, School, and University, course instructors in the Faculty of Engineering at Dalhousie struggled with a rise in academic dishonesty during the Fall 2020 Term, the first full term forced online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than looking for surveillance solutions, the Associate Dean (“the AD”) was keen to play the long game and find ways to change the culture of the Faculty so that cheating wasn’t an option students considered, and if they did stray, it didn’t help them.

Jim Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (2013) is the blueprint for what came next.

I pitched the idea to the AD that we should run a “book club” where a group of well-situated members of the Faculty read the book together. The AD liked it and immediately contacted each Department Chair inviting them to join the cohort and to bring 1 or 2 influential course instructors from their Department. By January, 2021, we had a cohort of about 15 people, including me, the AD, a good number of the Department Chairs, and a group of course instructors, every one of us dedicated to teaching and learning. With the support of the Dean, everyone received a copy of Cheating Lessons.

From January – April, 2021, I led four 60-minute, online conversations based directly on three critical questions Lang poses in Cheating Lessons.

Conversation 1: Why should students bother to memorize or learn or connect or do their own work when technology can often provide them with the information they need (more) quickly and efficiently?

Themes that emerged from reading Chapter 9 “On Original Work” and our conversation:

  1. There is certain knowledge — vocabulary, mathematical skills, scientific knowledge — engineers need to recall quickly to begin analyzing, applying, and designing and afterwards, evaluating and checking solutions
  2. The act of memorizing and recalling information helps students learn.
  3. You don’t find novel problems and designs on the internet.

Conversation 2: Why should students bother to do their own work when others can do it better and more easily?

Themes that emerged from reading Chapter 4 “Fostering Intrinsic Motivation” and our conversation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation increases as students more get hands-on experience with authentic engineering problems.
  2. There is ample opportunity in the activities of the courses and program to create opportunities where students are intrinsically motivated to engage and learn.
  3. Assessments, from homework problems to term projects, can be intrinsically motivating when they are grounded in the students’ knowledge, skills, and experiences.

Conversation 3: Why should students bother to complete an assignment on their own when three of them working together may complete it more effectively?

Themes that emerged from reading Chapter 7 “Instilling Self-Efficacy” and our conversation:

  1. We need to convince students to invest the time and energy to learn, not to earn marks.
  2. We need to find ways to boost their self-confidence. This might mean rewarding their progress and incremental successes, without punishing them for getting something wrong. It might be their perception (and experience) that getting the correct answer the only way to be successful.

Conversation 4: What do we do next?

Chapter 8 “Cheating on Campus” is very nearly a step-by-step guide for creating and communicating a program for academically honest education:

  1. Begin the Conversation among the Faculty
  2. Continue It Into the Community
  3. Time It Well
  4. Focus Academic Integrity Campaigns on Education, Not Ethics

I’m happy to say we followed this advice quite well. In Part 2, you can read about the academic integrity survey and focus groups we ran with Engineering students, and how we analyzed their responses. And in Part 3, I’ll share the resource we drafted with strategies for course instructors to promote integrity in the way they teach. The goal is to share this resource with every instructor in Engineering in August while their preparing their Fall courses.


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