Academic Integrity as part of Personal Integrity

As you may know, I teach at an independent school in Brooklyn. It is a K-12 school, with about 80 kids per grade in the Upper School (grades 9-12). I love that even though there are around 320+ kids in the Upper School, there is a sense of community and belonging. For this to happen, a lot of stuff has to be going right. I have my gripes, believe you me, but when you take a step back and see all the good, well, I am proud.

At the same time, our kids are under a lot of pressure. Pressure they put on themselves, pressure we put on them, and pressure they get from their parents. They tend to overextend themselves — from sports and music and dance to SAT tutors to clubs to horseback riding to writing computer programs. And that’s on top of  the regular school work we assign — which can end up being a lot.

And in our school, students cheat. (That’s probably not special to my school.)

I know students cheat. I’ve been on the Student-Faculty Judiciary Committee (read: disciplinary committee) for the past two years. I’ve seen it all. The most common form of cheating? The one that is rampant? Homework copying.

Anyhoo–I’m helping lead a group of 15 teachers to investigate “integrity” in the Upper School. Where and how we teach it formally and informally? Where we fall short? How other schools teach/model integrity? So that we can find concrete and specific ways to improve our own practice.

It’s not a bunch of fluff. One of the most eye-opening things for me was a discussion that I had with my homeroom last year about cheating. We had a frank, honest, open conversation — where I posed some questions and hypothesticals and just listened to them talk. It was a judgment-free zone. What impressed me about the conversation was that students had passionate views about the subject, about the role teachers play (read: busywork versus meaningful assignments), and their ability to voice their views confidently. What surprised me about the conversation was that the word “integrity” (or “morality”) did not enter into the discussion until I mentioned it at the end. Mostly their views were: it’s okay to cheat on small things, like homework, because you’re just hurting yourself. [1] It doesn’t really matter.

Most the other homeroom teachers I talked to told me their kids said similar things.

We want our kids to behave with integrity. We can’t force them to buy into it. But I see two things that we can do to promote personal integrity.

1. Model personal integrity as a teacher. How? Easy. “If you say you’re going to do something, do it.” [1]

2. Talk explicitly about integrity, and not just once. If it isn’t just you as a teacher doing this, but a whole slew of teachers, well, at the very least, the words and the ideas will be floating around in the school zeitgeist. As our learning specialist said: Naming things has power. Don’t just be implicit. Be explicit.

I try to do (1) all the time. Hello, my motto: clear, consistent, and fair. This year, however, I’m talking about (2) explicitly.

Specifically, one of the things kids have trouble with at my school is with collaboration. Different teachers have different expectations regarding collaboration. And what’s okay in one class is not okay in another. It can be confusing. And you know what? It’s hard to decide where the line is — between acceptable and unacceptable collaboration. There are grey areas. And saying “you can work together but you have to write up your work separately” is a cop out. The ambiguity present in that phrase is ridic.

So what I did was write three skits to be performed with another teacher, and had kids think about the following four questions:

  1. Where in the collaboration does the learning taking place?
  2. What are the positive pieces to the collaboration?
  3. What are the negative pieces to the collaboration?
  4. If you were in this collaboration, what are ways you could make the collaboration more productive?

The skits are below. [2]

I had kids take notes during the skits, after seeing these four questions, and then we had an informal conversation. It was one of the best things I’ve done in the classroom. Everyone had something to say. They responded to each other. They were thoughtful and mature. And most importantly for me, in each skit, they really thought about who was learning and who wasn’t in each collaboration. What I’m hoping is that this translates — even for one or two of them — into thinking about the way they collaborate with others on their assignments, and if there is a better way to collaborate.

I am going to have my kids engage in groupwork this year, and I hope I remember to ask them at the end of a class with a lot of group work: what was positive about their groupwork, what was negative, who was learning and how do you know, and how they could have made their groupwork better?

The big conclusion that I shared with them — and it’s something I only stumbled upon this year when thinking about academic integrity and collaboration:

I’m also going to start putting honor statements on all my assessments.

Again, not because I think it will “force” kids to act with integrity. You can’t force that. But it puts the idea of integrity out there in the zeitgeist. And who knows, if they see and hear and talk about it enough, it might reframe what students think about when they think about cheating: cheating is bad because I can get in trouble vs. cheating is bad because it diminishes the trust that others can put in me.

[1] I had this idea a while ago, but it was echoed by a teacher at my school at a recent meeting.

[2] In case you were wondering, Skit 1 borders on being unacceptable collaboration. Skit 2 is unacceptable collaboration. I made a blanket rule, after talking about this with my kids, that no student is ever allowed to give their homework to someone else, under any circumstances. Skit 3 is ideal.



  1. My classes often encourage collaboration, but I require that all collaboration be acknowledged in writing. I put in the syllabus for each class:

    Anyone caught cheating in the class will be reported to their college provost (see UCSC policy on academic integrity) and may fail the class. Cheating includes any attempt to claim someone else’s work as your own. Plagiarism in any form (including close paraphrasing) will be considered cheating. Use of any source without proper citation will be considered cheating. If you are not certain about citation standards, please ask, as I hate having to fail students because they were improperly taught how to cite sources.

    Collaboration without explicit written acknowledgment will be considered cheating. Collaboration on lab assignments with explicit written acknowledgment is encouraged—guidelines for the extent of reasonable collaboration will be given in class.

    I usually spend a few minutes on the first day of class discussing what I mean by “explicit written acknowledgement” and students are usually pretty good about providing it.

  2. I think you’re right on the mark about making integrity an explicit value in your classroom and at your school. At the school I’m currently working at the main goal is to prepare every student to succeed in college (which is quite difficult as the students generally enter the school slightly below average in most subjects). Part of the realization of that goal is to emphasize a number of core characteristics we believe makes successful students. One of the characteristics we enforce is integrity.

    When integrity issues arise we often talk to the students about the core characteristics and how their actions contradict the characteristics which determine successful students. However, beyond that, at various times during the year we have the students fill out self evaluations which outline various degrees of the specific characteristics and examples of where they may fall on the spectrum depending on their actions inside and outside of school. By constantly modeling and talking about the core characteristics I believe that we somewhat diminish the issues which can arise around integrity.

    1. Those evaluations seem like a pretty good idea. If you get a chance and it isn’t a hassle, could you email me a copy of them? (My address is samjshah at gmail.)

  3. Awesome dialogue, and adept use of the old chestnut asymptote joke. I’m wondering about this conversation happening in a ungraded homework SBG magic land. This is approximately where I live right now, and the theory is that cheating on homework should seem pointless because it won’t help them on the skill assessment.

    But… I like the idea that students need to hear that looking at the answers is an ineffective learning method. Oh, and the whole integrity thing.

  4. I like, I like. To me the idea of keeping the issue of integrity active throughout the year, but not in a tiresome, didactic, accusatory way, is key. One thing I like to do is based on the studies that show that simply bringing up the issue in the moment, and reminding students that cheating is bad, decreases cheating on a test. I wanted to do that in a non-boring way, so I thought up some “integrity questions” that they are supposed to answer, taking just half a minute, before getting their test, such as:

    * Who do you know who embodies integrity?
    (Sample answers: various relatives, previous teachers, Obama, Harry Potter, and sadly, a few times “no one”.)
    * What is a problem in the world that is largely due to a lack of integrity?
    * Does technology help people to have integrity or not?
    * How would you feel if you knew someone was cheating on a test you were taking?

    I have no idea if this technique works, but I hope it helps a little.

    I have not worried too much in the past about their homework, but maybe I should. It’s not worth much of their grade, in my system, so they don’t have much incentive to cheat on it, and I don’t see a lot of red flags there. But maybe I’m fooling myself.

    In terms of in-class collaboration, one of the things I really want to do, but haven’t yet made time for, is some meta-discussion, much as you talk about: getting kids to figure out and verbalize what works for them in groupwork and what doesn’t. Certainly, with the big increase in groupwork I have done this year, I have seen a lot of happy faces, but also some sullen ones, who clearly long for a lecture that they aren’t going to get. I do need to reach out to them by having a discussion and getting the kids to be more proactive in helping their less enthusiastic classmates.

  5. I have a more enforcement based approach — I think there should be occasional no collaboration allowed homework, one’s where you are not allowed to talk to anyone about the homework except the teacher.

    I think that one of the reasons students have problems with collaboration crossing into cheating is that it can be shades of gray in collaborations, and students, especially are difficult at telling the difference between shades of gray. I remember watching a collaboration team in college once where one student found all the answers and the other carried the books. I think neither of them understood that something wrong was happening. The student carrying the books was really bad at finding the answers and was trying to do his best to contribute to the collaboration.

    I think students delude themselves in that way, even when they’re not trying to cheat. Then, they edge into copying the homework, convincing themselves that they’re checking the other students work. It’s only when they try to do the work independently that they realize they haven’t learned it.

    1. Oh, I misread your comment and thought that you said you wanted NO COLLABORATION on any homework. But rather, you said every so often, have a “no collaboration homework.”

      I don’t think I have a problem with kids working all the time with each other, so it’s not something I feel compelled to do. But I do agree that collaborating can sometimes get in the way of independent learning. Which is why in those skits we talk about working together on EVERY problems, or just a few.

      And when I speak individually with students, I talk to them about *how* they do their homework. And I emphasize that if their books & notes are closed, and they can do it, that’s a good sign. If they’re referring to the book or class notes for every problem, that’s a problem.

  6. PS: I think the skits are great, too, that you’re helping the kids learn about the gray areas. But, I also think there has to be some test of the learning, or they’ll slide back into the eliding of truth, even to themselves.

  7. I like the idea of modeling group collaboration for the students. How are students supposed to see what they can get out of group work if no one shows or tells them? Also, students need to be responsible for their own learning in addition to what knowledge a teacher gives them, especially when it comes to group work. Everyone in the group should understand the material to the same level (or close to the same level at least).

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