Sunday, April 11, 2021

Ungrading and academic integrity

Don’t call a threat an opportunity

Don’t call it integrity when you really mean compliance

My university has an academic integrity policy, and who could argue against integrity? If only the policy was really about integrity. Instead, the policy is really about rules, and the consequences of violations of those rules. It indicates that faculty are obligated to initiate a process when they detect student conduct that runs afoul of those rules. The process starts with faculty confronting students with evidence of their violation(s) and can culminate with a hearing and potentially the student’s dismissal. Faculty were recently informed that should the student retain counsel for that hearing that the university would provide counsel for the faculty.

I don’t see much emphasis on integrity in this policy. To be clear, I think our academic integrity policy is fair and clear. But it really is a compliance policy, or perhaps a punishment policy, not an integrity policy. The few times when I’ve engaged with the process I have found it distasteful and without benefit to student or faculty. There was no examination of the context of the behavior in question. The only thing the students learned was that I (and the university) was their adversary.

Considerable scholarship exists about academic cheating, and the topic has gained attention during the pivot to online instruction as a result of the pandemic. Software that locks down browsers, facial recognition, eye tracking; we’ve sacrificed privacy on the alter of rigor, and trusting students has never been an option.

In my opinion students cheat for one of three reasons (or some combination): students don’t see the value in doing the work, or they don’t believe they can achieve that value if they do the work required of them, or they don’t know how to complete the work. Students cheat because they see the work as busy work, work that has no value. My students aren’t lazy. They have jobs in addition to school, they have family obligations, they have financial concerns that sometimes include housing and food insecurity. They also binge watch entertainment and play video games for hours on end. They have the ability to pay attention when their circumstances and their interests allow it.

The solution to cheating is to address the motivation to cheat, not the consequences of cheating. Why would students cheat if they believed in the value (benefit) of the work, believed the work would produce the benefit, and believed they could complete the work? Our job as faculty is convince students of the first two ideas and help them with the third. And then we trust students to act in their own self-interest.

I got to this realization during my ungrading progress. Ungrading is not a set of practices or tools, but rather a mindset about the purpose of education and the relationship between student and instructor. There’s a clear parallel in my mind between academic integrity policies and grading. Course requirements are the rules about cheating that students must not violate, and grades are the punishments that can result from engagement of the academic integrity process. Both are built on mistrust of students.

Ungrading has challenged me to examine and refocus on the benefits of my courses. What do I want my students to get out of my courses? Even better, what do my students want to get out of my courses? If my students and I can come to some agreement about the potential benefits of our course – through discussion – then I don’t have to worry about cheating because the students have defined the benefits and had a say in the work that will produce those benefits. I would even honor their request to have some activities graded, but they would have to convince me that the grading produced some benefit for them.

Although I got to this realization through ungrading, I think this approach can work in graded courses too. You just need to carve out some time at the start of a course (and perhaps some reminders along the way) to discuss the potential benefits of the course, the work that could produce the benefits, and the instruction needed to complete the work.

This is not as easy as it sounds, not for the students or the instructor. But the benefits of talking with students about the benefits and the work far outweigh the costs in terms of time and effort. One of the meaningful benefits is that cheating will not concern you. In fact, giving students a say in designing the work and then removing the threat of punishment (grades) forces students to consider how their actions match up with their academic ideals, or actual academic integrity. Far from allowing or encouraging cheating, ungrading affords students with the opportunity to exercise and explore their academic integrity.


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