Wednesday, May 15, 2013

academic honesty
My school, D.P. Todd, is discussing changes to its school-based policy on academic (dis)honesty. I happen to have missed both staff meetings where this came up, and will not be attending the follow-up meeting to discuss, so I thought I'd add my two bits. My understanding of why this is on the radar is that we have disagreement between most staff and administration about how to handle serious cases of academic dishonesty, and that perhaps some policy renewal is needed to clarify the options and practices we employ around this topic.

So, with due respect to the variety of valid opinions on this subject, what I hope we are not confusing is:
  1. ongoing assessment and attempts at learning (some successful, some not) which are aimed at improving students' competency and proficiency with course outcomes, and 
  2. a breech of ethics and failure of judgement (destructive to the ongoing learning process) that is involved when a student cheats or plagiarizes. 
Student learning is part of a continuous spectrum from first attempts to final projects and exams. Likewise, assessment shifts depending on the intention behind student's demonstration of learning. At many steps along the way, students can make mistakes or failed attempts, but our assessment practice typically absorbs these as legitimate efforts to improve, often with marks attached. Cheating and plagiarizing are not "poor efforts," they are the ultimate rejection of the learning outcomes that carry academic consequences, increasingly serious with key assessments and repeated offenses. They are attempts to circumvent or sabotage learning, not merely an incomplete effort or false start. Additionally, there is a pedagogical factor that bears on the issues. The ethos at play is that students need to demonstrate proficiency with outcomes even if they don't get marks for them. This sentiment is present in virtually every academic honesty policy I can find in SD57 schools (see below), as well as BC colleges and universities. Therefore, I think the intention of our current policy has merit, although the wording could be updated. There is no District "policy" and there does not seem to be a rational basis for a District "philosophy" either -- opinions from a handful of colleagues at the board office at best, beliefs which may indeed be at odds with every school policy on academic honesty in our district. I can't be certain because I have not yet seen this "philosophy" -- can anyone point it out to me?

I think we need a policy, made for our school, that:
  1. takes cheating and plagiarism seriously, including support for teachers who remove credit from the offending student's unethical work, 
  2. allows both teacher autonomy and administrative flexibility for unusual cases, 
  3. is not wildly disparate from other school policies in SD57 or the post-secondary institutions our students will attend, and, ideally, 
  4. reflects at least some democratic approximation of what we believe about our students and their education. 
Over the last week, I've inquired about this topic at area schools. The most common policy in SD57 reads:
"Students at _______ are expected to apply themselves to their studies in a positive and honest manner. Copying other people’s work and claiming it as your own (plagiarism) or attempting to cheat on assignments/tests is serious forms of academic misconduct. Consequences for cheating or plagiarism will likely result in loss of credit for the assignment and could result in administrative action. Students will be required to demonstrate the learning targets of the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILO’s) of the Ministry Curriculum, even if no credit is given."
This policy is used, with almost no variation, at PGSS, Duchess, and CHSS, as noted in their respective policy manuals, e.g., p. 15]. Ours (see p. 94/95 in our "SOAP" manual) is a bit different because, unlike many schools, our policies have been "made at D.P. Todd," many of them dating back to the school opening and the "visioning" that took place in 1977.  Of course, our policy manual and practices have evolved since then, although we have ignored policy development in recent years.

I would suggest we blend what we already have with some of this wording (possibly with consideration to the policies from KRSS and CLA; see below), but replace ILOs with PLOs, and indicate a typical series of consequences after the mention of administrative action, similar to what we have now.

Additionally, we need to ensure our Grade 8s and new arrivals are oriented to our policy (not sure what we do about that now), and we need to use instances of significant academic dishonesty as opportunities for learning, in addition to (not instead of) the consequences -- e.g. involve the students and parents in the debrief. Our orientation should examine the spectrum of how research is conducted and expressed, from single author to collaborative work, and how each one varies in terms of acknowledgement. We should also find new ways to guide students away from the copy & paste culture, and surf/skim/regurgitate tendencies that have become too familiar. Lastly, we should examine why students cheat or plagiarize -- e.g. for some it is because they lack integrity and think they can get away with it, for some it is because they are desperate and frustrated with self and/or school.


District policy vs philosophy: 
It seems clear there is no District "policy" on this issue other than support for schools in creating their own policies -- this is logical because the School Board generally steers clear of policies that supersede teacher autonomy, whereas School Policy is usually designed to walk the line between teacher autonomy and shared goals among staff and educational community. If school administration wants an "opt out" clause to offer leniency or flexibility, that is their prerogative, but our basic policy needs to retain support for the actions that teachers consistently take to address academic honesty.

As to a District "philosophy," I think we need to dig deeper. District-level credibility on this issue could be questioned for a variety of reasons, including their own track record on academic rigour, and perhaps a lack of experience in secondary schools by those articulating the philosophy. This is not meant to be harsh -- but is meant to show that our board office counterparts are simply fellow educators, as prone to difference and controversy as we all are, and not necessarily experts on this topic. They have valid opinions, but if there is an actual "district philosophy" it has not expressed in any official capacity (that I can find) nor has it been developed with any kind of legitimate process (e.g. involvement of teachers). If the board office want to move into policy-formation on this topic, then it is a different matter, quite within their purview to attempt, anyways, within contract language on teacher autonomy. I would suggest that the district's Teacher-Librarian Association would be a more reputable source for leadership on academic honesty; they wrote an excellent open letter on this topic last year. We should also consider other existing policies in our district, the post-secondary institutions our students will attend, and other recognized experts in the field.


Here is a somewhat more developed policy from CLA (
"If a CIDES teacher finds evidence of academic misconduct the following consequences will be applied:

First Offense - A letter outlining the problem will be sent by registered mail to the parents of school aged students (under 18 years) or directly to adult students. This letter will be copied to students’ files. A mark of ZERO (0) will be recorded for the test or assignment. The student will not be allowed to redo or resubmit the test or assignment.

Second Offense - A letter outlining the problem will be sent by registered mail to the parents of school aged students (under 18 years) or directly to adult students. This letter will be copied to the student’s file. The student will be withdrawn from the course with no final grade recorded on his/her transcript. If withdrawn, a student cannot reregister in this course at any distance education school in BC for one year.

Students and their parents have 30 days to request an appeal of any decision regarding academic misconduct. Appeals must be in writing and addressed to the Principal of CIDES. Appeals will be heard by phone or in person by the principal and will include input from the course teacher, student and/or parents. Decisions by the principal may be appealed to the Assistant Superintendent of Schools of School District No. 57 (Prince George) who can be contacted at 250.561.6800."

Here is the KRSS Academic Honesty Policy from the most recent version of the Kelly Road Secondary Staff Handbook
Students are expected to demonstrate honesty in their academic work.

These regulations cover, but are not limited to, the following types of academic dishonesty: 1. Cheating on quizzes, tests, exams, or major assignments
2. Submitting copied assignments (or portions thereof)
3. Plagiarizing from print or electronic sources.

The following consequences will be applied when it has been confirmed that a student has been academically dishonest:

Step One
1. The classroom teacher will notify the parents and submit the student's name to the Principal or Vice Principals where a record will be kept.
2. The student may receive a zero for the work in question.
3. If another student enabled the cheating to occur, that student may receive a zero on the work in question.

Step Two - When it has been confirmed through the record kept in the office that a student has cheated for a second time:
1. The student may receive a zero for the work in question.
2. The Principal or Vice Principals will suspend the student from school for two days.
3. The Principal or Vice Principals will refer the student and parents to the counselling department to discuss the problem.

Step Three - When it has been confirmed through the record kept in the office that a student has cheated for a third time:
1. The student may receive a zero for the work in question.
2. The parents will be called in to review the educational placement of the student. The outcome of this review will be a consideration of a new educational placement for the student. Options for a new placement may include, but are not limited to a new school, correspondence, withdrawal from the course or transfer to a different section of the course."

For comparison, here some post-secondary regulations on academic honesty:

UNBC - see #45 & 46
Common themes for CNC and UNBC include option for instructors to assign zeros.


Methods of research, communication, use of technology, learning styles change over time of course, but the basic ideal of "the rational, autonomous self" is a cornerstone of education, along with pursuit of individual virtue. This virtuous and autonomous "self" needs to progressively own their ideas, thoughts, and communications -- this includes learning about and adhering to basic principles of academic honesty. Instances of cheating and plagiarism are unfortunate, but they are also one of the few places where we have a high-stakes opportunity to reinforce the ideals of student autonomy and virtue. We are not merely introducing the idea of academic honesty in secondary school -- the students are very much aware of the concept when they arrive. In other words, they are far enough along the learning curve that direct consequences are expected. If we start tolerating plagiarism and cheating as if they are little "whoops" or "don't do it again" moments then we are eroding at a key framework in education, and betray the efforts of teachers and parents to build up honesty and integrity in our students.

Recent (postmodern) critiques of the enlightenment view of education question the very nature of the rational, autonomous self and the illusion of virtue (cf As well, 21st century learning emphasizes collaboration and team projects, sharing of ideas, and a shift from knowledge being deposited and held in the learner to knowledge being constantly accessible via technology. We should not confuse this view of self nor the rise of co-created knowledge as a change in student responsibility for rigorous thinking and expression of research. In fact, it is even more important in a 21st century learning environment that students sift their own work through lenses they pick up during research, think through what a crisis of representation might involve, learn how to cite sources, etc. An example of this is when students need to choose what kind of creative commons label to place on the constructions they place online. Another example is the "mashup" -- students combining existing pieces of media in order to tell a new story (think youtube); this can just as easily be a learning opportunity about sources and acknowledgement as it can be about students struggling to find authenticity in a cultural milieu saturated by "borrowing." The "21st century student" is not off the hook for academic integrity, but has entered a creative zone in which foregrounding the identity of one's work is a careful, complicated, and valuable pursuit. The boundary between honest and cheat, between original and copied, will always be a source of discussion and place of learning, but criteria laid out by teachers for assignments and assessments draws fairly clear lines, and needs to be respected and supported by a policy that a majority of staff selects and administration can enforce. Anything less, and we might as well not have any policies.


It is also important to consider "degrees." An employee who is poor at their job might be given opportunities to improve; an employee that steals from the company would likely be fired. For our context, students copying each others' worksheets before a quiz would be serious for some teachers and part of group-learning for another teacher. A student who is sloppy with references on a poster or webquest might irk one teacher and go unnoticed by another. These are great opportunities for discussion, articulation of values, etc. -- teachable moments where a typical consequence might be a redo or a revision. I think that is where the District "philosophy" should at least be considered. A student caught cheating on a test or exam, or submitting an intact piece of work (like a research project or essay) that contains plagiarized work is a few degrees more serious. There can certainly be a discussion and opportunity to learn from this breech of ethics and academic integrity, but there is an obvious and purposeful role for significant consequence. Commonly, in fact with virtual ubiquity in any secondary and post-secondary setting, this consequence is the teacher's option to give zeros for the work and a referral to the institution's administration for further action, gaining in seriousness with subsequent offenses.

There's plenty more that could be added to this discussion, so I hope others on staff join the discussion. How do other schools navigate serious academic dishonesty? Is the "21st Century Student," who learns in a different informational paradigm than previous generations, off the hook for rigorous academic standards?

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