Academic Integrity

By Darrell G. Fontane

Engineering is a professional degree program. Engineers are expected to maintain the dignity and integrity of our profession. If you read the code of ethics for professional engineers it is clear that as an engineer we don't cheat the public, we don't cheat our clients, and we don't cheat our fellow engineers. We are also charged by the code to teach our code of ethics to our new engineers. Ensuring academic integrity is one way to teach the kind of ethical behavior we expect. In engineering we extensively use homework problems in our classes. It is hard for me to imagine an engineering course without homework. Particularly in our large undergraduate classes a big advantage of using a textbook is that homework problems are available to be assigned to the students. The faculty teaching the course can get a solution manual from the publisher that can be used to grade the homework. You cannot get a solution manual unless you are the instructor of the course. Or can you? Surely your students would not have access to the solution manuals, would they? Let me challenge you to do the following exercise:

1) Suppose you were to perform a web search for engineering solution manuals available on eBay. How many results do you think you would find? Is it even legal to sell solution manuals on eBay? Go ahead and try the search. Were you surprised at the results of that search? I certainly was!

2) Now suppose you wanted to find out what your colleagues were saying to the students in their classes about use of solution manuals. Do they have a written policy they provide, or does the department or college have such a policy? What about any policy regarding whether students can have a cell phones with them during an exam? Can you get this information with a web search or is it written down anywhere in your department or the college?

3) Do you know what other universities are doing? Perform a web search on academic integrity in engineering and see what you find. 

Suppose you are a new faculty member and you have an incident of academic dishonesty in your class. Assume the incident is cheating on homework. Do you know how to confront the student about your suspicions? Do you know if recommended procedures exist for dealing with the situation? Do you know if there are any documentation requirements? Do you know where to find the information on the student appeals process in case the student decides to challenge your decision? Dealing with academic dishonesty is a very challenging problem. Fortunately it does not happen too often but when it does it takes a lot of energy and in certain cases it takes a lot of time.

Thanks to Doug Hoffman of the College of Business for identifying an interesting article on academic integrity found on the University of Oklahoma web page. I encourage you to read this article, Handling Cheating. Basically the article recommends taking measures to prevent academic dishonesty and taking actions if it occurs.

I would suggest four steps to promote academic integrity.

1. The first of these is motivation and establishing the culture against academic dishonesty. Engineering in particular provides a strong motivation because professional engineers are expected to display a high level of integrity. It is not in the professional engineering culture to allow unethical practices. However, it is our engineering culture to work collaboratively. We encourage our students to form study groups. We need to help our students understand the boundaries between collaboration and cheating.

2. The next important step is to establish clear expectations. Do you put your academic integrity expectations into your course syllabus? Do you tell you students what to do if they need help on an assignment? Do you specifically state what sources of information are or are not allowed. Just because something is available on the Internet does not mean that it is OK to be used for assignments in a course. Faculty members have the freedom to decide what they will allow in their courses. One faculty member may have no objection to the use of a certain resource, such as a solution manual, and another faculty member may strictly prohibit that resource from being used. From the perspective of the student there is no way to know the guidelines of a particular faculty unless they are told what the guidelines are. In this age of information sharing and instant communications there is tremendous access to information. As faculty we need to be aware of how this information can influence what we expect from our students and we need to be clear in conveying our expectations. Perhaps a department might want to develop a generic template for a handout on expectations that its faculty could modify for use in their classes.

3. The third step is to state the consequences as clearly as possible for academic dishonesty. Again a faculty member has latitude in deciding what these might be. This can be anything from failing the assignment to failing the course. This is an area where guidance from other faculty or the department can really help new faculty members.

4. The final step is the enforcement of the consequences. This is not often easy but it is certainly necessary. Support from your colleagues is very important in this step. Faculty need to communicate their concerns and approaches for maintaining academic integrity.

As faculty it is our responsibility to instill the ethical behavior we desire from the students who will become our next generation of engineers. These engineers will go one to assume important roles in the engineering profession and they will become responsible for setting the ethical standards and expectations for the engineers that work for them. Let's give our student some good examples of how this can be done.

Sources:

The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma Program for Instructional Innovation (2006). Ideas on Teaching: Handling cheating. Retrieved June 13, 2007, from http://www.ou.edu/idp/tips/ideas/quick17.html

Contributors:

TILT thanks Professor Darrell Fontane for sharing his article on Academic Integrity in Engineering.