Ethical or Not? Clicker Questions about Academic Integrity

Victory!I recently described some of the components of my fall course over on my main blog. It’s a first-year writing seminar the history and mathematics of cryptography. Since it’s a first-year writing seminar, I have the responsibility to teach my students something about plagiarism, and I started that process in today’s class. Instead of jumping right into a discussion of what constitutes plagiarism and what doesn’t, I came at the topic from a different perspective. I wanted my students to start thinking about plagiarism and, more generally, academic integrity in the context of personal and community norms.

So I asked my freshmen to respond to a few clicker questions. Each one posed a particular action, and the students were asked to indicate whether they thought the action was ethical or unethical.

  1. The student next to you drops his test and you accidentally see the answers.  This leads you to change one of your answers. Ethical or unethical?
  2. You get a B- on an exam.  You would really like a B, so you ask your professor after class for a few extra points on a particular exam question, even though you know your answer probably doesn’t deserve a higher score. Ethical or unethical?
  3. Suppose that one of your spring semester professors assigns a 5-page paper on a topic identical to one assigned by one of your fall semester professors.  You received an A- on the fall paper, so you turn the same paper in to your spring professor. Ethical or unethical?
  4. You find a copy of the instructor’s solutions manual to one of your textbooks online.  You use it to check your homework before turning your homework in. Ethical or unethical?
  5. You’re writing an essay that doesn’t need references and you find some useful ideas online. You decide not to cite these ideas because you’ve put these ideas in your own words. Ethical or unethical?

[Update, 9/12/14: I just realized I didn’t credit Maggie Bowers on these questions. She and I led a session for Vanderbilt’s first-year orientation program on this topic back in 2009, prior to which we drafted these questions collaboratively. #irony]

I was very happy with the class discussion that these questions generated. I asked students to share reasons why someone might consider the given action ethical and why someone might  consider it unethical. This “someone might consider” approach gave the students the option to share their opinions even if they were worried I might not like them. I didn’t have to worry too much about that, however, since the students jumped right into the discussion, sharing multiple points of view on each of the questions.

How did the results turn out? For the first question, most students (69%) considered changing one’s answer to a test question after accidentally seeing a peer’s test to be unethical. These students generally felt that this was cheating. I pushed them a little to articulate what was so wrong about this, and we got to the point of describing tests as assessments of individual student learning. If a student used external resources on a test, then the test wouldn’t accurately measure that student’s learning. I pointed out that this, in turn, might give the student an unfair advantage when going up for grad school positions or jobs.

Students who argued that this action was ethical noted that it wasn’t your fault that you saw your peer’s answers. One student asked what you should do if someone ran into your classroom and shouted the answer to one of the test questions. Would changing your answer in that case be wrong?

The students were split pretty much down the middle on the second question, the one about grade-grubbing. (A student was the first one to use that term in our discussion today, not me!) Some students felt that since the instructor was the one making the final call about giving out a few more points, it was perfectly fine to go ahead and ask. Other students wouldn’t be treated unfairly, assuming the instructor sticks to his or her guns when appropriate. Others felt that this kind of grade-grubbing wasn’t strictly unethical, but it was still bad form. One student argued that there might even be more strategic actions one could take to improve one’s grade, like asking about extra credit opportunities.

Several students felt that this kind of grade-grubbing was indeed unethical, that if you knew you shouldn’t receive more points, then it wasn’t right to ask for those points. They pointed out that instructors might experience some social pressure (my words) to dole out a few more points, even if they weren’t justified. One student asked me what how I would respond to such a request, and I said that I would probably stick to my guns, given my teaching experience and confidence in my position here. I pointed out that other instructors might not feel as confident and might worry about making students angry, and so the social pressure argument might have some merit.

The third question was perhaps the most interesting. When it came to submitting a paper written for another course to one’s current professor, the students were again split right down the middle. Some argued that it was ethical since the paper was still your own work and that if you could save yourself some time by reusing an old paper, that was a useful efficiency. Others argued that reusing a paper shouldn’t be done without obtaining permission from one’s current instructor. One student said that it was a bad idea because it meant you would be giving up an opportunity to learn something new. (For other reasons this isn’t ethical, check out my post on the course blog, where I compiled a few thoughts on the matter from my friends on Twitter.)

I then asked the students if this reuse of an old paper was a violation of our university honor code. Some students said it might be, and others (some of those who said this was ethical) said it shouldn’t be. These latter students were surprised when I told them that this scenario is explicitly addressed in our honor code and that it is indeed a violation! Students here aren’t allowed to reuse an old paper without permission from both instructors involved. The clicker question, its split decision, and the resulting discussion paved the way quite nicely for the students to take in this information about our honor code. Talk about a time for telling!

Furthermore, the surprise at the fact that this scenario is explicitly addressed in our honor code gave me an opening to make my central argument of the day. Here it is, as I put it in my lesson plan for today:

You may have your personal take on what’s ethical or not.  However, you’ve entered into a particular community (the academic community at Vanderbilt) that has developed community norms around academic integrity.  These norms have been codified as the Honor Code, and as a member of this community, you’re bound by these codified norms, whether you like them or not.  When you leave Vanderbilt and enter your professional lives, you’ll enter different communities, each with their own written and unwritten norms.  (Most professions have written ethical standards, for instance.  Some of these are legally binding!)  As a member of these communities, you’ll need to be able to function effectively within those norms, again, whether you agree with them or not.

I wanted my students to see that dealing with plagiarism isn’t just a matter of dos and don’ts. Those are important, but when the focus is entirely on a set of rules to follow, I suspect that students see the entire process as an artificial exercise in jumping through hoops. I would much rather students reflect on their own beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, what core principles fuel those beliefs, and how those beliefs align or not with community norms. I think that positions students to understand, respond to, and in some ways own those community norms and not to see them as some set of artificial rules imposed from outside.

What about the fourth and fifth questions? We didn’t have time to discuss them, but we did vote on them. Most students (87%) saw it as unethical to check one’s graded homework with an instructor’s solution manual found online. And most (87% again) saw it as unethical to put someone else’s ideas in your own words without citing those ideas, even when a paper assignment doesn’t call for references. Of course, they have a paper assignment due in two weeks that doesn’t call for references, so perhaps they were just telling me what I wanted to hear on this one!

As for the 13% of students who said that each of these actions is ethical, I can’t say if it’s the same students for both questions, nor can I say that they weren’t just smarting off by voting for the “wrong” answer. We were running short on time here, so they might not have felt it important to take these last two questions seriously!

What’s next? Well, those do’s and don’ts are still important, so I’ll prepare a few clicker questions to help students make sense of the academic community’s norms around proper citation. These questions will be largely inspired by clicker questions used by Dickinson College librarians in their “Seven Deadly Sins of Plagiarism” workshop–properly cited, of course!

What’s the upshot to all this? These simple clicker questions (each with only two answer choices) generated some very productive, engaged student discussion in class today about important subjects. And they created a couple of incredibly useful times for telling.

Image: “Victory!” by Flickr user Xjs-Khaos, Creative Commons licensed.

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