Friday, January 25, 2013

What is academic integrity?

Several years ago I attended a campus event at my university on academic integrity.  The speaker was a nationally known expert in the field.

He opened the session by posing the question: “What is academic integrity? Numerous hands went up in the audience -- more than he could call on.

Students, faculty and staff in the packed auditorium eagerly gave their take on the subject. Almost all of them said the same thing.  Some answers were more sophisticated and better articulated than others, but they were pretty much the same.

In a nutshell, the audience members defined academic integrity as doing your own work.  The speaker generally agreed with this notion and took that as the starting point for his excellent presentation.

I should have spoken up.  I certainly dont disagree that academic integrity requires us to do our own work.  But that is only part of it.

The part that wasnt mentioned is just as important.  Academic integrity is not just the honest submission of work; it is also the honest evaluation of that work.

By honest evaluation of work, I mean rigor in the presentation and assignment of work and in the grading of it.  If courses and assignments lack appropriate rigor, I dont see how one could claim academic integrity.

For this reason, I am always cautious about drawing conclusions about colleges and universities from their published graduation rates and academic honors.  I am especially cautious when it comes to graduation data of athletes published by individual schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Dont get me wrong.  I believe the numbers and know that the overwhelming majority of schools have policies and processes to ensure that students are doing their own work.  The very public cases of academic fraud in athletics are the rare exception rather than the rule.

However, even with honest submission of work, I still dont know if schools with high graduation rates really have academic integrity.  Thats because graduation rates and academic honors of various colleges or sports teams tell me nothing about appropriate rigor in courses, assignments, and grading.

Most schools with high graduation rates, both for athletes and regular students, are probably doing things the right way.

We just dont know for sure.


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