Talking about academic integrity

Photo by Teslariu Mihai on Unsplash

The pandemic has had a profound effect on how we teach and assess in Higher Education. 2020 saw most institutions pivot to a remote, online mode of teaching, and assessments had to be rapidly adapted to be online. The University of Sydney, like many institutions, decided to stick with exams and hence the use of an online proctoring system to replicate traditional invigilated, summative exams. A year on from the start of remote teaching and assessment, it’s worth thinking about how we’re responding as an institution to the thorny issue of academic integrity and what impact it’s having on workload, our approach to assessment and relationship with students.

Statistics from the 2020 exams surveys and academic integrity incident reports are quite sobering. In 2020 there were 5,172 academic integrity breaches reported at Sydney compared to 3,777 reported in 2019, an increase of 34.4%.
Since the implementation of online exams, there have been 13,690 reports of an ‘integrity’ issue reviewed. At first glance this would seem to be a truly massive number of breaches, however, most of these issues turned out to be nothing more than a student dropping a pen or yawning. Just 5.2% were reported as potential integrity breaches, with resulting in findings against only 173 students, which represents 1.3% of the online exam software referrals. These reported breaches mean a very high number of hours spent on investigation. More than 1000 hours of human effort have been spent on investigating breaches so far in the past 12 months.

What does the literature tell us about integrity breaches?

A survey of 14,086 students by the late Tracey Bretag and Cath Ellis published in 2018 showed that students were more likely to outsource their work when they were dissatisfied with the teaching and learning environment, had a perception that there are ‘lots of opportunities to cheat’, and spoke a Language Other than English (LOTE) at home. Their study found that a very small percentage of students actually engaged in really serious misconduct (5.78%).

Phillip Dawson talks about the micro and macro reasons for cheating and the potentially negative impact of surveillance in his book ‘Defending Assessment Security in a Digital World‘, and that routine surveillance through use of AI and text-matching software such as Turnitin contribute to a culture of distrust (Carless, 2009; Ross & Macleod, 2018 and Williamson, 2019). This distrust is two way: educators and students both suspicious of each other’s motives and actions – a long way from the positive learning environment that both desire. He points out that routine surveillance of students will inevitably catch too many students and create a massive workload. In addition, surveillance technologies can turn the issues of cheaing into an algorithmic problem that is divorced from real context, rather than something grounded in trust and context (Introna, 2015). The game of beating the systems becomes more important than the actual work.

So, with such a relatively small proportion of students engaging in very serious misconduct, can we find a way of directing resources towards education rather than policing this? Perhaps it would be more productive to put our efforts into education and winning the hearts and minds of students and designing authentic and meaningful assessment rather than taking part in the integrity arms race. In an article in The Converation from 2018, Tracey Bretag outlines the importance of getting to know your students and highlights the fact that there is no silver bullet for preventing integrity breaches.

Amanda White from UTS developed an integrity board game to try to tackle the growing numbers of students engaging in dishonest behaviour. Her approach was based on research into fraud, specifically what is known as the ‘Fraud Triangle’. Evidence shows that people commit fraud when three phenomena occur:

  • There are incentives/pressures,
  • There are opportunities and
  • The people conducting the fraud can rationalise or justify it.

As it’s really hard to prevent students from experiencing possible incentives and pressure, and is it infeasible to remove all opportunity, she decided to focus on the area of rationalisation. This led her to the idea of creating a board game to introduce students to concepts of academic integrity, and at the same time encourage them to discuss scenarios in a safe and supportive space. Based on her work, Educational Innovation have been encouraging coordinators to adopt a less punitive and more preventative approach to tackling integrity.

In the Media

There has been a lot of discussion in the media about academic integrity, including a number of articles about the worrying privacy issues surrounding online proctoring:
  • This article outlines the added workload for educators and support staff in setting up exams and then monitoring exam breaches, and underlines the lack of transparency in the technology. “Online exam monitoring is now common in Australian universities — but is it here to stay?” The Conversation, 19/04/2021
  • Worryingly, there is evidence that the facial recognition software used by some tech companies is discrimanatory, working better on lighter skin tones:”Online exam monitoring can invade privacy and erode trust at universities” The Conversation, 04/12/2021
  • It is also vital to pay attention to the vast amount of data that private, for-profit tech companies are gathering about students. In July 2020, an online proctoring company suffered a data breach with the private data of 440,000 students being leaked.”Remote education is rife with threats to student privacy” The Conversation, 07/12/2021
  • Students discuss the intrusive nature of having to let a stranger surveil them and their homes, and talk about the added stress of this:”Coronavirus Australia: University students unsettled by proctoring software for online exams” SMH, 22/05/2021
  • There have also been several articles about the issue of contract cheating, such as this article  “University regulator TEQSA to step up fight against contract cheating” SMH, 17/01/2020
  • In this article, Cath Ellis from UNSW talks about ways of deterring cheating through the design of authentic assessments and the prevalence of cheating in exams: “Australian universities search for new ways of testing students to combat cheating” SMH, 29/06/2020

What can I do to get students thinking about integrity?

Colleagues who are teaching first year students have been using activities this semester designed to get students discussing various scenarios where the integrity issue may or may not be clear cut. Ideally, the scenarios are adapted to be relevant to the discipline and cohort. The idea is to get students discussing what they think they should do in a number of situations. Some example scenarios are shown below. Ideally, they are adapted to be more specific to a discipline or context.

In a group assignment, whose responsibility is it to ensure the assignment is completed with integrity, and no cheating or plagiarism has occurred? You have completed the research and writing for an assignment, but you’re not sure whether your use of English is correct for the style of the assignment. What could you do to check this? A friend asks to look at your assignment for ideas in a subject you got a Distinction for last year. What is an appropriate response? Your whole class is taking an online exam at the same time. Would it be ok to set up a Facebook chat to discuss the tricky questions with your fellow students?


The scenarios can be run in a number of different ways, for example as a Padlet discussion, or a quiz. The complete activities are available in the Transition Resources site. You can self-enrol and access them here. 

Examples from across the University

Medicine & Health

Janet Cheung from Pharmacy embedded the activity into a professional ethics workshop in week 3 with the aim of helping students to see the impact of their individual actions on other people in the broader community. The aim was to start to get students thinking more broadly about integrity and the impact of dishonesty on patients and the community in general.

  • She used the transition case studies from the resources page to set up a Canvas quiz as pre-work for students to complete. Students were able to select what they thought was the most appropriate answer for each question (e.g. what are the consequences of submitting a late assignment)
  • They started the workshop discussing answers to the quiz. Students worked in one of five teams in their breakout rooms to discuss why each of the situations was relevant in pharmacy/being a pharmacist. They drew parallels between late assignment submissions with late pharmacist registrations renewals and how that impacts on patient care as the pharmacy needs to shut down because a pharmacy cannot be opened without a registered pharmacist on site. They also drew parallels between the situation of fudging experimental data with fudging records that are kept of Dangerous Drugs (e.g. opioids, amphetamines). She emphasised that as an entrusted profession they do not want to lose the public’s trust.

Janet reports that the activity was successful in starting conversations about integrity:

The activity generated a lot of insightful in-class discussion and storytelling from my tutors who are also pharmacists. This activity was quite useful in creating the connection between university transition and professional socialization as I want students to develop that sense of awareness and self-accountability early on in their professional journey. For some of these students, the weight of their responsibility as future pharmacists started to click.

The Business School

Colleagues from BUSS1000 have adapted the scenarios for their students and used them in a group activity. Some tutors talked about their personal feelings about the risks of cheating. Other ideas from tutors included giving students more help understanding credible research and acceptable journals. Another idea is a ‘how to reference’ activity to discover what good and bad referencing looks like. Students are given paragraphs and asked to paraphrase and reference in accordance with APA or other system. This could be done in teams and will encourage them to talk, discuss and come to a consensus.

When we went through academic honesty scenarios – many of them had different outcomes and I kept explaining the seriousness of academic dishonesty in university scenario. I think the activities should continue.

We had long and deep conversations about the scenarios.


Margaret Van Heekeren from MECO1001 modified the activity by reducing the number of questions to the most critical and by changing the format to an open question, with the exercise being run as a class discussion.  Tutors reported that the exercise went well with only one issue: students did not understand why it was preferable to attend the Learning Centre to check their English usage rather than just use Grammerly. This, it appears, resulted from a more literal understanding of English usage, ignoring the focus on “style of assignment” as per the question

The scenarios are an effective exercise as they focus on explicit instances, rather than addressing academic integrity more conceptually. This enables students to apply concepts to practice, which, ideally, then transfers to actual assignment work.

Tell me more

For further information and assistance with using academic integrity scenarios please contact [email protected]

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