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The importance of academic integrity: Q&A with IB Academic Integrity Manager, Celina Garza—Part two

In this two-part Q&A session, we asked Celina Garza, IB Academic Integrity Manager, a few questions about the importance of academic integrity. This second part specifically focuses on cheating and what schools can do to foster a culture of academic integrity in assessments. Read the first blog here.

Why does the IB place so much emphasis on academic integrity during assessments?

Celina: Assessment in education has many purposes: from informing the teaching and learning process to validating the grades or qualifications endorsed by schools or awarding bodies. However, assessments can only be fair and trusted by others if they are a true reflection of the personal level of achievement of a student and are carried out legitimately under equal and comparable conditions. That is, assessment must be completed with integrity. If the reputation of a qualification is tarnished by claims of abuse or cheating, the recipients of that qualification will not be trusted by the public.

Is there a clear distinction between cheating and failure to provide correct referencing?

Celina: The technical skills of referencing are not always understood and with the abundance of information on the internet, it is very easy for inexperienced students to get confused. The lines of ownership of information on the Internet become blurred and students assume that that information belongs to everyone. This is when inadvertent plagiarism occurs. However, intentional plagiarism occurs when students consciously use information from others (sometimes trying to paraphrase through word substitution) but fail to give credit where credit is due.

If a student submits a piece of work and, inadvertently or deliberately, obtained credit for something they plagiarized, it has the same implications in the IB, as intention cannot be measured.

Is the culture of ‘teaching to the test’ and relying on exam scores for employability fuelling the fire? Does there need to be a larger systemic change to address the issue?

Celina: I believe that the increasing high stakes nature of examinations, particularly holding teachers and schools responsible for delivering great grades rather than great teaching, has created a culture where teachers feel forced to “teach to the test” and some students may look for every possible advantage in their assessments. However, this is not just an education issue, for example, job applicants who make false claims on their CV/resume, or scientists that manipulate their data in order to obtain “good” results and so be able to publish in reputable journals.

When all what students can see is that they will be “measured” according to their academic achievements, it is easy to see too that universities and schools have a difficult battle in front of them. It does not matter how much academic integrity is taught and role-modelled at school if a student needs high grades to be accepted to a prestigious university that is “associated” with success.

More emphasis needs to be put on the quality of teaching and the development of the student to face the challenges of the future world, but a shift towards a different educational paradigm needs a change in attitude towards performance per se.

The is the opportunity for systematic changes in both education and society to relieve some of these pressures, but there is no simple solution, and where competition exists, some people will try to find a way to gain an unfair advantage.

Has the occurrence of cheating worsened in the past few years?

Celina: I would not say that cheating has got worse over the past few years. There have always been individuals who have tried to gain an unfair advantage over their classmates. What we are seeing now though is the increased commercialisation of cheating, where once it was an agreement between friends, now it is a business. At the same time, we have new tools at our disposal to identify, for example plagiarism, through text matching software. Such tools did not exist 50 years ago and back then it was more complicated to identify plagiarized text.

I think this has also changed the way the public think about, it is easier to empathise with the parent, teacher or friend who is trying to help a struggling student achieve the grade they need, it is harder to imagine yourself selling essays to strangers.

Finally, a perception that some cheating is normal (buying essays, for example) shifts the moral compass on other forms of cheating, such as in misconduct during formal examinations.

Cheating is not new and there are many notable cases of plagiarism or falsification of research data (for example). What we have now are better tools for identifying such cases and the dissemination of them. News outlets have a wider reach supported by social media and therefore society is more aware of such instances. Cheating has just become more “visible”.

However, there is a new “trade” making cheating easier and more accessible. Essay mills and ghost-writing services are now able to advertise supporting services to struggling students. In the past, such support existed but it was more discreet or performed by relatives (such as parents helping their children).

What can schools do to help curb cheating?

Celina: The battle for academic integrity is really won or lost in the school, because this is where teachers can influence students and parents positively. Awarding bodies punishing those they catch can only influence the perception of risk the student has of cheating, not convince them it is wrong.

The biggest contribution teachers and school leadership can make is to role model academic integrity all the time. If students see that their teachers always reference their materials and school prospectus’ are also correctly referenced, they will start to do it in all their work too.

The second step is to teach students about academic integrity from an early age. Eight-year-olds can understand it is wrong to pretend someone else’s work is your own and as students mature, they can engage in more detailed (and interesting) discussions about fairness and integrity. Children understand what integrity means, so teaching about integrity and reinforcing attitudes that favour integrity needs to start early on. As the student progresses in the educational system, schools need to adapt their strategies to offer activities and examples that support their student’s understanding about this.

Finally, schools need to have clear policies in place and communicate the consequences of any transgressions, so they can take appropriate action against students who cheat, both early on in their education to reinforce what they teach about fairness, but also leading the way with taking action in external examinations rather than hoping the Examination Board will take responsibility for the difficult decision which will affect the students future.

Awarding bodies, like the IB, should not be left alone in the endeavour of stopping cheating, because there are no systems in place that allows the identification of all cases and forms of cheating. Prevention is key, and prevention can only start at classroom level. Teachers are responsible for teaching the principle of academic integrity and ensuring that any assessment is completed fairly and genuinely by their students. However, the school administration should be fully supportive, not only with clear policies in place, but also with the training of their teachers and students.