Encouraging students’ ethical behavior

The first of an ongoing series on teaching ethically, this column focuses on strategies for encouraging ethical student behavior.

By Vincent Prohaska, PhD

Although instructors fervently hope that academic dishonesty will vanish, unethical behaviors, such as cheating and plagiarism, are resistant to extinction. Nonetheless, despair is not the answer; instructors can and do influence the occurrence of unethical behaviors among their students. A conscious and deliberate effort by instructors to create climates that encourage ethical student behavior is possible and can be successful. The suggestions made here are based on Prohaska (2012).

Standards and ethical behavior

The time to start is before the semester begins when instructors plan their courses. What are going to be the standards for the course, the workload and ethical expectations? An early question instructors might ask themselves is: “Why should students put time and effort into achieving the learning objectives in my course?” Creating a climate of ethical behavior begins when instructors design courses to improve students’ knowledge, skills and abilities. Thus, courses should challenge students to learn, grow and develop. Instructors have an ethical responsibility to not waste students’ time, effort and money. Davis and Ludvigson (1995) argued that increases in academic dishonesty might be tied to decreases in instructor standards. That is, if instructors are “watering down” or severely limiting course content, using test bank questions that do not reflect the actual coursework or assigning perfunctory assignments, then students may see no benefit to going beyond the instructors’ demands and engaging in the honest and difficult work of learning.

Teaching tips: Plan challenging courses with learning objectives and activities appropriate to students’ levels and abilities. Create assignments that encourage learning. Demonstrate ethical behavior in the construction of the course as a model for encouraging students to do the same.

Communicate expectations for ethical behavior

It has been long established that institutional honor codes can be effective deterrents to academic dishonesty (McCabe, Treviño & Butterfield, 2001; Whitley & Keith-Spiegel, 2001). A climate encouraging ethical behavior affects students’ perceptions of how ethically other students are behaving. Research has consistently demonstrated that the most important factor in whether students behave honestly is their perception of their peers’ behaviors (Caldwell, 2010; Engler, Landau and Epstein, 2008; Jordan, 2001; McCabe & Bowers, 2009; McCabe, Butterfield & Treviño, 2006; McCabe & Treviño, 1993; Pulvers & Diekhoff, 1999; Whitley, 1998). If students believe that “everyone else is cheating,” then they will be more likely to cheat, too. However, honor codes alone do not create a climate of ethical behavior. Honor codes must be backed by institutional programs that educate students and encourage academic honesty (Caldwell, 2010; Engler et al., 2008; MacDonald & Carroll, 2006; McCabe, et al., 2001; Roig & Marks, 2006; Whitley & Keith-Spiegel, 2001). Therefore, to move expectations of ethical behavior from the institution to the classroom, statements encouraging ethical behavior not only need to be placed in the course syllabus, but also discussed and reinforced in class.

Teaching tips: Syllabi should include statements encouraging ethical behaviors. However, these statements should focus on the importance of ethical behaviors to learning and academic development (Davis & Ludvigson, 1995). They should stress the link between ethical behaviors and achieving the learning objectives of the course. They should not focus exclusively on detection and punishment. As honor codes are insufficient, so are mere statements demanding ethical behaviors. These statements should become gateways for discussing ethics in class and the links between ethical behaviors and learning. Although it is important to remind students of the seriousness of academic dishonesty, instructors should avoid conveying the message that academic honesty necessarily involves confrontational situations (e.g., “Don’t cheat because I’ll catch you, and you will fail the course.”). However, Davis and Ludvigson found that statements about academic honesty and sanctions do serve as deterrents to cheating. It is also important to remind students that behaving dishonestly conflicts with their own self-images as honest people.

Proactively preventing cheating

In addition to creating high standards and effectively communicating expectations for ethical behaviors, concrete steps can be taken during class to actively discourage cheating (Hollinger & Lanza-Kaduce, 2009; McCabe et al., 2006). Such steps not only can prevent opportunities for cheating, but they convey to students that the instructor cares about the examination as an accurate assessment of their learning. Vigilance also is important because if students observe others cheating successfully, then they are more likely to cheat too (Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, Whitley, & Washburn, 1998).

Teaching tips:

  • Space desks and students as far apart as possible. 

  • Instruct students to turn off phones, pagers and other electronic devices and store them out of sight. 

  • Before the exam begins, tell students they cannot leave the room during the exam. 

  • If using multiple choice questions, use several forms of the exam so that questions and/or answer orders are scrambled. Hollinger and Lanza-Kaduce (2009) found that both cheaters and noncheaters reported multiple versions of an exam as the most effective technique for preventing cheating. 

  • Try not to use the same examination questions from semester to semester. 

  • Do not allow students to keep or photograph graded exams. 

  • Actively proctor examinations (i.e., periodically move or at least look around). Do not leave the room unattended or become obviously engrossed in another activity such as reading a newspaper or journal, speaking on a phone or grading completed exams. 

  • Online quizzes or examinations present special difficulties (Young, 2010). Brothen and Wambach (2001) suggested applying time limits to each question and randomly selecting questions from a much larger pool of questions.

Proactively preventing plagiarism

Plagiarism can sometimes seem so ubiquitous that instructors come to dread assigning any type of writing that involves using source material. However, there are four strategies that instructors can use to minimize, or even prevent, plagiarism.

Consider this assignment: “Find an article on X and write a three-page summary of it in APA format.” The likelihood of this assignment generating a significant amount of plagiarism is high. Why? As was indicated earlier, one problem with this assignment is that it fails to connect explicitly with any specific course or learning goals. The lack of instructor time and effort put into developing this assignment is an implicit indicator to students of the time and effort they should dedicate to completing it. Furthermore, students are apt to conclude (probably accurately) that the instructor is unlikely to read, or to have read, the source articles. Finally, the imprecision of the instructions is likely also to leave students asking themselves: “What am I supposed to write? What is expected of me?” Students might easily conclude that “cutting and pasting” is perfectly acceptable in this assignment.

Thus, the first strategy in preventing plagiarism is to construct assignments that make plagiarism difficult. Examples are assignments that call for integration of read material rather than summarization, ask specific questions, or require specific analyses. Another way to make plagiarism difficult is to constrain the choice of sources available to students. Good assignments should provide more extensive instructions than the earlier example did. Instructors also should remember that students must understand the material if they are to avoid plagiarism. Roig (1999; 2001) demonstrated that both students and faculty were more likely to plagiarize a difficult passage than an easy one. Thus, instructors need to consider the appropriateness of their assignments and the instruction that students may need to successfully complete those assignments.

The second strategy is explanation. Just as instructors should explain to their students how cheating interferes with their opportunities to learn, the same should be done with regard to plagiarism. An important factor to recognize is that there is considerable debate concerning what students know about plagiarism (Belter & du Pré, 2007; Blum, 2009; Roig, 1997). That is, instructors should not assume that instructors’ and students’ definitions of plagiarism match. Nor do instructors’ definitions of plagiarism match (Roig, 2001). Thus, instructors cannot assume that their individual standards are the same as those of their students’ prior instructors. Instructors should be explicit about their own standards concerning plagiarism. A brief explanation about how easy technology has made plagiarism detection is appropriate as well.

The third strategy is to explicitly teach students about plagiarism. That is, instructors can spend time and/or have students complete assignments focused on avoiding plagiarism. There is evidence that such time is well spent (Belter & du Pré, 2007; Schuetze, 2004). This strategy has two additional values: First, it helps teach students about proper citation techniques. Second, it allows instructors to monitor students’ understandings, and misconceptions, about plagiarism before they turn in potentially plagiarized papers.

The fourth strategy is to provide students with specific instruction on proper paraphrasing. There is evidence that giving students explicit instruction and practice pays off (Barry, 2006; Landau, Druen, & Arcuri, 2002; Walker, 2008).

It is very likely that another — and possible most important — value in using any of the last three strategies is that students develop an awareness of their instructors’ concerns about plagiarism. Students may assume that the likelihood of successfully plagiarizing is low when an instructor has devoted time and effort to teaching about it.

Teaching tips:

  • Create appropriate assignments that encourage learning. Assignments should be explicitly connected to course learning goals and should contain adequate instructions. 

  • Explicitly define plagiarism so that students will have no doubts about the standards being applied in a particular course. Avoid making assumptions about students’ implicit knowledge of plagiarism or what other instructors might have taught. 

  • Teach students about plagiarism and how to avoid it. The author uses a simple assignment in which students read a source paragraph and three “paraphrases” of that paragraph, two of which are plagiarized. Their task is to indicate whether each paraphrase is plagiarized and why/why not. 

  • If appropriate, teach students about paraphrasing to avoid plagiarism. Encourage them to seek assistance if they do not understand the sources.

There is hope

Many instructors, including the author, lament the current state of academic honesty. However, all is not lost because instructors can and do affect the ethical climate in their classrooms. A climate of ethical behaviors begins with the assertion that student learning is central to all course activities. Teaching students the connection between ethical behavior and their own learning and development is central to encouraging them to behave ethically. When instructors engage students in learning, students will work to master the course material. Without such engagement, without a bond or commitment between instructors and students to work together, unethical behaviors may flourish.


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About the Author

Vincent Prohaska, PhDVincent Prohaska received his PhD in educational psychology/child development from the University of Chicago. His is an associate professor of psychology at Lehman College, The City University of New York, and also serves as the director of general education. Prohaska’s research focus is on learning, memory and teaching. He is a past-president and past-Eastern regional vice-president of Psi Chi, a former councilor for the Psychology Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), and is finishing a term on the Board of Directors of the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA). He is a recipient of the Psi Chi Florence Denmark Faculty Advisor award (2001) and the Lehman College Excellence in Teaching award (1997).