Academic Integrity: A Letter to My Students

Bill Taylor, professor emeritus of political science at Oakton Community College, Des Plaines, Ill., is deeply convinced that academic integrity on the part of both faculty and students is an essential part of any true educational experience. He begins each semester with an open letter to his students, explaining his views on academic integrity, offering his promise to students to exercise integrity in his dealings with them, and outlining his expectations of students in the same regard.

The following is an edited excerpt from Mr. Taylor's letter. Graduate Connections received permission to use the material in this letter in ways consistent with its purpose of promoting academic integrity. If you're teaching this Fall, consider how you might inform students of your expectations for academic integrity.

"Integrity is important in a college course precisely because integrity is important in all areas of life. If we don’t have integrity in the small things, if we find it possible to justify plagiarism or cheating or shoddy work in things that don’t seem important, how will we resist doing the same in areas that really do matter, in areas where money might be at stake, or the possibility of advancement, or our esteem in the eyes of others? Personal integrity is not a quality we’re born to naturally. It’s a quality of character we need to nurture, and requires practice in both meanings of that word (as in practice the piano and practice a profession). We can be persons of integrity only if we practice it every day.

"What does that involve for teacher and students through each stage of a college course? As you’ll see, academic integrity basically requires the same things of students as it requires of teachers.

Instructor's Commitment Student's Commitment
I. Preparation for Class
    • Reread the text (even when I’ve written it myself).
    • Clarify information I might not be clear about.
    • Prepare the class with an eye toward what is current today (and not simply rely on past notes). 
    • Plan the session to make it worth your while to be there.
    • Read the text before coming to class.
    • Clarify anything you’re unsure of (including looking up words you don’t understand).
    • Formulate questions you might have so you can ask them in class.
II. In Class
    • Show up for all class sessions, unless I’m simply unable to do so.
    • Come to class on time and stay the full time.
    • Use class time to fulfill the objectives of the course.
    • Do my best to answer your questions.
    • Honestly acknowledge when I don’t have an answer or don’t know something, and then go out and get an answer by the next class.
    • Both encourage you and give you an equal opportunity to participate in class discussions.
    • Contain you if your enthusiasm for participating in the discussions makes it difficult for others to participate.
    • Assume you are prepared for class and I won’t embarrass you if I call on you, even if your hand isn’t up.
    • Respect the views you express and expect others to do the same.
    • Make clear when I am expressing an opinion, and refrain from imposing on you my views on controversial issues.
    • Show up for all class sessions, unless you’re simply unable to do so.
    • Come to class on time and stay the full time.
    • Make good use of class time by being engaged in what’s going on.
    • Ask questions about anything you don’t understand, not just for your own sake but because other students might not realize that they also don’t understand.
    • Participate in the class discussions and contribute your thinking to the shared effort to develop understanding and insight. (Remember that even  something that’s clearly wrong can contribute to the discussion by stimulating an idea in another student.)
    • Monitor your own participation to allow for and encourage the participation of others.
    • Respect other students and their ideas.
    • Refrain from holding conversations that distract others from the class discussion.
III. With Regard to Exams
    • Do my best during class time to prepare you for exams.
    • Be available during office hours or at arranged times to work with you individually to help you get ready for exams.
    • Develop meaningful exam questions that will test not only the course content, but also your ability to express and defend intelligent judgments about that content.
    • Carefully monitor the exam so honest students will not be disadvantaged by others who might choose to cheat if given the opportunity
    • Give careful consideration to your answers when evaluating them and assigning a grade.
    • Come to class having done your best to prepare for the exam, including seeking the instructor’s help if you need it.
    • Make full use of the time available to write the best answers you can.
    • Accept your limitations and don’t try to get around them by using cheat sheets, copying or seeking help from another student.
    • Avoid giving help to other students during the exam.
IV. With Regard to Written Assignments
    • Devise meaningful assignments that grow out of and further the work done in the classroom.
    • Provide you with a clear description of each assignment so you know what is expected of you and what I’ll be looking for when I grade it.
    • Give due and careful consideration to your paper when evaluating it and assigning a grade.
    • Confront you if I suspect you have plagiarized or in other ways not handed in work that is entirely your own.
    • Start your research and writing early enough to give yourself time to do your best work.
    • Hand in a paper that you yourself have written specifically for this course and not borrowed from someone else or recycled from an earlier course.
    • Be satisfied with nothing less than your best work.
    • Seek only appropriate help from others (such as proof-reading or discussing your ideas with someone else to gain clarity in your thinking).
    • Give full and proper credit to your sources.

V. With Regard to Your Final Grade

  • Carefully weigh all your grades during the course, as well as the other factors that affect the final grade as spelled out in the syllabus, before assigning a final grade.
  • If you feel the instructor has made a mistake in computing a grade, you have a responsibility to come to the instructor as soon as possible, prepared to show where you think the mistake was made. 

"By its very nature, education and the accumulation of knowledge is a shared enterprise. None of us has the time, let alone the background knowledge required, to learn everything on our own. Virtually everything we know has come to us because others have taken the time to think about something, research it, then share what they’ve learned with us in a class lecture or, more likely, an article or book. This is every bit as true for a teacher as it is for students. There’d be very little to teach if all an instructor could talk about is what she’s learned solely on her own.

"In a class lecture it would be too disruptive to stop and cite all sources. All of us know that the teacher is sharing with students the things he’s learned from hundreds of different authors, bringing those ideas together into a coherent whole.

"The same is true for students, who are expected to read about the research of others and bring together their ideas in such a way that makes sense to them and the instructor. Therefore, it’s essential to cite sources in any research paper. The academic reasons for doing so are to give credit to those who have done the original research and to allow the instructor to look at the sources to find out if students have properly understood what the author was trying to say.

"But at a practical level, citing sources is a way to show you’ve done the assignment. Citations (along with the bibliography) show you’ve consulted a variety of resources as the assignment required. They also acknowledge your indebtedness to those authors. So don’t feel you need to hide the fact that you’re drawing from your sources. That’s what it’s all about.

"VI. Failures to Live up to Our Responsibilities

"You can expect your teachers to live up to their commitments to academic integrity, and you have every right to call them on it if they don’t. At the same
time, instructors have a right to expect that students will live up to their commitments, as well. Which brings me to the most difficult question with regard to academic integrity; what if you become aware of a fellow classmate who is not living up to the principles of academic integrity, but you sense that the instructor is not aware of it? What should you do? You should say something to the student, and if worse comes to worse, you should tell the instructor.

"Academic integrity, as with so much in life, involves a system of interconnected rights and responsibilities that reflect our mutual dependence upon one another.

"The success of our individual efforts depends on all of us conscientiously exercising our rights and living up to our responsibilities. And the failure of any of us—even just one of us—to do what is required will diminish, however slightly, the opportunity for the rest to achieve their goals.

"That is why it’s essential for all members of the university community to practice academic integrity, in both senses of the word practice. For practice today will lay a solid foundation for practice tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, so that through daily practice, integrity will come to be woven throughout the fabric of our lives, and thus through at least a part of the fabric of society."

Retrieved from: Edited with permission from the author.