Creating Courses that Encourage Academic Integrity: A short guide for instructors
Kim Michasiw, Department of English, Faculty of Arts
Volume 12 Number 2 (January 2003)


Although much of the focus of recent materials on academic integrity has been on the students and their responsibilities, it is our conviction that academic institutions have the responsibility to create and maintain conditions in which academic integrity may flourish.

Central to this is the process of modeling. At every level, from disciplinary organizations, through Faculties, departments, and programmes, to individual instructors, it is our responsibility to practice what we preach. If students perceive their instructors to be mere conduits for the work of others, how can they be persuaded not to act as conduits for work that is not, or not wholly, their own themselves? The paradigmatic caricature of the professor who uses the lecture hour to read aloud from the textbook represents an unhealthy teaching environment very tidily. Even if this figure is merely an urban myth, its tenacious clinging to life in the student imagination suggests that students perceive a lack of commitment to the principle of original or autonomous work in the university system.

The textbook-reading professor, myth or reality, stands also for the current state of textbook publication, in which multi-national publishers are increasingly providing packaged courses. Such packages offer not only the textbook but visual aids, computer test banks, even prewritten lectures. Whether or not national and international disciplinary organizations have sufficiently addressed the damage the use of such packages can do to an atmosphere of academic integrity can only be answered by those involved in such organizations on a discipline by discipline basis.


At the departmental level, let us urge the importance of variety and change both at the level of curriculum and of individual course delivery. Nothing contributes more effectually to the mechanisms of academic malpractice than courses that are offered unchanged for years. Unchanging course texts, lectures, assignments, exam structures create, as it were, a local database of used academic materials calling out to be recycled.

At the departmental level, varying instructors in core courses is essential. Even if the instructor uses exactly the same materials, the emphases will change at least somewhat. From a workload perspective obliging instructors to depart a large course after one iteration is cruel but cycling course directors out of large courses after two years is probably something like an essential precondition to creating circumstances that do not encourage academic malfeasance among students.

Team-teaching is perhaps one way of addressing workload concerns and the necessity of variation simultaneously though, in a regime of constrained finances, this may not be possible.

If the instructor cannot be changed, the key textbook or books are open to variation. In some disciplines or sub-disciplines a single text may be so vastly superior to its competitors, or so completely dominates the discourse in the field, that it must be used. In most cases this is not the state of things. Even if the same text must be used year after year, the possibility of different emphases, even different order of presentation is always there. At very least, secondary readings may change from year to year, especially in those disciplines committed to addressing current circumstances. Moreover at least some components on the grade can be based upon these eccentric materials.

The point is to create circumstances in which instructors are being seen by students to be doing new work or to be engaging with old work in new ways. When this is not possible, when there are established information, axioms, theories that must be communicated, clear and overt attributions of sources will do much.


If variation and instructorial autonomy are keys to the appearance of academic integrity in the process of teaching, assignment design is the key to encouraging integrity in students' work. The key words here are clarity, embeddedness and process.


  1. The more clearly defined the assignment the less likely it is that an off-the-rack essay will fit its contours.
  2. That is, never ask students to write something about some book or other. Essays topics need to specify at least their starting point and that starting point ought to emerge from the specific context of the course as it is being taught.
  3. The objectives of the assignment ought also to be stated clearly once again because the plagiarized paper, unless it is written to order, is far less likely to achieve those objectives than is an assignment, however feebly achieved, in which the student actually attempts to meet those objectives. One excellent way of discouraging academic dishonesty is by setting up conditions in which it is not rewarded. It is possible that students are plagiarizing in the hopes of a C but in most cases they are hoping for better. If the unprovably plagiarized paper gets a D+ because it is off topic, the plagiarist is unlikely to be encouraged to do it again. The more clearly defined the topic, the more legitimate such punitive grades become.
  4. The corollary is that students must be informed clearly that papers that do not address the topic and the ends of the assignment will be graded harshly.


  1. As above, assignments of all sorts should arise from the specific local conditions of the course as it is being offered by this instructor at this institution in this year.
  2. This requires both the nurturing and the recognition of that local culture, which may be artificially created through the development of an idiolect, or by some sui generis medley of theoretical presuppositions, or through the cultivation of weird juxtapositions. It may also arise 'organically' from the site-specific chemistry of the course members.
  3. One corollary here is the importance, in courses with tutorials and teaching assistants, of encouraging (and making time provisions for) TAs to contribute assignments directed to their own groups. One option here is the development of course essay and problem banks from which those actually grading the assignments select on grounds of appropriateness to the concerns of the particular group.
  4. Another aspect of embeddedness is in-class work, deriving immediately from the materials and discussions to hand. This does not mean more exams. Rather it means micro-essays (with grading allowances made for the grammatical and orthographic stress of writing at high speed), hastily improvised problem sets, brief reports, whatever can demonstrate the students' absorption of the materials in a context not permitting borrowings from elsewhere.
  5. Evolve citation practices as a 'class community' to cover circumstances in the course. Students are often unsure of whether their essays should cite the ideas they gained from lectures. Some instructors ask students to cite lectures; others wish their lectures treated as 'common knowledge' and not cited. Discussion of the issue and class guidelines can be effective at integrating students' writing with course material. Also, the idea of citing lectures can be extended to the citation of ideas originally suggested by classmates. One effect of such integration between class experience and student writing is to dissuade students from believing that essays written by other people for other contexts might be suitable for theirs. A requirement that class discussion be integrated into students' writing, along with an expectation that such discussion be cited, also makes it very difficult (and therefore expensive) for a professional ghostwriter to create a suitable essay.
  6. To the degree that the circumstances of the course (and the limits of the instructor's tolerance) allow, design writing assignments that involve modes of writing other than argument and exposition, that is the traditionally dominant modes of the academic essay.


  1. To deploy an old slogan: process not product or perhaps both process and product.
  2. Though labour intensive, the most effective way of discouraging plagiarism in essay-based disciplines is the gradual development, through a series of observed stages, of the final product. An essay that begins with a 200-word statement of project (graded and commented upon by the instructor), moves through one or more drafts (also graded with commentary), to a final essay or report, is a large challenge to the plagiarist. Even a truly habituated academic miscreant, one sufficiently organised to order the essay early, will be hard put to make the adjustments necessary to address an incremental series of criticisms, suggestions, and comments.
  3. One corollary-going back to clarity as a principle-is that the instructor must be clear that a significant portion of the grade is derived from the effectiveness of the student's dealing with comments and suggestions. Which is to suggest that the paper/project is graded not just for getting better but for getting better in response to a series of site-specific stimuli.
  4. As with everything else on this list, the constant oversight necessary on the instructor's part to process-centred evaluation is labour intensive. One possible easing of this burden, though one that's not without its perils, is peer evaluation at some stage(s) in the process.