Discussing Academic Integrity with Students

A photo of three students in a classroom with one raising a hand.

Most researchers agree that proactive strategies are far more effective at curbing academic dishonesty than punitive policies alone. Sometimes one of the best proactive strategies can be a classroom discussion (whether in a virtual discussion board or face-to-face) because it provides an opportunity for students to more fully comprehend, reflect, and question the potentially hazardous consequences of academic dishonesty.

In this article, we have provided three case studies that could provide thoughtful discussion prompts within your classroom to further clarify and reinforce key questions about academic integrity:

  • Why does academic honesty matter? Socially, as well as individually?
  • What is cheating?
  • What is plagiarism?
  • What other behaviors constitute academic dishonesty?
  • What are the expectations of the university?
  • What are the expectations for this class?
  • What are the consequences?
  • What will you do in this class to detect cheating?

The following series of case studies are designed to build on one another, however feel free to pick and choose as suits your class. The first case study begins on the more micro level, the second introduces infamous academic cheating scandals, and the final case study looks at the issue of misrepresentation of information in the media at large. These studies could be discussed with the whole class, or you could break students into groups with the case studies or break the case studies up among the groups. Students can then discuss the case study in their group, answer provided questions, and finally share their conclusions with the entire class.

Case Study 1: “Message to my Freshman Students”

“For an academic, there is something sacred about a citation. The proper citation of a source is a small tribute to the hard work, diligence, intelligence and integrity of someone dedicated enough to make a contribution to knowledge. For you, citations and bibliographies are pointless hoops to jump through and you often treat these requirements carelessly. Further, our differences on the issue of giving or taking proper credit accounts for the fact that you so seldom take plagiarism as seriously as I do. …For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger” (Parsons, 2015, par. 10).

To introduce students to the differences between high school and university education, Professor Parsons (2015) authored this widely re-circulated blog post that outlines important expectations that freshmen will encounter with college instruction. A philosopher and historian from the University of Houston, Dr. Parsons explains the differences between high school teachers and university instructors, the contrary goals of test-preparation versus knowledge-building, the importance of learning critical listening skills from lecture, and the value of acquiring new ways of knowing from academic culture.

Some potential discussion prompts:

  1. In what ways do expectations of you as a college student differ from those as a high school student? What academic skills are you expected to possess?
  2. What behaviors would you consider ‘cheating’ or academic dishonesty? Can we compile a comprehensive list to discuss?
  3. What other behaviors are considered “academic misconduct” by UNT policy? Accidental plagiarism? Misattribution of a source? Inaccurate citation? Knowledge of another student’s academic dishonesty? Group work on assignments for individual credit?

Case Study 2: Academic Cheating Scandals

Unfortunately, there have been numerous academic cheating scandals revealed at such high-profile schools as Harvard and Duke. The following articles and webpages provide several examples for students to explore:

Some potential discussion prompts:

  1. How might academic dishonesty be harmful to yourself? To society at large? Your classmates? To your potential job prospects or careers? The value of your UNT degree in the marketplace? To your credibility and trustworthiness? To public health and well-being?
  2. What happens if gaining a college degree fails to reliably produce essential knowledge and skills? For your doctors, scientists, lawyers, or business people? With what effects? How would you evaluate a politician who has plagiarized?

Case Study 3: Global Warming Research

“ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew as early as 1981 of climate change – seven years before it became a public issue, according to a newly discovered email from one of the firm’s own scientists. Despite this the firm spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial” (Suzanne Goldenberg, 2015).

Some potential discussion prompts:

  1. In the case of ExxonMobile actively misrepresenting scientific consensus on global climate change, would you consider this academic dishonesty? Why, and using what criteria for assessment and judgment? With what potential effects?
  2. What happens if gaining a college degree fails to reliably produce essential knowledge and skills? For your doctors, scientists, lawyers, or business people? With what effects? How would you evaluate a politician who has plagiarized?
  3. Why is accurate citation of information sources important and useful for us in evaluating information? Do you think democratic decision-making requires it?


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Goldenberg, S. (2015, July 8.) Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/08/exxon-climate-change-1981-climate-denier-funding

Parsons, K.M. (2015, May 14). Message to my Freshman Students. HuffPost Education: The Blog. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-m-parsons/message-to-my-freshman-st_b_7275016.html