Upholding academic integrity in Higher Education


Plagiarism, cheating, and falsification are just some examples of unethical academic conduct among students in Higher Education, and ones which show no sign getting better, despite the best efforts of Higher Education policymakers.


However, no studies have so far statistically investigated the contexts in which students have engaged in unethical behaviour.


Drs Patrick Harte and Fawad Khaleel of Edinburgh Napier University explore a new approach to upholding academic integrity and the driving forces behind academic misbehaviour. Their work tests whether adjusting these aspects of the environment and context can help reduce unethical conduct.



Image Credit: Adobe Stock / IBravery





Hello and welcome to ResearchPod. Thank you for listening and joining us today.


In this episode, we’ll delve into the research of Dr Patrick Harte and Dr Fawad Khaleel of Edinburgh Napier University. Their recent work explores a new approach to upholding academic integrity among students in Higher Education. More specifically, the study investigates the driving forces behind academic misbehaviour, and tests whether adjusting different aspects of the assessments can help reduce breaches of academic integrity. As a result, the study’s findings can help in the development of new higher education approach towards the context and circumstantial factors of assessment for tackling academic dishonesty.


Plagiarism, cheating, and falsification are just some examples of unethical academic conduct among students in Higher Education. These and other forms of academic dishonesty are a persistent problem that sees no sign of significant decline, despite the best efforts of Higher Education policymakers. The literature on promoting academic integrity can be divided into two categories. One strand focuses on ethical approaches, such as developing codes of honour that encourage students to follow norms of academic integrity. The other strand explores how assessments can be designed to reduce the need and capacity of students to cheat. Most of the latter research aims to pinpoint the effective features of assessment design by gathering the perceptions of students or academic faculty on cheating behaviour and its underlying motivations. However, no studies have so far used secondary assessment data to directly and statistically investigate the contexts in which students have engaged in unethical behaviour.


Dr Patrick Harte and Dr Fawad Khaleel draw on data from a UK business school with over 1400 academic violations. Breaches included cases of plagiarism, cheating and falsification over a period of three years. The study explores the relationship between nine factors, including: class size, word count, nature and type of assessment, and nature of the academic violation. By establishing the role played by these factors, the two researchers aim to build an evidence base that can help in the creation of guidelines for improving academic integrity at business schools around the world.


The factors surrounding academic dishonesty can be divided into two types, the contextual and the circumstantial. Contextual factors are conditions that are controlled by institutions of higher education, such as the word count of assessments. Meanwhile, circumstantial factors are self-determining, such as whether a student is full-time or part-time. The study also categorises academic violations, which can take the form of negligence, malpractice or misconduct. Negligence is a mistaken violation, resulting mostly from inexperience or misconception, and often emerging during the early years of study. However, if a violation is intended and the student is expected to have known the rules in question, the act constitutes malpractice. The misconduct category is reserved for serious breaches of academic integrity, such as fabrication of data or repeated violations.


The study investigates the relationship between circumstantial and contextual factors, and specific forms of academic misbehaviour. By examining these interactions, the researchers test three hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that the factors driving student dishonesty vary by the type of violation, be it negligence, malpractice, or misconduct. The second assumes that the contextual factors determined by academic institutions, such as their design of assessments, influence the likelihood that students engage in academic dishonesty. Finally, the third hypothesis predicts that the impact of contextual factors upon student misbehaviour is mediated by circumstantial factors. For example, contexts like class size or type of assessment will have a unique influence on student behaviour depending on the circumstance, such as the particular discipline being studied.

After carrying out statistical tests on the assessment data, researchers confirmed hypothesis one: namely that the factors associated with violations of academic integrity differ for each level of severity. This was partly confirmed by the finding that part-time students were more likely to engage in malpractice, compared with flexible students. This could be due to the pressure on part-time students to meet rigid deadlines, as opposed to flexible learning students, who have the ability to defer their submission to the next trimester. Meanwhile, academic misconduct was found to be more likely among flexible students than full-time students. This association may be rooted in the poorer integration of flexible students, and the resulting disengagement of these students from their own learning and the norms of the educational institution.

Further analyses confirmed that the decisions made by academic institutions, including their design of assessments, can reduce student misbehaviour. However, the impact of these contextual factors depends on student circumstances. For instance, students located on campus were found to commit fewer violations if their assessments were based on real-world cases. Meanwhile, for online students, it was the use of case studies based on fictitious scenarios that was shown to reduce academic misbehaviour.

Indeed, the study generates an elaborate matrix showing how specific contexts and circumstances can be aligned to improve academic integrity. Whether the circumstance be the location of delivery, the discipline, or the year of study, researchers have compiled the corresponding contexts shown to reduce academic misbehaviour – including smaller or larger class sizes, assigning group work or individual study, and even the particular use of verbs in assessment text.

Higher education institutions are thus given a powerful guide to direct their strategies for boosting academic integrity. For example, professionals can see that for second year students, an assessment based on simple cause and effect can minimise student dishonesty, whilst for later years, essays built on case studies or compare and contrast are preferable for maintaining ethical standards. These decisions will be balanced against findings for other pertinent circumstances, such as the discipline or location of study, as these factors will also encourage particular types of assessment.

Whilst some findings in the matrix align with existing research, interesting contradictions have surfaced. For example, a consensus had formed in educational research that large class sizes increase violations of academic integrity. However, the present study found the reverse, namely that larger class sizes improved ethical practice except for the case of marketing students. This observation underlines the point that higher education institutions must adapt to student circumstances when developing strategies to uphold academic integrity.

Overall, the study should encourage relevant policymakers to shift their focus away from signposting codes of conduct and towards strategies that recognise the rational behaviour of students engaged in academic dishonesty. In other words, the specifics of a student’s situation are important, as these details shape their goals and actions in regards to academic behaviour. From designing assessments around group work to using real world scenarios, many contextual changes can reduce academic dishonesty. And yet these adjustments will only improve ethical standards if they are attuned to the specific circumstances within which students are educated, even down to the discipline. By drawing on the findings of this study, higher education institutions can be better equipped to tailor their service for an upstanding student body and a more accurate assessment of their academic strengths.

Dr Harte and Dr Khaleel are now calling colleagues across universities to collaborate with them to further expand the data based exploration of the role of assessment and its impact on the student behaviour surrounding academic dishonesty.  You can find more on their work in the paper linked in the show notes for this episode.

Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe to ResearchPod for more detailed breakdowns of the latest academic research. See you next time!

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