Cultivating Compassionate Community to Foster Academic Integrity? (with @Yasser_Tammer)

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes, 43 seconds

I, Maha, am working on multiple things, including a paper with Alysia Wright in Calgary, and I’m trying to clarify a thought I’ve got here, and I thought I’d blog about it and see if others can help me fill any gaps here. When I thought of this idea I’m writing about here, I wanted to get a student perspective on it, so I reached out to my friend, undergraduate student, Yasser, who has been my thinking partner throughout this whole AI thing from day 1.

This post is co-authored with Yasser Tamer Atef (@Yasser_Tammer on Twitter). I met Yasser on Twitter a year ago, we became friends, got to know each other during MYFest, and he later became a student in my digital literacies class (fall semester).

I had originally written it on my own and asked for his feedback, and he suggested we co-author it. So there is a lot of “I” that is me, there is a bit of “we”, and there are some parts that are clearly written by Yasser himself and labeled as such.


My premise is that a lot of the reasons students seek “unauthorized help” is that they don’t feel like they have sufficient pathways to seek “authorized help”. And my suggestion then is that if we use a “compassionate” approach (my work with Daniela Gachago and Nicola Pallitt) to designing our courses and build a community that fosters a sense of belonging and nurtures trust, then our classes would cultivate academic integrity simply because students would not feel the *need* to resort to unauthorized help (like contract cheating, or AI that is not allowed by the teacher) because they have so much support from the teacher and colleagues and sufficient agency to make the assessments into something they want to and can do.

Why Students Use Unauthorized Help/Shortcuts

So let me know if I’ve got this right, OK? Let me know if I’m missing a motivation for committing academic integrity violations (whether or not you think it’s a justifiable one). I reached out to Yasser with these questions, and we co-wrote the below. Let me know what you think, if you’re reading this. The main reasons a learner may need to “take a shortcut” that constitutes “unauthorized help” include:

●     Time from the perspective of Yasser and Maha

We both believe that time is generally a common reason why students cheat or seek unauthorized help. They can’t do something within the deadline, and they don’t feel like they can ask for a deadline extension. Now, time can often be a time management issue, so solutions could include negotiation of deadlines, or they can include supporting students with time management, offering them check-ins before the deadline is due, etc., but the central issue is often “time” and students feeling like they have no control over time. Or they have other priorities and this assignment is not worth their time.

More from Yasser on time and stress

Additionally, stress can be another motive that can drive students to be encouraged to commit academic misconduct. If I give an example as a student, I can definitely tell that assignments with short, yet hard, deadlines often cause students to feel perplexed. Many students, if not all, find it way more difficult to respond to urgent tasks, especially in an academic setting, where fixation on grades and assessments is common.

●     Lack of meaning

When learners do not find meaning in the actual work they’re doing, they are not interested in doing it, and then a shortcut seems welcome, instead of spending time on something they don’t like or care about at all. A solution there is to give learners choices to work on things they care about or at least help them find relevance or meaning in the work we assign them by making it more authentic, if possible? But giving students choices is not enough, because you can give students choice within a narrow set of choices for an assignment that has elements that have been done before, so it’s easy to plagiarize or for AI to create a good enough version of it.

Yasser’s perspective on lack of meaning

As a student, everyday I see assignments that do not correspond to my own learning preferences, and I am certain that would be the case for every single person, not just students. If professors gave more choices, and provided relevance to what the students are actually doing, they would end up finding a rapid alternative such as the AI, contract cheating, or any other unauthorized material. But giving choices is not a viable solution, as there are now repeated prompts or test banks. However, when I think about it more broadly and recall some experiences, it seems that the problem is in the nature of the given work to students. To put it simply, throughout my academic interactions with peers and coursework settings, I  observed that no student, at least as far as I am able to witness, attempted to take a shortcut or a chance to cheat in creative assignments or projects. By these I mean, the work involving video shooting, infographics, and visually appealing projects. My interpretation to this is that they find their own self, and more importantly, they see their success while, at the same time, learning and developing.

Response from Maha

I agree about all of this – but I think AI is getting going at creating graphics and videos and stuff like that – I wonder if students’ interest in creating their own videos and such will wane as AI becomes better at the even this?

I do think the key missing ingredient here is students’ interest in the work they’re doing – whether it be the topic we’re asking them to research or write about, or the format we’re asking them to represent their learning in. Finding what interests students is important. Not every course has that flexibility, but I think we should always try.

●     Lack of confidence in their own ability to do it on their own

It’s normal that some students won’t have the ability or at least the confidence in their ability to learn and be able to do something. One element of this is to make sure as teachers to not assign something that is way beyond students’ “zone of proximal development” and to recognize that some students may need more support than others. The problem is when students feel unable to complete an assessment on their own, and they don’t have a safe way to express that, or don’t know how to seek authorized help. Can we design this into our assessment design, ways to seek help from colleagues or teacher?

Yasser’s perspective on lack of confidence in ability

In my experience, based on my informal discussions with peers, I came to the conclusion that students do not like to be challenged with ideas that are beyond their cognitive abilities, Or they feel it is in vain to spend time on something in which they are not experts. Generally, this generates lack of confidence, leading to surges of disinterest or complete loss of meaning, “I can’t do it…” or “ it is very hard and useless…”. Consequently, shortcuts such as relying on unauthorized resources or AI are often seen as the only way out of these dilemmas.

●     Competitive education systems

Most systems of formal education are competitive – there is competition between students, and success may entail having to do better than others, rather than just doing well on their own, or doing well collectively. Where even if they’re able to do something to an extent, if they feel others can do it better and they can’t do it as well without help, they seek unauthorized help in order to “compete”, because seeking support is discouraged. Colleagues may be less likely to help… because… competition. Though I, Maha, as a student, gave and received help from colleagues (authorized and unauthorized) even within the competitive environment.

Yasser’s perspective on competitive systems

We are now in an era where our pace is too fast. We seek the easy path, so whatever is easier and less time consuming will be the choice for students. Hence, if I feel that Chat GPT can do something, why do I have to do it myself? Given that I know that other tons of students are competing with me.

●     Lack of consideration of potential “harm towards others” by using unauthorized help.

This one I am not sure of, but I have to assume that most people are good, and most people would stop themselves from doing something if they looked at it from the perspective of how it might harm others whom they care about, within their community.

Yasser on harm

It is that students overlook the idea of future benefit; that is, they do not reconsider the idea that, in case of papers, people might be reading it after many years. In other words, they might not get a sense of pride to say that this was written back in the years with the help of AI or something else that was unauthorized.

Cheatable assignments (Maha and Yasser)

Because they can. Because our assignment is cheatable

This one is painful, we know, but if we’re assigning students to do something that’s been done many times before, whether by other students, or by others on the internet, and this other work is reachable either publicly, or via sites like Course Hero or Chegg, or via private communication, or easily via contract cheating and essay mills, or now easily writable by an AI tool, it’s possible that a percentage of students will use these unauthorized sources just because they can. Because it is more “efficient” to do so. If they’re focused on the product not the process of learning (grades being one reason they might have this orientation, but lack of intrinsic motivation is another) then this is a possibility.

Yasser on Cheatable assignments

Furthermore, from the student perspective, some students might say that they are not cheating, but they are learning from the work of others, and by saying so, they are curbing their learning excessively. As we said, if they can access the answer to a question or a problem, or synthesize an essay from a paper from the AI/ essays writing sites, there will be no development whatsoever. However, a solution is always possible, try to reduce repetitive assignments. Since we place greater emphasis on the students’ creativity, we have to also encourage teaching creativity.

Maha’s tongue-in-cheek response

…and perhaps AI can help educators imagine different assignments (just kidding – it won’t probably help you create something extremely different or creative, but can help you tweak things based on other things others have done before).

A Compassionate, Communal Approach?

I think perhaps one element of my approach, as a faculty developer, to this is that while a lot of approaches to academic integrity emphasize our ability to surveil and control, I’m trying to switch this around (I’m not the only one, of course!) to moving it into transparency (self-disclosure) and more distributing control and passing on more control to students and away from teachers. There is more of a communal responsibility than a personal, individual responsibility. The responsibility for someone to act ethically in society is usually distributed, right? Having fair laws, creating conditions under which people can achieve what they need within the law, and having people who can support someone to comply with the law – but in the first place, creating fair laws and suitable conditions for EVERYONE equitably may entail participatory ways of creating laws and parameters within which the law can be followed? Even nuanced/flexible laws that account for variations in people’s circumstances? In contrast, when we place students in environment that only aims to detect students’ use of AI or cheating without teaching them any ethical consideration, so why do we essentially blame them? I think, as a student, our communal approach lies in our shared responsibility to create equitable and hospitable learning spaces, and in doing so, we are breaking down any barriers of learning and collaboration.

Questions to ask?

So for those of us who are designing assessments, here are some questions we could potentially ask ourselves, and I wonder if they would cultivate more integrity in our classes?

  • Can deadlines be co-created or is there a mechanism of co-creating them with students? Can someone ask for an extension if needed? OR can we help students learn how to manage their time better to help them meet our deadlines?
  • To what extent can our assessments be more meaningful, relevant and authentic for students? To what extent can learners have choices over what to do and which direction to go? I know this is not possible or easy for some courses, but let’s explore the most we can do within our context?
  • How can we create a safe space for people to speak up about what they feel they are not equipped to do without support?
  • Yasser added: How can we define the fine lines between being digitally literate and violating the essences of academic integrity? I am aware that as a student, there are some intersections between both, but there have to be some guidelines for all learning contexts. [Maha agrees]

Yasser’s perspective on these questions

As a student, and a disability advocate, I am  more concerned about these steps. In particular, I am concerned about assessments, and how they can be created in conjunction with accessibility and equity for people with visual impairment for example? I recognize the issue of deadlines, but how can we also ensure the necessary accommodations whilst taking the precautionary measures against AI? I know that these questions are broadly posted; nevertheless, they are all important.

Feature image (two pairs of hands holding soil with a small plant emerging from it, with the smaller hands cupped by the larger hands) by Shameer Pk from Pixabay

2 thoughts on “Cultivating Compassionate Community to Foster Academic Integrity? (with @Yasser_Tammer)

  1. I think, from a perspective of a former student 2 years ago, the most important thing to help students not to go for unauthorized sources “cheating” is the meaning of what they are doing. Simply enough to explain what this has to do with learning? Or what this will help grow the community or solve an issue. It is always hidden behind proper motivation and meaning of the task itself. Just as Dr. Maha does in all her assessments.
    I will give you a live relevant example: i am a 3.1 GPA student. So, it means that is my average. However, in a coursework called “Digital Literacy” I got an A. I believe that for some of my colleagues who are higher GPA than me this course was demanding. For me, it was just lovely, cause I knew what I am doing for and why. That is it.

  2. Overall, this article is addressing a vital topic to be considered by academic institutions which is a brief to the point. I liked it.

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