Surprise! Experiential Learning Course Design Assists Academic Integrity

by Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner

I attended my first International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) conference in 2016. Fellow attendees repeatedly recommended James Lang’s Cheating Lessons (Harvard U P, 2013), which I found so eye-opening that the next year I applied for and became a Learning in Action Fellow.

What’s the link?

An explanation: Lang suggests that we “add one final element to our courses” to help students connect to our coursework in “authentic ways over which they have some control.” Then, he offers a dazzling example: Andy Kaufman reworked a blah University of Virginia Russian Literature course into the dynamic “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership” course, and his students spent a semester teaching Russian literature classics to prisoners at a nearby juvenile correction center—an experiential course redesign that promotes intrinsic student motivation and provides authentic learning outcomes and assessments (61-62, 65-76). In short, Lang claims that students become so engaged in an authentic learning experience that the coursework becomes “virtually cheat-free.”

Experiential-learning research echoes Lang’s observation. L. Dee Fink, in Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (Jossey-Bass, 2013) cites numerous studies showing that students don’t respond well to lectures. They don’t retain knowledge, much less transfer or apply it. Instead, research shows that students value hands-on learning that builds confidence in their problem-solving abilities. Fink invites teachers to explore teaching ideas that provide students with significant learning experiences. A takeaway: “significant learning requires that we help students connect what they learn in our courses with their ‘life file’ rather than just their ‘course file’ (8). To accomplish this, he suggests active and collaborative learning, writing to learn, formative assessment, service learning, flipped classrooms, experiential learning, and reflection, and he spends a lot of time carefully laying out how all of this might work. In other words, significantly impacting course design can significantly impact student learning, and authentic student learning significantly reduces the need to cheat.

Another passage in Fink’s experiential-learning study that resonated with Lang’s academic-integrity one is a reflection on Lion Gardiner’s 1994 Redesigning Higher Education, which includes a list of “critical competencies” that leaders in business, industry, and government identify as skills citizens and future workers will need. The first two listed items are 1) “conscientiousness, personal responsibility, and dependability,” and 2) “the ability to act in a principled, ethical fashion” (19). Of course, the rest of the list is important, too: collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, respect for differences, adaptability, and a desire for lifelong learning. But the idea that employers value personal responsibility and acting “in a principled, ethical fashion,” strikes me as important, as something we might build into our courses.

Tricia Bertram Gallant comes to the same conclusion, in Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century (ASHE, 2008) in “Academic Integrity as a Teaching & Learning Issue: From Theory to Practice” (2017) and in “Course Design, Assessment, & Integrity: Strange Bedfellows?” (ICAI Integrity Matters, Jan 2019), where she argues that incorporating academic integrity into our course designs and assessments is crucial because “our courses and assessments are meaningless if they do not have integrity.”

What Lang, Fink, and Gallant have in common is a recognition of the link between student integrity and course design. As Gallant explains in “Academic Integrity as a Teaching & Learning Issue,” “mastery-oriented environments reduce cheating naturally by reinforcing students’ motivations to learn.” She further recommends ensuring that assessments “are relevant to students’ interests and lives” (including their future professional lives) and that they “represent authentic, real-world tasks.” How to create a “learning-oriented environment in which cheating is the exception and integrity is the norm”? Her suggestions are similar to Fink’s, and, in fact, to Lang’s: teacher enthusiasm, scaffolding, flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, active and collaborative learning, modeling, and the alignment of learning goals with assessments.

Fostering academic integrity, it turns out, really can begin with course design.

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Dr. Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner is a professor in the Department of English and Coordinator of Academic Integrity Initiatives for the College of Arts and Sciences. She was named a Learning in Action Fellow in 2017, an Innovation Scholar in 2018, and an Innovation Mentor in 2019.