On Christmas Eve, a letter from a member of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) appeared in MAA Connect, a community discussion board. The member, who is named Richard, was sharing his frustration with incidents of dishonesty he’d uncovered in one of his mathematics classes. He shared a letter he wrote and sent to the students, and he invited others to share how they have dealt with academic dishonetsy in their classes. This is what I wrote and posted in MAA Connect in response.

Dear Richard,

Thank you for making the time and the effort to share your experience student dishonesty with the MAA community. Academic integrity is important to everyone in higher education (or should be), and I think it’s valuable to have conversations about how we handle it in our classrooms.

I earned my B.A. in mathematics at St. Olaf College, one of many schools in the U.S. that have a strict and respected honor code for its students. I’ll never forget when I was a freshman, my Calc II prof told us that while we were taking an exam he’d be in his office, not the classroom. The honor code allowed him to trust us. This trusting approach to exams was formative for me as an educator, and it shapes the way I run my classrooms.

Each course I teach has a syllabus that lays out for students how important integrity is to me and the foundational role it plays in higher education. I then make it clear that I trust them to do the right thing during exams and on homework, leaving the room (and sitting in the hallway) during exams to make it clear how much I trust them.

Each syllabus also makes it clear that I take betrayals of academic integrity very seriously and will act fast and hard when I learn of it. This means discarding student work and declaring it failed work, and it also means I report the infraction to the Dean of Students according to campus policies and procedures.

Part of my first-day talk about my syllabus and academic integrity emphasizes the importance of integrity to society. Too often we hear stories of dishonest neighbors and elected leaders. Dishonesty undermines representative democracy, so it’s important that they learn to be honest. There will be temptations, I tell them. You will feel the urge to cut corners. When you feel that way, come talk with me.

That’s how I frame integrity in my courses.

For this to really work, I need to be vigilant. I need to evaluate student work with part of my mind tuned toward the possibility of dishonest work. This is difficult. It works against the assurance I give students that I trust them.

When I find dishonest work, I’m obligated (to the other students and to the University) to pursue it. A student who is discovered working dishonestly won’t change their ways without paying a price (e.g., lowered grade, disapproval of the professor) and facing a disincentive of future dishonest work (e.g., report to the Dean of Students).

At my institution, before reporting to the Dean we are encouraged to talk with students we suspect of submitting dishonest work. It’s not easy, but I do this, and sometimes a student convinces me that their mistake was honest. More often, they are contrite and confess their mistake.

I’m proud of the approach I take to academic integrity, and I think students appreciate it. I treat them like adults, and I treat integrity in a realistic way. I rarely do this perfectly, but I think my efforts help my students grow to appreciate integrity. I still have students who cheat, and I catch some of them. But I know all my students leave my courses with an appreciation of integrity.

As far as what you did and wrote, I’d do some things differently. Letting students know that we take integrity seriously is important. The more they hear that from professors, the more likely they will be citizens and neighbors with integrity. And we all need more of that.

I hope this is of value to you Richard, and to the MAA community. I’m eager to participate in a continued conversation on this important topic.

Jason E. Miller, Ph.D.
Professor of Mathematics
California State University Channel Islands