Academic Integrity and the Roles Students Play: The Student as Competitor

[social-bio] This is the second in a series of four posts where I present the metaphors I recognized as being in use in students’ discussions in my doctoral study of students’ understandings of academic honesty and dishonesty.  These metaphors can be treated as lenses students appeared to use to see themselves in the university, to navigate their relation to others, and to interpret events.   

The Student as Competitor 

“It’s [good grades] like a carrot dangling in front of you.  And everybody’s at a race and whether or not your carrot is big enough will tell you how far you’ll go.”


“But you try to find every possible way, just to get that one extra mark on your assignment.  Whatever advantages you can get over others.“

Grades appear to trump honesty in the statements made by these two students.  These students as well as others who volunteered for this study said they competed against one another for grades, positioning themselves as competitors, and sometimes positioning their fellow students as rivals for educational opportunity and access.  Students described striving to get a relative advantage for access to scarce resources like scholarships, scarce positions in selective educational programs, or to be hired by desirable employers.  There were numerous comments from students about the competitive climate they perceived in university learning environments (especially, they had heard, in Medicine and Law), and with special mention going to the detrimental impact in terms of climate of grading on the “curve.” 

What might this mean for teaching and learning?

The competitor-student may rationalize academic dishonesty as a worthwhile risk since, for this student, grades and relative ranking against peers are more highly valued than the learning itself.  From such a position, the student may claim that “everyone does it” and that cheating serves to “level the playing field, anyway.”   With such a belief, a student accused of cheating or plagiarism may feel terribly unlucky or even unfairly singled out.  While the stakes may be high for some students in a higher education system that undeniably values grades, a preoccupation with grades may be coming at the expense of authentic learning in ways specific to and beyond academic integrity.  The dilemma for teachers is how to downplay this destructive student emphasis on grades and relative rank and yet still use grades as ultimate feedback to students about their learning in our classes?

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