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Column: Ethical syllabuses don’t guarantee ethical behavior


Students enjoy the rare warm winter weather on the quad on Feb. 24, 2023.

Students, be honest. Do you actually read the syllabus for your courses? 

I'm feeling like the answer is, generally, "No." Does the syllabus week suck? I'm feeling "Yes." 

No matter how many of you — I suspect a lot — neglect to actually read what's in it, no one can deny its importance. Like a holy book, it contains everything you need to know for a course and a set of policies you should follow. 

From the first moment you receive an email about your course syllabus, your next four months are crystallized. After that, you play around with the policies and maximize the benefit of two unexcused absences or the ten-day, no-penalty extension for your term paper. You might also risk a little and invest your Christmas money in Course Hero for a month or two without getting caught, even when the policy says not to. 

Course policies are the essential components of a syllabus. They describe the expectations for student behavior and are designed based on a set of criteria. One critical criterion is ethics, and a key component of that is respect. 

Respect means that the syllabus should promote a thoughtful and inclusive classroom environment where all students feel heard and valued. Most importantly, I believe, the instructor should respect students' time and well-being, make the most of class time and avoid excessive assignments or expectations outside of class. 

The commonly known policies, such as attendance, the honor code, Title IX resources and guidelines on non-discrimination, are implemented through the University. These policies have an ageless quality to them. 

However, ProctorEdu reported that even with these policies strictly implemented, 60.8 percent of college students still act dishonestly in their studies, and 95 percent of cheaters don't get caught. It is clear that ethical policies don't always guarantee ethical behaviors. So, who is to blame? 

There are several studies examining the cause of academic misconduct, and over half of these instances are due to course policies, many of which are outlined in syllabuses. 

First, cheating or plagiarism is more likely when an assessment is too challenging and time-consuming. Course overload is another leading cause. And when students feel disconnected from their peers and instructors, they are more likely to cheat or plagiarize. 

These leading causes demonstrate a clear need for policy adjustment. 

Does the syllabus motivate students to be more involved in the course, or does it motivate them to cheat their way through? 

Office hours and class participation are great ways of enhancing communication, but they need to be more effective and creative. Students want more than their questions and answers to be heard by their instructors. They also want their opinions to be cared for in order to feel fully valued.

Thus, instructors should develop innovative ways to help students be more transparent about their opinions. This effort is critical, especially for large lectures where students must exert more effort to feel less anonymous.

A good start is frequently asking students for their feedback, whether through surveys or in-class discussions. Invite students to be a part of the course policy-making. This strategy will help instructors find their blind spots through students' eyes and allows students to better engage with the course policies and the syllabus.

Another issue is that assigned tasks are often unachievable, whether they be too much, too difficult or make students feel overburdened. Instructors should be mindful of students' supposed time commitment to the course when creating homework or assigning readings.

The Office of the University Registrar states that the federal definition of a credit hour is “not less than one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours out of class student work each week.”

This standard might apply to the general student population but potentially doesn't to students with certain learning disabilities. Instructors need to make adjustments like adding timing and scheduling accommodations to their policies. They can also break a major assignment into smaller pieces over the course of the semester. These changes will reduce students’ frustration and help them better demonstrate their knowledge.

One policy currently implemented in students' favor is allowing two unexcused absences. This policy allows students to miss two classes without providing notice or facing penalty. I asked Professor Nazanin Knudsen, who teaches my Introduction to Digital Storytelling class, about the policy's intention. 

She said the policy aims to give students some flexibility and not feel as stressed. 

"Alleviating students' stress is something we as professors are trying to help with," Knudsen said. "The two unexcused absence policy allows more flexibility and seems to work toward this goal.”

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Of course, this does not mean students found no guilt in academic misconduct. Even under the most effective policies, students still have the choice to cheat or plagiarize. 

But better policies should be the school's primary pursuit no matter what, for they also serve an educational purpose of enhancing students' understanding of the moral reasons and the consequences of their misconduct.