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Academic integrity and getting help ethically

We all need a helping hand sometimes
Published by Julia Lane

This blog post was written by former employee and SLC Writing Services Coordinator Hermine Chan.

Academic integrity is the choice to be honest and moral in an academic setting. In a nutshell, it is doing your own assignments to the best of your abilities, giving proper credit to the sources that you used, and citing the scholars whose help you consulted. It also means being honest in your tests and exams, following the rules, and doing the best that you can. When the issue of academic integrity is brought up, it's often easy to assume that it's just something that the "bad students" do. But sometimes, though, the response can be a lot more distressing: "I just didn't know what else I could do!" 

Academic integrity issues are never as simple as cheating or plagiarizing to get ahead. Let's talk about that.

Cheating because of stress

Students are sometimes pushed into considering plagiarism or cheating because of the stressors in their lives. Some of them could be having difficulty academically. They don't understand a concept or a formula, and suddenly, everything snowballs into a giant mess of confusion. Sometimes, they get sick, skip a few classes, and the next thing they know, they have an eye-watering amount of homework to catch up on.  

It goes without saying that a student is not a student 24/7! Even though school is a big part of a university student's life, they have part-time jobs, family, relationships, interests, etc. Sometimes, one or more of these things go wrong and they have to prioritize that over their studies. Even if they have a great time management plan, something can still happen and throw a wrench into it and mess up the day. They may find that they don't have enough time or energy to study for a midterm exam that’s coming up.

Or, once that winter rain starts pouring, they start to think that all those touristy photos of sunny Stanley Park are just a scam and Vancouver's a pretty gloomy place. Fellow classmates are more like transients who come and go and nothing's meaningful. What's the point even of getting up in the morning or writing that 10-page paper? They'd rather just get their degree in the shortest time possible and go somewhere else less depressing with the sun on their back.    

What can you do?

Some of these students may choose to resort to plagiarism or cheating just to get through the term. Obviously, this is not an ethical or even a sustainable solution to the problems. The best thing to do is to deal with the stressors in your life as soon as possible. Don't let them fester, because they tend to grow into something huge and out of control. If things are happening in your life that affect your studies, please talk to your professors. Most of them will be understanding and can make alternate arrangements if you need more time to complete your homework or other forms of support. Talk to Health & Counselling or a counsellor from MySSP if you are feeling down and need support. There is no shame in asking for help--all of us need a bit of help at some point in our lives. The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and take care, but also hold onto your integrity and not resort to unethical shortcuts that will hurt you more in the long run.

Does it sound college enough?

Some students worry that their writing is not "academic" enough and therefore, not "intelligent" enough to get a good grade. Or maybe it doesn't sound "native speaker" enough and they’re worried that their writing has grammatical issues. Some students might pull out a thesaurus and start throwing in five-dollar-words. Or maybe, some think since they’re not good at writing, they might as well use the original author’s words and then make a few slight modifications here and there. And in the next paragraph, they’ll just find another author and rinse and repeat. 

Some students might already have received a failing grade from their professor and told that their writing isn’t up to par. They’ve tried their best, but there’s just no way they can drastically improve their writing before their next assignment!  

What can you do?

It’s normal to feel like your writing isn’t good enough. Nobody was born writing academic English. It’s a skill that all of us had to learn in university, by reading a lot, and writing a lot.  

Make sure you are reading academic writing extensively. Read journal articles in your discipline. Read outside of your discipline. Reading is food for your brain that helps you grow as a writer. You’ll never know when something you read might come in handy. You never lose what you read--it might come back as an inspiration for a topic to write about down the road. 

Even if you were good at writing in high school, university is a different ballgame. It’s more challenging when you have to dive deeper into your arguments, support them with research, and provide your analysis of the topic to further the discussion. If you’re unsure whether you’re meeting requirements, or if you haven’t been doing too well in your courses, it can get stressful. Meet with your professors or your TA. You can go to their office hours. Most professors and TAs are happy to look over your rough draft and give you feedback. They may also have strategies to help you get better. 

No such thing as stupid questions

Professor and TA have office hours, but it sounds so official and cold. Many students feel daunted by the thought of being alone in a (Zoom) room for an hour with their scary-looking professor who holds their life in their hands (okay, maybe just their grades). Maybe they’ve had a bad experience in the past with a teacher who shamed them for asking questions and made them feel stupid.

Some students come from a culture where they just don’t talk to their teacher, ever. Having to ask for help from a teacher could be perceived as a sign that they’re not good students, that they aren’t paying enough attention in class and therefore are now struggling.   

What can you do? 

This is not true at SFU at all! Asking questions and seeking help are important steps to improving your learning. Professors are keen to hear from you and are happy to help you with your learning. By asking them questions, not only are you helping yourself, but also you're providing your instructors with feedback for their teaching. It’s no fun teaching to a void, especially on Zoom, when your instructors don’t get to see your faces and can’t gauge whether they’re going too fast. If you have a question for them, they’ll know whether they need to spend more time on a certain topic. If you’re confused, you’re likely not alone, and your classmates will appreciate you asking questions on their behalf. And most instructors are talkers and people-persons—that’s why they teach! They love the interaction. So, don’t be scared. Your instructors don’t bite! 

If talking to your professor is intimidating, you might feel more comfortable asking a peer some questions about your assignments. You can book a consultation with a Peer Educator at the Student Learning Commons and get some writing or study tips. You don’t have to bring a completed essay. If you just have a few ideas and want some help developing your arguments, your peer educators are happy to help you. 

After a year in social isolation, it's understandable that we may not feel like putting pants on and talking to a real person.  You can still seek help by submitting your work asynchronously to WriteAway for feedback from a qualified tutor before you turn in your assignment. The tutors can provide helpful tips for the flow and cohesion of your writing and give you feedback on the structure of your essay via email. 

Getting help ethically

University can be stressful, especially when you are juggling multiple roles at the same time, while navigating a completely new environment. It’s okay to need help with your studies--everybody does at some point in their academic career, even your professors and TAs! The most important thing is to know when to get help and where.

There are a lot of websites out there that advertise online tutoring or help with your essays and assignments. Just note that a lot of them do not have your best interest in mind, which is to learn and become qualified for whatever career of your choosing in the future. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may seem like a good deal to pay for an essay just to get through your course, or to have someone help you complete your exam while you’re taking it at home. However, these are detrimental to your own learning and development in the long run, and you may run into issues with Academic Integrity, which may hurt you more in the long run. Plus, these shortcuts don't solve your problems. If you’re having issues, it’s always a much better idea to deal with them right away. If you need some guidance, you can reach out to Academic Advising to help you decide your next steps.

At SFU, there are many resources available to you. We're here to help, and you don't have to do this alone!! 

Student Learning Commons

SFU Library 


Health & Counselling

Academic Advising


Academic Integrity

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