Plain Language, Please! Four Steps to Decoding Academic Integrity Policies

Many institutions are still grappling with the effects of COVID-19 and the transition to remote learning. While faculty and students find their footing, student conduct practitioners must use this time to develop new proposals for academic integrity policies at their institutions. One beneficial project would be clarifying policies for students and faculty.

Legalese. Institutional policies are riddled with legal jargon that make their policies unintelligible to the average student, staff member, and instructor. The goal of plain language guidelines is to make documents accessible to all readers. While many policies may need to have legalistic language, it can be difficult to navigate the myriad university policies, leading to confusion and policy violations. 

In the United States, the federal government provided guidelines for the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which “…requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Though not required of collegiate institutions, if a document can be created to simplify the policy for readers, without replacing said policy, it is still a worthy target. Again, this does not mean that a plain language guideline would replace or supersede any policy at an institution, rather it could provide a supplemental guide for all readers to better understand academic integrity policies and processes.

If you are proposing plain language changes to your integrity policies, you may find the following steps, as recommended by the Plain Language Guidelines, a useful roadmap:

  1. Define the Purpose: If you are choosing to re-write your institutional academic integrity policies, be clear that this will take the place of any older policies. Similarly, if you will be using this as a guide to explain an existing academic integrity policy, let the readers know.
  2. Organization, or Reorganization: There are elements within the institution’s policy that ought to be reorganized to offer more clarity for students. Instead of flipping back and forth through several pages–or clicking between pages on a website–to explain one step of a process, reorganizing the policy may alleviate some confusion. Further, while the guidelines do recommend having a “definitions” section, organizing the definitions at the end of the document as a glossary may be more useful to those reading your policy.
  3. Conversational and Readable: For policies to be digestible by any party, policy language must be as concise and simple as possible. In addition to cutting out unnecessary phrases, abbreviations, or jargon, material should be broken down into bite-sized pieces. Plain language guidelines also recommend using active voice in the present tense. Further, use short sentences and limit the number of sections. Every sentence should be reevaluated to make sure it is intelligible to readers.
  4. Work with Key Audiences: Once your language has changed, it is important to check with students and faculty to both test their understanding of the plain language packet and ensure that it is appropriately written to capture the essence of the policy in a digestible manner.

Are your academic integrity policies easy for students to understand? Tell us what you think by commenting below.

About the Author
Courtney Cullen is the Program Coordinator in the Office of Academic Honesty at the University of Georgia. Cullen processes appeals for the Petitions Subcommittee and works to support the initiatives of the Office of Academic Honesty. Cullen is working towards a Ph.D. in Higher Education, and received both master’s and bachelor’s degrees in International Affairs from UGA.
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