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Humanizing Cheating: The rise of academic misconduct

By Emma Kilburn-Smith, October 21 2020—

In March of 2020, universities faced an unprecedented challenge. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown, Canadian post-secondary institutions had to transition their approximately 1.4 million students out of the physical classroom and into an online learning environment without any time to strategize. It is no surprise then that there have been glitches along the way. One glaring issue is the rise in academic misconduct cases across the board. 

Dr. Susan Barker is the vice-provost of student experience at the University of Calgary and she says that the university is working closely with professors during this period of adjustment but that it has been “a steep learning curve.”

Barker says that while the university is still in the process of examining its data, she expects to see a reasonable increase in cheating which is “completely in line with what other institutions are seeing.” Individual faculties have reported varying data, but reasons for that discrepancy have not yet been identified. Detailed data will become available in November. 

At first glance, it might be tempting to blame the rise in academic misconduct on the inherent pitfalls of using online learning platforms or on deceitful students, but a closer examination of the issue shows that the reasons behind cheating is far more complex.

Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton is an associate professor at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary and specialises in academic integrity. She emphasizes the importance of strong relationships between students and their professors, administrators and peers in preventing cases of academic misconduct. While not always possible in larger classes, she suggests professors “get to know their students’ names.”

If it’s a large class, it is still important that professors communicate to students that they care because “when professors show they care about their students, students show they care about their learning in ethical ways. It’s just that simple,” says Eaton. This is especially true in an online environment, because if educators dive directly into content, Eaton says, “then they are really just talking to a Zoom camera and not to a person, and people have to matter more than content.” 

Stakes become higher for students when they attach their self-worth to their grades and the temptation to cheat rises too. Parents contribute to this pressure when they communicate to their kids that their value is based on their grades. Furthermore, the ways that universities evaluate student academic success also contributes to how students perceive their individual value and learning. Dr. Eaton says there are alternatives to the grading systems that we use now and that there is even an “un-grading movement” that has been gaining popularity internationally, but that Canadian universities are “far behind other countries in this regard.” One alternative is competency-based grading which focuses on building skills from writing full sentences to synthesizing multiple sources of information through effective paraphrasing, citing and referencing. According to Eaton, this method of teaching would require educators to ask “’How do we help students build skills?’ not ‘How do we get students to fill out this exam question?” Some universities don’t allow their professors to utilize a competency-based grading approach at all and so, Eaton says, many professors are “constrained by the programs in which we work.”

The move to online platforms has made students, generally, more vulnerable. Contract cheating companies, which used to try to target students on university campuses now have complete access to students via the internet without the protection of the university. Now, the best protection students have against companies that might be deliberately trying to persuade them to violate school policies is to be aware of their university’s policies so that they can make informed decisions when consulting outside help for their coursework. The University of Calgary academic misconduct policy can be found on the institution’s website. 

“Academic integrity requires a multi stakeholder approach to students. Students have responsibilities, but they are not the only ones who are responsible,” said Eaton.

The most significant change in cheating since COVID-19 is the increase in group infractions. Barker believes that collaboration is an important part of learning and should be encouraged, but the ambiguity of the classroom setting has made it challenging to regulate. To mitigate these issues, it is important that professors are clear with students about what constitutes cheating. It is also important that individual students exercise discernment and make sure they are aware of how they are accountable and the risks involved in setting up external platforms for discussion and collaboration between classmates. 

For students who are struggling right now with their coursework, Barker suggests reaching out to the student success centre for help, but she realizes that would require forward thinking and is often not a satisfying solution for students who might be anxious, stressed and desperate. She believes that most incidents of cheating are last minute decisions made by students who feel like they’ve got nowhere else to go. If this is the case, Barker urges students to reach out to their instructors.

“They do care about students and they do care about their well-being,” she says.

Barker also encourages honesty. She says that when the University holds students accountable for cheating, it is not necessarily to be mean to these students. The vast majority of students are honest, and she says that if the University did not deal with the students who are cheating they would be letting down the honest students. Barker says that cheating won’t necessarily stay with a student unless they keep doing it. Students will be held accountable but the University is a learning institution: “we provide workshops, you learn and you move on… You learn how to act ethically and with integrity.”

Perhaps the most effective approach to combating academic misconduct is the most human one — compassion, connection and a desire to learn. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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