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When LSA sophomores Rebecca Bernstein and Andie Harris received a problem set back from their Stats 250 graduate student instructors, their grades were a shock: They both received zeros.
Emails from their respective instructors explained their respective homeworks were too similar to those of their friends in the class. While the lowest homework grade is dropped, the sharp reprimand confused Bernstein and Harris.
Their situations, however, were very different. Bernstein was working with friends in a study group as they do every week. She said working together means answers might be similar, but is a common result when collaborating with students.
“I wasn’t cheating,” Bernstein said. “I was genuinely working with someone else to help through the concepts, so to say that working together could be a form of cheating, I think it’s just really unfair because I feel like we go to a really collaborative university. On campus, there isn’t that much sense of competition among students. I work together with other students in my classes all the time so to be able to work on a problem together when it’s multiple choice and not get caught for cheating but then write a response and that being cheating … just seems really unfair.”
Harris, on the other hand, was asked by a friend if she could send her the homework answers. While Harris specified that her friend should rephrase the answers, her friend submitted them as is and both were flagged for academic dishonesty. Harris said while sharing her answer wasn’t a completely innocent action, she should not be punished to the extent that her friend who copied the answer was because Harris did the homework and her friend did not.
“I think that I did make an error in the fact that I sent my answer to someone,” Harris said. “However, I don’t think I should be getting the same punishment as someone who copied my answer because I explicitly stated that she did not have permission to copy my answer word for word. I do think that I kind of cheated, but I don’t think to the level of someone who just copies something.”
According to Esrold Nurse, LSA assistant dean for undergraduate education, common misconceptions like the ones in Stats 250 are reflected in data gathered by the Office of the Assistant Dean and the LSA Student Academic Affairs Office. Data provided by Nurse shows 159 of the 305 academic integrity violations reported to SAA in the 2016-17 school year were categorized as unauthorized collaboration. In addition, 170 of these violations were dealt with within the class structure instead of through SAA.
Brenda Gunderson, statistics senior lecturer, confirmed this large number of unauthorized collaboration reports was from Stats 250. Now, she said, the class utilizes an internal system consisting of an email conversation between the Stats 250 student and the lecturer, and an automatic zero when the first instance of academic dishonesty appears. She said this protocol is meant to teach students about the classroom’s expectations and then move on with the material.
“We want the students to grow from the experience,” Gunderson said. “In fact, our response to them when they come back and say, ‘We’re sorry’; we want it to be a teachable moment and so we internally say, ‘OK, well then what we’ll do is that homework will get a score of zero but we drop the lowest homework score in the class too, so in the end that can be no effect on their grade and I don’t keep track and have a list of students that have had this happen. … We want them to know we aren’t going to pass any judgement on them for the mistake. It’s done. It’s gone.”
For Bernstein’s situation, Gunderson said she encourages collaboration but in terms of actually writing short answers, wording would be different if written independently after understanding the concept.
“When you are sort of given an open-ended prompt of ‘Take from this output and write up a two or three or four sentence summary’ … those things would be maybe focusing on similar numbers but said in different ways and if a student is struggling, it’s easy to try to explain but then just let them look at your answer,” Gunderson said. “If you went through the idea of what a confidence interval means and you each got the good idea and went off in your own corners and wrote it up, it wouldn’t be identical. You would have your own little flair.”
The LSA Academic Integrity Statement is reportedly included in all LSA class syllabi, according to Nurse. This statement defines cheating as “creating an unfair academic advantage” for yourself or others in your class. This could involve cheating to offset a grading curve that negatively affects the rest of the class and many other scenarios like Bernstein and Harris experienced.
Official cases not dealt with internally, reach the desk of Nurse. From there, the student and Nurse enter a conversation about the situation. If an agreement cannot be reached, the case is sent to the LSA Academic Judiciary Committee for review and to determine if a student has violated the statement or not. In 2016-17, 104 of all academic integrity cases found the students responsible for the violation. Twenty-one were found not responsible.
Nurse said discrepancies between academic integrity protocols of different colleges such as LSA and the College of Engineering can be confusing, but as for LSA, uniformity among classes is key.
“The College of Engineering, for example, has an honor code,” Nurse said. “Students sign the pledge each time they take an exam. (LSA doesn’t) have an honor code but that doesn't mean we’re less committed to integrity. How we manage it is a little different because we have more students and more cases to attend to, so we have a process which, we think, works well for us. It respects the educational aspect of it. We allow faculty to resolve cases for themselves rather than sending (students) to us for fear that we’re going to do something really bad which we don’t.”
The statement was written in conjunction with the LSA Student Honor Council, a group of undergraduate students who work with students and staff to promote academic integrity and create uniform procedures for reporting academic dishonesty cases. They also inform students of what their options are when accused of committing academic misconduct.
However, LSA seniors Khyati Somayaji and Laura Donohue, the SHC president and vice president, respectively, make it clear they do not act as lawyers or defense for students. They attend LSA Academic Judiciary Committee sessions, but they do not take a side or vote in the verdict.
Donohue said the faculty presentations were implemented last year and allow the SHC to clarify some misconceptions about the reporting process and create a fair situation for the faculty and students.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the academic misconduct reporting process is and what exactly the hearing process means for students, so it’s really important that we get to go in and clarify that,” Donohue said. “I think it’s also valuable for faculty to see that there are students on campus who have an interest in integrity.”
Somayaji said academic integrity is important to promote because it affects the lives of students once they graduate through them having good morals and representing their work as their own.
“These values really play out into not only professional lives but social lives and being a responsible community member,” Somayaji said. “We do a lot of work that really puts our values and ideals into perspective farther down the road than just academics.”
Nurse echoed Somayaji’s sentiments and said if people practice good academic integrity in school now, they will feel a much larger sense of accomplishment once they graduate than if they had cheated and got away with it.
“There was a student who graduated and became a doctor who wrote to me 30 years later as his kids were in high school and admitted to me that he had cheated not once but three times while he was here as a student and wasn’t caught,” Nurse said. “He got away with it because no one knew but here it is, 30 years later, that his conscience is beginning to (wear thin). … When you’ve earned your degree, you earn your degree and that’s something you should be proud of. You shouldn’t have any regrets later on.”
This year, Stats 250 has implemented the M-Write program into the course to encourage students to think critically and be able to write about statistical concepts. Previously an LSA honors credit option, the writing assignments are now officially part of the curriculum. With these new longer essay assignments comes the worry of students passing and selling their essays through what Nurse calls “essay mills.” With one search on a University class Facebook page, sites like eHomework can be found. EHomework offers “a high quality paper” and encourages students to “NOT BE AFRAID” because the site has “NEVER had a student get in trouble for ordering an essay from (them).”
Gunderson said she’s not looking for students sharing essays or utilizing essay mills because the pros of giving students experience with writing in statistics outweigh the cons of a longer written assignment.
“The ability to write and communicate is so much more important these days, and even more so in STEM disciplines,” Gunderson said. “We’re bring this into the course because there’s a very useful learning experience through that process and … a student is going to get so much more out of it if they indeed to that writing experience than if they just take something off the internet and submit it. It’s not worth those three points.”
Nurse said these essay mills are just another difficulty in the current age of technology that professors have to watch out for.
“The internet has expanded the availability of information related to almost anything conceivable that you’re trying to find so there are times students take shortcuts,” Nurse said. “Professors have had to work very hard to design homework and exams to reduce the incidents of plagiarism, and I think they’ve done a good job. Having students do drafts, for example, are key.”
With so many elements of cheating to monitor, Bernstein said she had never heard of essay mills. However, she said she hopes most University students don’t use mills or other students’ work, but the University should better understand the difference between accidentally having similar answers and directly stealing work.
“There are some ways of cheating that you just know are wrong. You just know you don’t buy a paper off someone else,” Bernstein said. “You know you don’t submit another student’s work, but there are definitely these gray areas when it comes to working with students or citing something wrong where you didn’t purposefully, intentionally try to disrespect the Code of Academic Integrity.”