‘I helped somebody take their exam’: Faculty and students discuss academic integrity in the digital classroom

Monday, April 6, 2020 - 12:07pm

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Design by Lizzy Rueppel

On March 16, the day the University of Michigan officially began online classes in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, a student, who will be referred to in this article as Jane, had two exams. One of her exams was canceled while the other was open for three days to accommodate students’ schedules. 

According to Jane, one of her friends asked for her assistance in taking the exam. Jane has requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the University. To protect Jane from retaliation, The Daily has decided not to publish the name of the course.

 Jane said she agreed to help her friend cheat by taking her friend’s exam, but she said she took her own exam separately.

“I helped somebody take their exam, and then I took mine because there’s no browser lock or anything (and) they’re not using the camera,” Jane said. “I did that, so then I knew what was on it.” 

Jane said she did not think the exam was that difficult but did believe helping her friend made her more prepared. After taking the exam, Jane said she was really nervous about getting caught. However, once she talked to more people, she said she realized many others had also used some form of assistance on their exam.

“I was talking to my friends after … and they were like, ‘If (the instructional team) checks if people open the textbook, if they enforce that, then the average score would be zero because everyone is going to do it,’” Jane said.

According to the LSA website on academic misconduct, “Academic dishonesty may be understood as any action or attempted action that may result in creating an unfair academic advantage for oneself or an unfair academic advantage or disadvantage for any other member or members of the academic community.” 

Examples of academic misconduct include cheating, plagiarism and unacceptable collaboration. The website also lists among other forms of misconduct “aiding and abetting dishonesty,” or when students deliberately or inadvertently provide material or information to another person that allows for improper use.

Though the students interviewed by The Daily mentioned their concerns regarding an increase in cheating in the digital classroom, The Daily cannot verify the extent to which cheating is currently occurring. 

In Said Hannouchi’s Arabic 402 class, Hannouchi, the Arabic language program director, said he shares his screen during in-class live quizzes to avoid having copies spread out and shared with students between class sections. He also said sharing the screen restricts students from consulting other resources while taking quizzes.

“I share the screen instead of sending them the quiz,” Hannouchi said. “They only had to write the answers. If they want to go back and look at something, they only have the answers. They don’t have full sentences or the prompts that are given to them.” 

However, Hannouchi said he trusts his students and said he only wants to mirror in-class conditions.

“I know my students,” Hannouchi said. “I’m not worried, actually. When I did that, I’m not worried about cheating. (I’m just) trying to simulate what we’re doing in the class.”

Prior to the move towards online learning, procedures for resolving academic misconduct usually began with instructors reporting possible violations to the Office of the Assistant Dean and informing the student. Though instructors may choose to handle simple cases on their own, the OAD requests a summary to be reported after the conclusion of the incident and for complex cases to be immediately reported. 

The OAD then begins an investigation and meets with the student, where an Honor Council representative may attend. The LSA Student Honor Council is a student organization that promotes integrity on campus and provides a student voice at academic misconduct hearings. 

Next, the OAD  determines the outcome and reports to the student and instructor. If the student is found responsible, the student may have college sanctions imposed and will have appropriate grade penalties as outlined in the course syllabus. If the student is found not responsible, the instructor should grade the student regularly and no sanctions are imposed.

Amid the changes implemented at the University due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the OAD has suspended face-to-face meetings and all meetings with the OAD will take place virtually. However, for extreme allegations, the hearing might be postponed until in-person meetings are viable. 

In an email to The Daily, Deputy Assistant Dean Christine O’Neil wrote it is not uncommon for the OAD to receive more than 200 reports of academic misconduct in a given year in LSA. She also wrote that academic honesty is important to uphold the value of graduating from the University and to instill trust in the community. 

According to O’Neil, sometimes students found responsible for academic misconduct might jeopardize their graduate school plans.

“It’s possible,” O’Neil wrote. “We know that medical schools, for example, place much emphasis on integrity. A student found responsible for academic misconduct during their senior year will have a difficult time gaining acceptance to medical school for a few years.”

However, O’Neil noted the impact of the findings often depends on how the student behaves afterward. She said she’s seen students found responsible for cheating successfully attend medical or other graduate schools because they’ve shown that they’ve grown from the experience. 

LSA freshman Deanna Dwyer raised concerns about academic honesty in the digital classroom. According to Dwyer, her Chemistry 215 midterm was open for a 12-hour window. 

“I don’t know how they monitor cheating for that one because what you did was just print it out, fill it out and upload it,” Dwyer said. “Without a time constraint, I don’t really know how that went for other people because people totally could have just called each other and compared answers … There’s like 800-something kids that took that test, and to go through and compare everyone’s test to see whose was the same would take forever.”

Dwyer said the new circumstances might make students more susceptible to cheating. She said she has heard of others collaborating on the exam.

 “Personally, I feel like if you’re going to cheat, you’re just cheating yourself out of it and you’re not going to learn it,” Dwyer said. “That’s just going to bite you again later. But I definitely think a lot of people were pressured because they didn’t want to, but other people were, and so they felt like their scores would not be as good even though they studied harder. That probably pushed people to compare answers and reach out to other people.”

The College of Engineering has its own Engineering Honor Code that outlines ethical standards for students and faculty within the College of Engineering. It is based on four principles detailing the standards members are held to, including “it is dishonorable for students to receive credit for work that is not the result of their own efforts.” 

George Sprague, assistant director of Retention and Academic Support Services, noted the Honor Code allows for a unique testing environment during exams.  

“One of the very unique things about the College of Engineering compared to not only schools at the University of Michigan but also our peers across the country, is we actually don’t use proctors during testing,” Sprague said. “So, when you’re taking tests at the College of Engineering, we’re trusting our students are going to act with integrity and not cheat, and not to do things that would otherwise violate that trust.”

Noel Perkins, Arthur F. Thurnau professor of mechanical engineering, said he believes the Honor Code has built a high degree of trust between students and faculty. Perkins said he hopes the Honor Code will guide students and faculty during this transition. 

“I think the overall point is there’s a high degree of trust between the faculty and our students, and also among the students that we all, as a community, uphold the Honor Code,” Perkins said. “With this sudden transition to online learning and online assessment, examinations, we’ve had to think about how we can fairly offer exams remotely, respecting our Honor Code, our expectations of adherence to it.”

Perkins said for his mechanical engineering course Mechanical Engineering 240, he has made his midterm open-book and open-note. Previously, he said students were only able to bring in one sheet of paper. However, in light of the new online class format, he wanted to try to level the playing field and make sure no students are advantaged or disadvantaged by the new online examination structure. 

“To be frank, I really don’t worry that if the exam was closed-book, there’d be massive cheating, but I do worry about the perception of my students who would have an additional worry on their minds that they might be disadvantaged if they uphold the rules,” Perkins said. “So, the students themselves may have more anxiety about the exam if they felt like other students were not following the exam rules. So, let’s broaden them so it’s not onerous for anyone. And then it’s incumbent on me to design an exam that is fair under the open-book, open-note policy.” 

Though the exam is open-book and open-note, Perkins said he still believes students need to really understand the material thoroughly instead of purely relying on searching through their notes. 

“I want to point out that it has a downside to it,” Perkins said. “Since they have a timed period to take their exam, it would behoove them not to spend that time just looking through their notes and their books, rather (than) staying focused on the exam questions. I worry slightly about them not managing their times well if they feel that the question or problem can be found just by reading their notes again for the second or third time.”

According to the Office of Retention and Academic Support Services website, once the student has been suspected of violating the Honor Code, an Honor Council member will be assigned to investigate the allegations. Then, the student will receive written notification and will be invited to appear before the Council. However, the student may also waive the hearing and go directly before the Faculty Committee on Discipline. 

The Honor Council will then make a recommendation to the Faculty Committee on Discipline. This Committee will notify the student of their decision.

The website lists typical sanctions such as a zero on the project or assignment in question or a one-third grade decrement at the end of the term. According to Sprague, first-time violations are typically not reported on the transcript. He also said first-time offenders generally do not set out with a true intention of cheating. 

“They’re not necessarily looking to cheat,” Sprague said. “What they’re actually looking for is just that hint, that little additional help. From there, once you get that answer, once you see that one way of solving that problem, it becomes very difficult to solve that problem any other way than you thought.”

For repeated offenders, Sprague said the sanctions are slightly scaled up. Instead of a one-third grade decrement, repeated offenders will likely receive a two-third grade decrement, according to Sprague. 

“Depending on the nature of it, more likely than not, it may appear on your transcript as something like an academic service indicator, something that might say something to the extent of honor code violation, academic integrity,” Sprague said. 

 On March 20, the University announced all classes would be graded “Pass” or “No Record Covid” and extended the course withdrawal deadline until April 21. Students can also request to unmask “P” into a letter grade with a request by July 1. Dwyer said she wondered if part of the reason for switching to the new grading system was in part because grade distributions in classes might be skewed due to cheating.

 In an email to The Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen responded to the speculation, saying the University understood that many classes would need to change in order to accommodate the new grading style.

“Flexibility, empathy and a recognition that course syllabi would need to change were the main drivers that drove this change,” Broekhuizen wrote.

Broekhuizen also said the Center of Academic Innovation and Information and Technology Services Teaching & Learning are collaborating to develop Canvas features that would provide support for academic units to utilize remote proctoring solutions for exams and quizzes.

According to Broekhuizen, some academic units also used “honor codes” which allow for unsupervised testing before COVID-19. These honor-based systems would continue to apply to the remote alternative instruction.

Daily Staff Reporter Francesca Duong can be reached at fduong@umich.edu.