I struggle to define “cheating” in the remote classroom

Copy+paste exam answers

Since campus closures a little over a year ago, I have been one of the innumerable professors who has tried to wrap their head around how to maintain academic integrity while at the same time being flexible to the conditions that are inherent to an online learning environment. Open-note and open-book exams are tacitly (if not explicitly) understood to be part of the new normal. But at what point is the line crossed into cheating territory?

To date, very little guidance has been offered in answering this question from the powers that be, leaving fuzzy borders on how exactly to characterize academic misconduct.

At the beginning of each semester, a couple days before classes start, our college has a big opening-day gathering. In the old days, when we could all meet on campus, it was a nice enough way to catch up with colleagues with whom you might not ever see in person. Now, of course, the meetings are all done via Zoom where catching up with a coworker is diminished to a couple private messages exchanged in the chat box.

It’s not just the format of the meeting that has changed, though. The tone and content at both opening day meetings in the past academic year was markedly different, with lengthy and sometimes heated discussions that seemed to mainly focus on the hows, whens, and ifs of returning to face-to-face classes (no big surprise), as well as ways to handle the problem of cheating. And there was no question about it: cheating had become a problem that, as professors would tell it, was growing bigger as more and more students got wise about how to game the remote classroom system.

Example of online cheating
YouTube videos demonstrate how to use the ‘Inspect Element’ tool to discover correct exam answers.

Canvas, our online learning management system through which most exams and assignments are administered, has several built-in tools that, at least in theory, cut down on cheating. So, there was plenty of reviewing and reminding of how to implement and use those. Along with that, the on-going debate about using proctoring software and/or online exam monitoring services continued. The latter being controversial, minimally, or on the extreme end, flat out illegal. Concerns about student privacy, both in terms of their data and their <ahem> personal space abound (including rumors of pervy proctors asking students to use their webcams to show them what’s going on below their desktops… let your mind wander).

At least one enterprising teacher went to the trouble of uploading intentionally incorrect exam keys to websites that are known to host so-called “study guides”. That, in a baited-trap attempt to catch students redhanded, like bank robbers spending stolen cash, soiled by a dye pack.

Regardless, by my best estimation, we were in the Wild West when it came to figuring out what is even considered cheating in the remote classroom. Is leaving an online exam to look up answers on the internet cheating? Is jumping on the phone to compare answers with classmates cheating? Exactly how much copying from the web is required before relatively harmless lower-case cheating is promoted the detestable and inexcusable class of upper-case Cheating? Is one or two words enough? Or does a whole paragraph need to be stolen before the weight of the academic fist comes down?

Not wanting to get thrown under the legal bus by going too far in keeping cheating in check, I registered for a couple seminars that addressed how other institutions were handling things. Both seminars, as it turned out, were sponsored by companies that run anti-cheating programs of one form or another, so there was a definite infomercial feel to them. One so, there were still a few tidbits of information that I got out of them.

One point that stood out was that colleges across the country had seen reporting of academic dishonesty (as in official, reported-to-the-school-for-discipline sense) go through the roof — 200-300% higher than previous years. The question was, how much of that was due to an actual increase in cheating, versus faculty members simply being more vigilant about turning in students for what they considered cheating?

Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/university-of-waterloo-student-cheating-skyrockets-amid-pandemic-1.5836508

Aside from the statistics, there was advice offered in that catching students cheating (e.g., plagiarizing) provided an opportunity for a teachable moment. That is, rather than immediately labeling students as cheaters, show them how they went astray and/or give them a chance to make up the work. It’s a nice thought, if not bordering on Pollyanna-ish. But I did give it a shot anyway (as evidenced below).

The question about what is deemed cheating remained unanswered, though. In an in-person class, the rules and expectations are fairly clear cut: students can only have writing utensils in their possession during exams and must work on their own. Pull out your phone during a test to Google an answer? Automatic fail. Let your eyes wander to a neighbor’s answer sheet? At best, a stern warning on the first attempt followed by a zero if it happened again.

Here’s the official wording used to define academic dishonesty:

“… copying from another’s work; discussion prohibited by the instructor; obtaining exam copies without permission; and using notes, other information, or devices that have been prohibited.”

Southwestern College, Board Policy No. 5500 – (BP) Standards of Student Conduct

If things get really ugly and a student is turned in for cheating, disciplinary action can be taken. The steps and procedures of which have been codified by the college. An official Report of Student Misconduct is submitted, outlining the incident along with providing any evidence of said incident. Then, a formal meeting is scheduled between the student and Dean of Student Services where outcomes, if the charges are not dismissed, can range from a verbal or written warning, all the way up to expulsion from the school. They’re not playing games.

But here again is my problem: when it comes to exams, quizzes and assignments in a remote class, what is expected to be tolerated and what is simply going too far? I had at least three situations, recently, in which it wasn’t clear if actual, punishable cheating was going on, or if I was being overly-zealous in proclaiming, “Off with their GPA heads!”

Here they are in, what I perceive as, increasing levels of flagrance… and decreasing levels of ambiguity:

Example #1: A fill-in-the-blank question used on a general biology exam this semester asked students to list the four DNA nucleotides. Fourteen students (nearly half of the 29 who were randomly served up the question from the Canvas question bank) answered with “Adenine (CA), Thymine (CT), Cytosine (C), Guanine (A)”.

The abbreviations for the nucleotides were superfluous, but CA, CT and A (for guanine??) were never discussed in class, are not on the study guide provided to the class, nor in their textbook. They also could not be located online to find their source (trust me, I looked hard). If one or two people had used these answers, I might think it was a typo. But 14 students? Even though the nucleotide names were correct, they were clearly using some source of information that was not approved for the other part of the answer (stickier still, the part of the answer I wasn’t even asking for).

Since this was early in the semester and fairly innocuous, I gave a zero on the question and warned the students about using unapproved sources. Chalk one up for teachable moments.

Example #2: Same biology class, later in the semester, a short answer question asked students to list the sources of variation that occur during meiosis. This one, I partly blame myself for due to its simplicity; it’s practically begging to open up a can of Googling worms. Here’s the very first answer that pops up in the search results:

In class, we covered two of those answers, but not once did we talk about mutations in meiosis. Yet, six students had the same answers worded exactly as they showed up in the Google search.

So, did this plagiarism warrant giving a zero on the entire exam? They obviously looked up answers, didn’t cite the source, and, since they had been previously warned about Googling answers, used prohibited information. This certainly wouldn’t have been okay if it had happened on an in-person exam. Then again, it was “just” copying a 9-10 words, so should it have been allowed to slide?

Not knowing the boundaries, the students were warned once again and given a zero on only the one question.

Example #3: This was probably one of the more egregious incidents I encountered this semester. Not only was the copying lengthier, but happened in an upper-division course (Human Anatomy) in which many students are headed to nursing school — students who probably should be held to slightly higher standards considering, at some point, lives may be in their hands.

The short answer exam question asked students to list the four muscles that make up the rotator cuff and their actions. It’s worth noting that the exact same question was on the homework assignment and the answers were not only provided in lecture, but also on a handout available before the exam. Alas… four students felt compelled to copy their answers verbatim from, of all sources, WebMD.

An acceptable answer might have been (in part), “Subscapularis: medially rotates arm.”

Instead, plagiarizers of WebMD provided for the subscapularis muscle, “Holds your upper arm bone to your shoulder blade and helps you rotate your arm.”

Seriously. Upper arm bone? Shoulder blade? You mean the humerus and scapula?? Not only copying; really, really crappy copying. And that’s only one part of a four-part question. The rest of the answers weren’t much better.

Less-than-acceptable descriptions of the rotator cuff muscles found on WebMD.com

But what to do? Was this enough to warrant filing a misconduct report? Asking other professors what they would do, they shrugged their shoulders and conceded that we weren’t given much in the way of guidance about how strict we should be. Reading between the lines, the message was, “Let it slide.”

These are just a few examples from my classes in which exam questions are limited to relatively short answers. In another upper division class, a step up from my anatomy class, where longer essay questions are the norm, I’ve repeatedly heard about students submitting large blocks of text on exams that had been copied and pasted from websites. It’s not hard to catch them. Software that is built into Canvas checks submissions against the entire Webiverse and actually assigns a ranking of what percentage of it has been copied. It even color codes them so the worst violations stand out!

And yet… these same professors issued warning after warning about plagiarism, feeling that if they were to instead issue a failing grade, it might be going too far. Cheating, it appears, is the pandemic’s new normal.

Despite all the uproar from the faculty ranks, there has yet to be much guidance or a policy from the school. At least none that I or the colleagues I spoke with have heard. Perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, it allows the college somewhat of a buffer in case the ‘S’ hit the legal ‘F’? Like, “Hey, don’t blame us. We didn’t say to do X, Y or Z.”

If things were to get litigious, though, who exactly is liable? Us, the faculty?

“The procedures shall clearly define the conduct that is subject to discipline and shall identify potential disciplinary actions including, but not limited to, the removal, suspension or expulsion of a student.”

Southwestern College, Board Policy No. 5500 – (BP) Standards of Student Conduct

In April/May 2020, shortly after campus closed and we were still trying to figure out what all the buttons do in Zoom, I told my students, a little tongue-in-cheek, that they were going to almost get away with murder when it came to what was going to be given a pass on exams.

“But look out,” I warned them, after it became clear that we wouldn’t be coming back to campus anytime soon. “The college might be forgiving this semester. Come next fall, though, they’re going to really start cracking down on cheating.”

How wrong I was.

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