Calgary post-secondaries see rates of academic misconduct, cheating rise during pandemic

Calgary's two universities say they've seen instances of cheating and academic misconduct increase since classes moved online at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Mount Royal University rates of academic misconduct increased significantly this spring and summer

Mount Royal University says rates of academic misconduct have increased since the pandemic started. (CBC)

Mount Royal University says rates of academic misconduct have increased significantly at the institution since the outset of the pandemic last Spring, when classes moved online.

"The academic incidents more than doubled compared to the same time period last year," said Karen Parsons, manager of the Office of Student Community Standards. 

Between March and August of 2019 there were 62 incidents of academic misconduct at MRU. This year during the same time period, that number rose to 130.

Academic misconduct includes things like cheating and sharing answers or work, plagiarism and misrepresenting facts or information that allows someone to gain an unfair academic advantage over other students. 

Parsons said the move to online learning likely played a role. 

"Realistically, most faculty had never taught online. Students hadn't taken courses online. It was a huge learning curve for everybody and I don't think that there immediately became a bunch of deceitful students trying to take advantage of the situation," she said.

"I think there was a lot of confusion and a lot of ignorance with regard to what am I allowed to do? What am I not allowed to do? Can I Google this? Can I talk to someone?" 

Susan Barker, vice-provost of student experience at the University of Calgary said they have seen an increase too — but it's been minimal and new policies could be a factor. 

"When we're looking at numbers, this is not masses and masses of students cheating," she said. "What we're looking at is in the region of maybe one or two per cent within our whole population of about 34,000 students." 

New policy could drive up rates

In July 2019 Barker said the university introduced a new academic misconduct policy.

"What we had beforehand were regulations and the regulations didn't require us to collect data, provide reports and so on," she said. 

Barker said in the 2018-19 school year, before the new policy came into effect, there were 400 instances of academic misconduct reported in the undergrad population, and 13 reported in the graduate population. 

But, Barker said those numbers likely under represented the reality.

"I do belive there is the possibility of underreporting people," she said. "Instructors might have wanted to try and deal with it their own way and say to students, 'you shouldn't have done this.' But we're trying to move away from that culture."

She says the new policy has sensitized those at the institution to their roles and responsibilities and instructors are now explicitly expected to report any allegation of academic misconduct.

The University of Calgary saw a smaller increase in reports of academic misconduct, but also says new policies could play a role in those numbers. (David Bell/CBC)

"I would say that when anybody has introduced any policy, you will see incidences of reporting increase and we have seen that," she said. 

"We're just collecting the data now. We're going to report it to our general faculty council in November. We still don't have data in from about three faculties, but certainly we've looked at the data that we have and we have seen an increase [in academic misconduct]."

Online and stressed out

The vice-provost said the university has been having conversations about academic integrity since well before the pandemic, but the current environment has heightened the conversation.

"Of course we're not in the business of trying to catch students out. We actually really want to educate and prevent them from violating our policies," she said.

Typically, Barker said the university sees violations involving just a single student rather than groups of students — but in recent months that has changed. In June CBC News reported 14 University of Calgary students were accused of misconduct for sharing answers in chatroom.

"That's one thing that would lead me to believe that there is some connection to online environments and when I've looked at the data, incidences of plagiarism have not gone up. In fact, in undergraduates, it's gone down, but cheating has gone up," she said.

Barker said it's easier for students to cheat while doing work online and stress can lead to some bad decisions. 

Parsons agrees. 

"With regard to the kinds of misconduct and how different they were this year, what I saw in large part was a lot of collaborative work when collaborative work was not part of the requirement in that particular class," she said. 

"Or students being in chatrooms, for example, during exams and then having that conversation among a group of people in an exam or sharing answers."

Cross-Canada issue

Sarah Eaton, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education whose research focuses on academic integrity, cheating and plagiarism, has been running an online discussion group for education professionals at universities and colleges since the end of March called Integrity Hour. 

"Educators including professors, administrators and students' affairs professionals from coast to coast and we meet once a week to talk about academic integrity and academic misconduct," she said. "Anecdotally, colleagues across the country consistently bring up increased rates of misconduct."

Anecdotally, colleagues across the country consistently bring up increased rates of misconduct.- Dr. Sarah Eaton, Werklund School of Education

Parsons said after seeing the increase in academic misconduct from March to August this year, MRU is taking a more direct approach in informing students about academic integrity, and what qualifies as a violation. 

"For us to say, well, we are an institution of academic integrity, absolutely we are. But we need to teach our students as they arrive what that is," she said.

Parsons said she's been doing virtual sessions with students and holding meetings with faculty and departments to offer tips on how to handle misconduct. 

She's also created documents that students can access online for how to succeed in a virtual classroom, including rules about exactly what cheating and misconduct looks like in those situations. 

Adapting to the new normal

Eaton said with learning staying online for the foreseeable future, there are ways educators can adapt and reduce opportunities for misconduct that exist when student do traditional multiple choice exams online.

"Could a student go out and do a podcast or could they create an info-graphic?" she said. "It's a bit of a learning curve for educators."

Benjamin Beston-Will is a second year student at the U of C. He said with more classes taking place online, students have been discussing the impacts of things being seen around the world including monitoring while taking exams online, having screens monitored or instances of having to take exams with web-cameras on.

A woman works at a home work station desk, with a Zoom meeting on her computer screen.
Classes and exams moving online raise questions about the misconduct, but also how best to test and teach. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

"It would definitely make me uncomfortable and a lot more stressed out about the test than I would be if it was in person," he said. 

"It feels too personal, almost like it feels like you're being called out, whereas when you're in a room with like 200 other students, it doesn't feel that way."

So far Beston-Will said he hasn't personally had any of those methods implemented in his classes. 

Although the university is discussing its options, according to Barker. 

"Certainly for the fall term, we are not using online proctoring, but for winter term it's possible. We've got a working group and we will consult with students over this but I'm not sure how that's going to play out."

Barker said they're aware of privacy concerns and how those techniques might make students nervous.

Parsons said MRU is also looking at programs available to them for e-proctoring and student integrity.

"Certainly it's being looked at because I think most universities are looking at these various tools, any kinds of tools that would lend to preventing some of the misconduct that we're seeing," she said. "I can say, though, that at this point in time, Mount Royal University is still in that process of looking."


Lucie Edwardson


Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at


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