Cheating skyrockets at UW amid pandemic

Students at the University of Waterloo were caught cheating more than twice as often last year as compared to the year before.

Students caught cheating, breaking exam rules more often during 2019-2020 school year

A sign outside a university in Ontario reads University of Waterloo.
A report on student discipline that went before the University of Waterloo senate in November showed a marked increase in cheating during the 2019-2020 academic year. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Cheating at the University of Waterloo more than doubled during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to a report on student discipline that went before the university senate last month.

Students were found guilty of cheating 1340 times between September 2019 and August 2020. That's up from 544 incidents of cheating during the 2018-2019 academic year. 

In addition to cheating, other forms of academic misconduct also saw an increase last year.

Students were found guilty of using "unauthorized aids or assistance" — a term that includes various tactics such as the use of writing services and other prohibited material — a whopping 604 times. That's up from 93 times the year before.

They also violated exam rules 159 times, up from 27 times during the 2018-2019 school year.

'Stress reaction'

"It's happening more, and I think that's a stress reaction due to the pandemic," said Amanda McKenzie, who is the university's director of quality assurance for academic programs and academic integrity.

Student cheating saw a sharp increase over the 2019-2020 academic year, according to a report that went before the University of Waterloo senate in November. (CBC Graphics)

McKenzie noted that students, just like everyone else, have been experiencing personal issues such as income loss and isolation due to the pandemic. At the same time, they're also dealing with an unprecedented switch to online learning that hasn't always gone smoothly.

"There's all these sorts of impacts that we know in the best of times would affect students' academic misconduct behaviour, and the pandemic, the different variables that have been thrown on top of that has really … made the situation for students much more tempting to cheat," she said.

High-stress situations like a weighty final exam can make matters worse, McKenzie said. That's why the university encourages other forms of evaluation, such as open book exams and multiple assignments that are each worth a smaller chunk of a final grade, she said.

'Overwhelmed and isolated'

Second-year UW student Emma Schuster said she doesn't know why some students were driven to cheat last year, but she agrees the pandemic has taken a toll on many of her peers.

Many students are struggling with a lack of a normal schedule, she said, especially if they're taking online classes from outside Ontario or even outside Canada. And because online learning is so new for students and professors, Schuster said it can be difficult to keep up. 

"I think that a lot of students are feeling very overwhelmed and very isolated," said Schuster, who also sits as a student representative on the university senate.

"Because we're not seeing our classmates, we're not able to interact as much, we're kind of losing touch with the outside world."

Pandemic 'blip'

Still, both McKenzie and Schuster say online learning has gotten better as time has gone on, and believe things will improve going forward.

"This is definitely a blip we've seen with the pandemic, and I don't expect these numbers will be sustained at this level going into the future," said McKenzie.

"I completely expect them to drop as we see some normalcy continue and people get more comfortable with the new way of learning."

Across the city at Wilfrid Laurier University, a spokesperson told CBC News in a statement the school does not yet have numbers available about academic misconduct during the pandemic.

However, the spokesperson said Laurier expects to see some increases in academic misconduct, similar to other post-secondary institutions. 

The senate report detailed student offences over the last three academic terms. (CBC Graphics)