Nfld. & Labrador

Cheating at MUN increasing in pandemic era of online learning

One of the consequences of a shift to online learning during the pandemic is an increase in cheating among students at Memorial University.

Student union describes 'mass' spike in allegations as students grapple with stress, new way of learning

Memorial University is experiencing a surge in cases of academic misconduct in this era of online learning. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The 23 students in Marco Merkli's math 3001 course wrote a midterm exam last week, and their professor is not sure if any of them cheated.

But Merkli told CBC News that even if they did have some type of help, he designs his assessments in such a way to ensure his students are still learning.

"I don't know if my students in this midterm called up somebody or had somebody else sitting next to them and helping," said Merkli.

"But the exam is designed so that even with looking at the book and looking at the Internet, you actually have to know a little bit [of] something to answer the question. I think I trust that, you know, we get results that are sort of reflecting what they know. "

Merkli, a professor in MUN's mathematics and statistics department, is, like many others, adapting to a pandemic-driven shift to online, remote learning.

In past years, he could interact face-to-face with his students, and get to know them. If a student was struggling, he could see it in their eyes and their body language.

Marco Merkli, a professor in MUN's mathematics and statistics department, says he designs his assessments to ensure his students are learning even if they get outside help. (Submitted by Marco Merkli)

Now, many are just a picture or a graphical representation on a screen. In many cases, he can't even be sure if his students are sitting at their computers when he's teaching — and he can't see what they're doing when they're completing an assessment.

'We're alarmed'

Not surprisingly, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of cases of academic misconduct — cheating — being investigated by the university.

"Yeah, we're alarmed," said Mark Abrahams, MUN's academic vice-president and provost.

"Academic integrity is a very high priority for the university because we're only as good as our graduates. So we need to know the students that are graduating have developed the skills and competencies that they're supposed to acquire within that course, and that we have confidence in them going forward."

The students' union at MUN has also taken notice.

"We're seeing a pretty mass increase in academic misconduct cases coming through the union," said Katherine McLaughlin, the union's director of advocacy.

"It's something that seems to be a natural side effect of the transition to remote learning."

Numbers 'incredibly small'

In pre-pandemic years, it was typical for the university to investigate a dozen or so cases of students cheating on their tests and assignments.

But after the province went into lockdown last March, and students were forced to learn remotely, complaints of cheating spiked.

There were 46 cases of academic misconduct during the 2019-20 academic year, while so far this year, 42 cases are either being investigated or have been concluded.

By comparison, there were just eight cases in 2018-19.

Mark Abrahams, MUN's academic vice-president and provost, says academic integrity is very important to the university. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Centres of higher learning throughout the world are reporting similar trends as educational leaders try to balance the battle against academic dishonesty with the unprecedented challenges being faced by both teachers and students.

Abrahams is quick to point out that MUN has some 18,000 students, with an "incredibly small" number of cases, and of the 46 cases investigated last year, less than half resulted in a finding of guilty.

"We're staying on top of this as much as we can," said Abrahams.

Google just a click away

So how and why are students cheating?

It's almost always an act of desperation, says Merkli, and students who would not think of cheating in a classroom setting are sometimes tempted to cheat on online assessments because of the reduced supervision.

Merkli teaches smaller classes, usually a couple dozen third- and fourth-year students. As such, he has not encountered any obvious signs of cheating.

But many of his colleagues have, and it usually happens in larger classes; courses like linear algebra can have up to 150 students.

'Nobody wants to fail their students'

Merkli has some simple advice for students thinking about cheating:

"I would first and foremost say, be honest. If you have a problem … communicate with your instructors. Instructors feel for the students. Nobody wants to fail their students. In the long run, it will make the student themselves happier if they don't cheat."

But Internet search engines are just a few clicks away, online group chats are also used to share information, and students have even been known to pay someone write their test.

Abrahams says online tutorial sites such as Chegg have been misused by students. 

"Chegg … is responsible for many of the issues that we're dealing with. And so we certainly monitor that website very closely, and the website itself has indicated that they are committed to maintaining academic integrity," said Abrahams.

The punishment for students found guilty of cheating can range from a zero in a course, to some form of academic probation, to outright suspension.

'Worrisome trend'

What's also unique, says McLaughlin, is that some cases of misconduct can involve a dozen or more students, and is often related to group chats associated with a particular course.

"If 30 students join a group where they are using it to be in contact with other students in their class, and one student may make the mistake of sharing information that could be labelled as academic misconduct … dozens of other students who had no intention to commit academic misconduct may be then exposed and therefore implicated in these investigations," says McLaughlin.

She describes the increase as a "worrisome trend," and says the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the social upheaval it has caused, is partly to blame.

Katherine McLaughlin is director of advocacy with Memorial University's student union, which represents about 11,000 undergraduate students. (Facetime)

"Right now students are so stressed out. So I think students may be making decisions in a very clouded head space or they're in a situation where they're not exactly thinking clearly," she said.

It's a challenging situation for the university.

Abrahams says the rules of academic honesty were not written for the current online setting, so in a bid to adapt, the university is encouraging professors to focus on ongoing assessments, as opposed to more formalized testing.

The university also discourages the use of remote proctoring for final exams, which would involve a third party watching the student via a webcam while the student is writing his or her exam to ensure the integrity of the test.

As for professor Marco Merkli, he tries his best to steer his students away from acts of dishonesty by continually assessing their knowledge, encouraging students to attend class, and promoting an open flow of communication.

He admits it's easier for him because of his smaller classes, but he is confident that most students are honest, and keen to learn.

"I know times are looking bleak, but I'm kind of amazed how the system still works. We're still teaching, and students still write their tests. Maybe [it's] not ideal, but I think people make an effort on all sides. And I think I think it's going to be OK."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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