Cheating incidents in the U of R faculty of arts have almost doubled in the past three years
English prof. says language requirements may be set too low for international students
The number of cheating incidents in the University of Regina's faculty of arts has almost doubled over the past three years, according to statistics obtained by CBC News.
The September 2017 agenda of the faculty's council meeting says that in the 2013/2014 academic year, there were 66 incidents in the fall and winter semesters. By the 2016/2017 year, that number had jumped to 125 — a 90 per cent increase.
U of R English professor Susan Johnston said she and many of her colleagues see this "as a growing avalanche." She said when she saw these numbers her reaction was "disappointed but not surprised."
Over the past year, the university has been in the news a few times over concerns about academic misconduct. Until now, the problems have just been publicly flagged in the faculty of engineering.
But numbers obtained by CBC News show there's a significant increase in cheating incidents in the faculty of arts and across the university as a whole.
Cheating incidents on the rise across campus
In the 2014/2015 year, the university had 305 formal findings of academic misconduct. By the 2016/2017 year, that number jumped to 474 — a 56 per cent increase in just two years.
The university points out that some students have been disciplined more than once for academic misconduct, so "ultimately, the number of students involved in academic misconduct may be fewer than the number of incidents reported."
The university attributes the increased incidents, in part, to more vigilance.
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It says in recent years, the university has been urging professors and students to watch for academic misconduct and report it. In 2014, the university provided professors access to plagiarism-detection software, which it says "may account for a slight part of the increase in the number of incidents reported and investigated in the faculty of arts."
But Johnston, who's been teaching English at the university for about 20 years, said despite all that, she believes there is a real increase in the amount of cheating.
English language requirement too low, says prof
Johnston said in English classes, the primary method of cheating is plagiarism. She said that's much easier to do now because with a bit of Google searching students "can find a fake assignment in five minutes."
Johnston said some international students don't have the English skills required, and she thinks that could be because the university may have set the English proficiency requirement too low.
"Our cutlines are in my view not always where they need to be for success," said Johnston.
She said if a student comes into her class with the minimum reading, writing and listening skills the university accepts for international students, "you probably can't pass my English 100. I don't see how you can."
She said if students are incapable of writing a coherent essay in English, they may be tempted to try a shortcut.
"Most of the students, in my experience, who plagiarize are students who are not confident, often for good reason, that they have the skills succeed at the level they want to succeed," said Johnston.
The university says all faculties agreed on minimum English proficiency standards. And it pointed out that "some faculties have increased the academic and language requirements for their prospective students, both Canadian and international."
High schools not taking plagiarism seriously enough, says Johnston
Johnston also thinks domestic high school students coming to her English 100 class don't seem to grasp how bad plagiarism is. She said that's in part because high schools aren't treating violations seriously enough.
"We get people who don't really have any reason to believe it matters," Johnston said.
High school students are told plagiarism is bad, she said, but often the penalty is just a slap on the wrist.
"If I tell you that murder is the worst thing in the world and every time you kill someone I fine you 50 bucks you're going to have trouble believing that I really believe that it's the worst thing in the world," she said.
The worst of it is the impact it has on our students, because reputational damage is damage to their degree.- Susan Johnston, U of R prof.
From her perspective, even the U of R doesn't punish plagiarism in a way that will deter it.
She points out that for a first offence of minor plagiarism, students receive 20 per cent off their grade, which she worries may lead them to conclude "maybe that's worth a try."
University to consider improving the rules
Johnston said she and some of her colleagues have been pushing for changes — and that may be about to happen.
Last week, after CBC News broke a story about apparent cheating in the faculty of engineering, university president Vianne Timmons notified the faculty that the university would be launching campus-wide surveys aimed at learning how widespread and serious the problem of academic dishonesty is.
Timmons said the university will survey faculty and students. She said their "feedback will assist us in improving current policy, positioning us better to tackle this very serious problem."
Johnston thinks this is a good move, but she said, "I wish they had acted sooner."
For years, there have been a growing number of media stories about academic misconduct at the university, and she said those revelations have significant consequences.
"The worst of it is the impact it has on our students," said Johnston, "because reputational damage is damage to their degree."