Let them cheat: Why it's tempting for college and university instructors to look the other way
Reasons for academic dishonesty haven't suddenly changed, but environment has, post-secondary teachers say
This column is an opinion by Veselin Jungic, Andie Burazin and Miroslav Lovric. Jungic is a post-secondary math educator at Simon Fraser University. Burazin is a mathematics educator at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Lovric teaches at McMaster University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Judging by the amount of discussion within the university instructor community, the largest headache for many of us is student cheating; or to use a phrase university administrators prefer, students "committing acts of academic dishonesty."
There is no doubt that many students cheat on their assessments, such as homework and exams (an assessment is any piece of work in a course which bears credit toward the final course grade). It's not a new phenomenon — in a paper published in 2006 in The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, University of Guelph Professor Julia Christensen Hughes reported that more than 50 per cent of Canadian undergraduates admitted to some form of cheating.
Research conducted between 2002 and 2015 by the U.S.-based International Center for Academic Integrity revealed that a disappointing 68 per cent of the 71,000 undergraduate students surveyed admitted to "written or test cheating."
However, based on our recent experience and that of colleagues from across Canada, we are absolutely certain that, compared to the pre-pandemic face-to-face assessments, the number of students who have been involved in cheating on tests and exams since classes went online in March this year has further increased.
A webinar on contract cheating – situations where a student hires someone else to write their paper, test, or exam – organized by Simon Fraser University in July, filled the Zoom meeting to capacity with frustrated, hopeless instructors from campuses across Canada. They were all desperately seeking a solution in the losing battle against students cheating.
The reasons why students cheat have not suddenly changed, but the environment has.
There are many more ways to cheat: from consulting the internet, to using symbolic calculators and graphing software, to chats and social networks, to collaboratively working when expected to do individual work, to using a tutor or a peer or a sibling, to paying someone to take a test.
Moreover, "cheating online" seems to be much less risky than doing it in person, even if online invigilation is in place during an assessment.
So, what is a university instructor supposed to do?
One approach is – do nothing. Keep your sanity! Let the students cheat, if they do not know better. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. If students want to cheat, they will find a way to do it. Trying to anticipate the ways in which a student can cheat, and then identifying the strategies to catch those who do, has been a losing battle for instructors and university administrators. True, we manage to catch and subject some to academic discipline, but the lucky ones, and those with creative and innovative strategies, we do not. We are advised to develop a "culture of honesty" in our classrooms, but to little avail.
2. If a university instructor repeatedly pleads with their students, underlining that cheating is an unhealthy and dangerous habit which will catch up to them sooner rather than later, and a student decides to cheat nevertheless, why would the instructor assume any further responsibility for their students' actions? Is it reasonable to expect that, say, a calculus instructor does a better job at providing a moral compass to a student than their parents, family, friends, or role models, including previous teachers, celebrities, social media influencers, professional athletes, politicians, activists? Definitely not.
3. Invigilation of online assessments is expensive. If a university with 20,000 students decides to use a professional invigilating service for all its courses for a year, the price would be close to $400,000 (based on the pricing by Respondus Monitor, a company that provides "fully automated proctoring for online exams"). There must be a better way of spending that money.
4. Online assessment invigilation may breach both a student's privacy and an instructor's comfort zone. Moreover, some students use their real or fictional privacy concerns to refuse to be invigilated. This means that instructors sometimes have to use alternative ways of assessing, which comes with many hours of additional work.
5. "Academic integrity" is a myth. The current Canadian university model is a combination of a military/aristocratic hierarchy, a political entity, and a business enterprise. As the outcome of those dynamics, the idealistic side of academic integrity as the ultimate principle in academia necessarily becomes "flexible."
6. Are we, academics, ready to invest the resources necessary to expose those members of our community who use "alternative facts" when presenting their achievements and contributions? How much energy, knowledge, and time does an average academic — who worries about their own future, their research, the next round of funding, and juggling other life responsibilities — have to fight injustices, including the major ones such as academic freedom and social justice, that they witness daily? We often turn our cheek the other way in daily life, so why have different standards and principles in our classrooms?
The penalties are not severe enough to send out a strong warning to the students.
7. In the absence of a "cheating police," an instructor is mostly left to their own devices. Why bother to spend days of frustration proving that Alice paid a predatory tutoring online company to find a derivative of a function? Or that Bob and Carol copied from each other based on the fact they had the same, word-for-word, solutions to a question whose solution allows for multiple approaches? In general, academic integrity offences are hard to prove and time-consuming to discipline. As well, the penalties are not severe enough to send out a strong warning to the students. Some instructors decide to ignore dishonesty cases and act only when they have no other choice. Who can blame them?
8. Any instructor would prefer to commit their time and energy to supporting students who are eager to learn, than to live through the nightmare of a single academic dishonesty case. At least there is a tangible benefit to supporting those who want to learn.
9. Thinking about cheating is like cancer — it eats up our trust in our students and ruins the joy of teaching. We yearn to contribute, in positive ways, to the lives of students who are truly committed to learn, to explore their interests and talents through honest work.
And lastly … 10. Say that a student cheats their way through their post-secondary degree. Has this experience prepared them adequately for the real world and a future career? The answer, we're afraid, could well be "yes."
As a conclusion, however, we offer to the reader our confession that, even though we are convinced that the points made above hold true, we will not follow our own advice. When faced with student cheating, we are not going to look the other way.
The main reason is that we care deeply about the well-being of our students.
We believe that, as teachers, we have the responsibility to protect students who work diligently and honestly.
We must do whatever we can to educate all of our students, and to convince them that it is in their best interest to adhere to the fundamental values of academic integrity: honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility.
And we are ready to pay the price for it.