Academic Dishonesty at Western: Is There a Solution?

By James Egaran

This story is one of a three-part collaborative report on academic dishonesty by James Egaran, Logan Portteus and Hailey Palmer. They collectively obtained and analyzed data, and interviewed sources.  

A professor has a box of tissues nearby as they wait for the student to walk into their office. The conversation is going to be painful for both of them and the student may end up crying because they fear it will affect their lives negatively. After the student arrives and sits down, the professor’s office becomes filled with feelings of anxiety. It is a position no college student should ever want to be in. A conversation of cheating.

“Once I see the fear in their eyes, I try to frame it as a learning opportunity,” Environmental Studies Associate Professor Rebekah Paci-Green said.

At Western, academic dishonesty rates have been continuously rising from the academic years 2012-17, according to the academic dishonesty reports from Melinda Assink, assistant to the provost and secretary for the Academic Honesty Board.

In the 2012-17 academic years, the overall total of consequences given was 515. The top three consequences were 206 reports of 0 on the assignment, 114 reports of F as a final grade in the course and 36 reports of 0 on the exam.

From the enrollment data provided by Assistant Director of Institutional Research Sharon Schmidtz by public records request, the academic dishonesty data was organized by department, by type of cheating. From there, the enrollment data helped determine what the top five departments were by rate percentage per enrollment amount.

From academic years 2000-17 the top five departments with the academic dishonesty highest rates are finance and marketing, computer science, journalism, math and environmental studies.

The academic dishonesty data and Academic Dishonesty Incident Reports were obtained by a public records request through Western. According to the data from academic years 2012-18, the top five methods of cheating were 159 reports of plagiarism, 106 reports of cheated on test, 94 reports of unauthorized collaboration, 86 reports of submitted another student’s work and 39 reports of unauthorized resources.

When an academic dishonesty report is filed against a student, it is up to the student to decide to appeal it or not. From a professor’s perspective, it requires filing a report, meeting with the student and going through an uncomfortable conversation about the assignment or exam on which they have been accused of cheating on.

Part of the Game

There are different reasons why a student decides to cheat on an assignment or exam. It can be due to stress, not being prepared or simply the student is just plain being lazy. However, some of the professors think a student’s attitude toward cheating is part of the blame for the rising rate at Western.

Project director of SMATE Roxane Ronca said students using their smartphones as calculators during their exams is a problem. Ronca said it surprises her when students aren’t as concerned after they are caught.

“I’m always amazed that students I’ve seen cheating aren’t more embarrassed than they are,” Ronca said. “If it were me, I would be mortified.”

On Feb. 7, 2017, senior instructor Andrew Richardson filed an Academic Dishonesty Incident Report on a student who cheated on their math exam. The student was suspected of copying an exam answer from a neighboring student.

Richardson asked the student to explain their answer. The student was unable to explain how they got the answer they wrote down. As a result, the student received an F for the course.

Illustration by Mathew Roland

The student appealed the academic dishonesty report filed on them, but was rejected because they had confessed to the math department chair Tjalling Ypma to copying the other student’s answer.

Students who are not cheating are also affected by students who are cheating. In one of

Ronca’s exams she caught a student using a calculator and told the student to put it away. Ronca received emails from two students in the same class mentioning it is unfair the student got away using a calculator.

“There were other students upset about it. When one student cheats it’s unfair. It’s veryhard and emotional. You want to be on the student’s side and root for them,” Ronca said. “But it’s kind of hard when they’re cheating.”

In the academic years 2000-17, the math department had 163 reports of cheating. The primary method of cheating was cheating on a test, at 115 reports.

It is possible student attitude toward cheating is seen as acceptable. Ronca said she thinks students who cheat often give an impression to other students it is acceptable to cheat.

“If everyone is doing it, it’s not such a bad thing right?” Ronca said. “But if very few people are doing it, then it is a bad thing.”

In the academic years 2000-17, the finance and marketing department had 11 reports of plagiarism, seven reports of collaboration on homework and five reports of cheating on a test.

Department chair of finance and marketing Ed Love said the last thing you want is a group of students who think cheating is normal.

“What we want to create is a culture among the students where [cheating] is not acceptable,” Love said. “That is the biggest challenge.”

In the computer science department there were 33 reports of plagiarism, 25 reports of cheating on homework and 19 reports of collaboration on homework from academic years 2000-17.

Computer science associate professor Phil Nelson said students are put into a position where they think they cannot pass the class and are pressured into cheating. On Nelson’s syllabus it says, “Cheating is (obviously) not allowed.”  

“They’ll see where they’re at and realize they’re not getting stuff done as well as they would like to,” Nelson said. “They safely assume they can’t pass the class without cheating.”

Professor Struggles

On Oct. 20, 2016, Paci-Green filed an Academic Dishonesty Incident Report after she viewed a student’s plagiarism score on Turnitin, which was 51 percent. The score caused her to inspect more of the student’s work. Paci-Green discovered there were several paragraphs and a whole page had been cut and pasted from a government website, a clear case of plagiarism.

After meeting with the student, Paci-Green decided it was a case of failing to understand the assignment and there was no attempt to purposely cheat. The student received a zero for the assignment.

Paci-Green has been part of the Academic Honesty board for two years and plans to continue work with the board. She said filing an academic dishonesty report on a student can add a couple hours on top of what a professor has to do.

“It is an interesting conundrum the more you care about academic dishonesty, the more you find it and the more work you have as a professor,” Paci-Green said.

Paci-Green said the workload is an extra burden and can create a situation where the professor tells the student not to do the academic dishonesty again and not report it.

In academic years 2000-17 there were 15 reports of plagiarism in the environmental studies department.

Paci-Green said it is not a burden to her because it is a professor’s duty to instill ethical behavior and honest work.

“Often, students who are plagiarizing are often working quickly and not putting much effort into their learning. So we’re doing a disservice to them when we don’t report,” Paci-Green said.

In the journalism department, plagiarism is the highest form of academic dishonesty at 24 reports from academic years 2000-17.

Journalism assistant professor Brian Bowe said some of his experiences dealing with students cheating were students not being careful in citing sources or a combination of stress and being overwhelmed.

Bowe said it is heartbreaking when a student cheats because he knows what the process ahead of both him and the student is, and the obligation of difficult conversations.

“It’s stressful, it’s a lot of paperwork, it’s scary for students, it’s upsetting,” Bowe said. “In our department we are very strict because our profession is very strict and if I detect it, I’m obligated to report it.”

On June 1, 2017, journalism assistant professor Joe Gosen filed an Academic Honesty Policy Violation Form after he discovered a student had submitted a photo assignment with fabricated information.

The assignment was to shoot and submit a captioned photograph within the class timeframe. The student was not present at the start of class, but returned with knowledge of the assignment and presented the photo she took.

In the report, Gosen said he often prints out several of the student photo assignments and hangs them up in the hallway of the journalism offices. However, Gosen found out the photo captions and names were made up by the student after he was notified by two people from the journalism department.

The student admitted to fabricating the names for the photographs and knew it was the wrong choice. Their reasons were they felt pressured by the turn-in deadline, were not aware names were required and technical difficulties with the camera.

“During our meeting we had a discussion about the value of trust, especially with media in this day and age, and as a professor this incident will make me question all of their work,” Gosen wrote in the report.

In the computer science department, students are required to write their own code. Most of the professors in the department use a software called Measure of Software Similarity, to detect any plagiarism in student software code assignments.

“[Student] claim they wrote it from scratch, say they never copied but continued to insist,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the process to file an Academic Dishonesty Report can be a pain but it needs to done.

“It’s always not fun to actually end up having to call them in and accuse them of being dishonest, that’s a tough one,” Nelson said.

According to an Academic Dishonesty Incident Report filed by Nelson on Feb. 22, 2017, on the first day of class he warned his students not to go on github.com, a website where students can find and read code.

Every assignment turned in by the student, Nelson runs through Measure of Software Similarity. Nelson discovered a student’s work was remarkably similar to another student’s from 2014 and there was no way the student had known certain constructs of the assignments without looking at the student’s previous work.

“It is my opinion that the student used another student’s work to complete at least assignments three and four in my class. My syllabus clearly says this not acceptable and that if caught doing it, the student would receive an F for the class,” Nelson wrote in the report.  

In the computer science department if a student cheats in the class they will receive an F as their final grade. Nelson said it is department policy and the consequences are where it should be in the department, because it is a major problem if a student graduates from the department not knowing how to do code.

“It reflects on the department, it means if we get a bad reputation, ‘Well don’t hire someone from that school, they don’t know what they’re doing,’” Nelson said.

The Battle Against Cheating

Paci-Green has implemented her own way of decreasing instances of academic dishonesty within the environmental studies department. At the beginning of the quarter in her classes she has her students take a plagiarism quiz she developed. The quiz goes over Paci-Green’s expectations, how to properly cite, when you need to cite.

“I developed it over the last year and a half and started using it in my class,” Paci-Green said.

Paci-Green said her quiz has been helpful and hasn’t had any issues of cheating in her class of 120 students where they are writing every week.

Paci-Green said an idea of having an honor code in the environmental studies department would be wonderful for both students and faculty.

“Here’s the student’s code of conduct and here’s faculty responsibilities to ensure cheating is addressed, because it’s not fair to other students who are working hard,” Paci-Green said.

Paci-Green has shared strategies with other faculty on how to address academic dishonesty within the environmental studies department. There are four faculty members in the department who teach the core classes students need to take in the major.

“We have made plagiarism and academic dishonesty a big focal point in the beginning of the quarter,” Paci-Green said. “Set a high bar.”

The journalism department has been working on an honor code. Paci-Green said the honor code in the environmental studies department would be a good idea. The computer science, finance, math departments do not have an honor code.

Journalism department chair and associate professor Jennifer Keller said the goal is to have the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Press Photographer Association and the Public Relations Student Society of America students would work together to develop a draft of an honor code for the journalism department based on the ethics from the three professional organizations.

“If you went out in the real world as a journalist and you were turning in someone else’s work or turned in work from another magazine or didn’t cite your source correctly, any of those things can get you fired,” Keller said.

Keller said the honor code would be an upfront reminder of, “Here are some of the things we need to do in order to remain ethical in our profession.”

Click here for the third installment of the series by Hailey Palmer. 

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