The cheating curve

Mitigating plagiarism proves challenging, online and off

Professors are aware that countless students undertake online evaluations as communal endeavors, committing minor breaches of academic integrity on a regular basis.
Professors are aware that countless students undertake online evaluations as communal endeavors, committing minor breaches of academic integrity on a regular basis.
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What could be worse than getting caught cheating? Perhaps being accused when you’ve played by the rules.

Such was the case for a second-year Queen’s student last winter.

Shortly after submitting an assignment following Reading Week, the student, who wished to remain anonymous, was notified in writing of her instructor’s suspicions of plagiarism.

The student was told the accusation derived from the familiar resemblance her own assignment bore to another student’s. She had two choices: confess to breaching Queen’s standards of academic integrity, or appeal her case.

“My writing style is very eloquent, and has been beyond my years for quite some time,” the student, now in third year, said. “I’m a little worried because I don’t want to change my writing style, but I also want to make sure people aren’t accusing me of plagiarism.”

Innocent of the charges laid against her, the student faced the task of an appeal.

“I was overwhelmed by the fact that I’d been accused of plagiarizing,” she said. “I had to make my case or confess to something I hadn’t done.” In the midst of additional responsibilities and numerous emotional stressors demanding her attention, making an appeal seemed like an insurmountable feat.

“I just didn’t feel I could fight one more thing,” she said. “The assumption is that you’re guilty. It’s very harsh from the get-go.”

According to the student, she prepared to meet with her instructor, deciding a confession would be the most effective means of diffusing the situation. And she did just that — confess to an offence she claims she didn’t commit.

“One of my housemates said I should fight it,” she said. “[But] because of things that were happening at the time, I just didn’t want to fight.”

After falsely admitting to committing plagiarism, the student disclosed some of her personal struggles to her professor, who empathetically offered advice and educated her on supportive resources offered by Queen’s, the student told the Journal.

The assignment in question was deemed unmarked, and the student’s final assignment in the course was weighted to compensate. The student’s academic transcript remains void of any record of the incident.

It seems that such accusations are no rarity at Queen’s.

Allison Williams, AMS commissioner of academic affairs, confirms that larger classes, whether in-person or online, are where you’re likely to find the most infringements of academic honesty.

“Larger classes tend to have more, smaller assignments that are worth a lot less, and students tend to complete those together, so there are more minor breaches in a large course,” Williams said. “In a smaller course with more robust assignments, I’d assume you’d have fewer, but larger breaches.”

While standards of academic integrity remain consistent among courses taught in-person and those instructed online, professors are aware of the minor breaches of academic honesty that remain inherently symptomatic of online methods of evaluation.

“If you have quizzes done regularly, students will do those in conjunction with one another. Professors are aware that this happens, and how they approach this varies from prof to prof, but this is a challenge that’s always happened with take-home assignments,” Williams said.

According to Brenda Ravenscroft, associate dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Arts and Science, professors of both online courses and on-campus courses with online components invoke a variety of measures to maintain integrity with online quizzes and tests.

These include limiting response times for each question, limiting the number of times a quiz can be taken, limiting the number of questions appearing on a single page and randomizing the order of quiz questions.

“In terms of plagiarism, the availability of information in digital form has undoubtedly made it easier to copy the words of others — but has also made it easier to investigate whether unattributed text is original or not,” Ravenscroft told the Journal via email. In an era of increasingly prevalent breaches of academic integrity, accusations of plagiarism also appear to be growing in numbers.

“The issue has become that this is happening increasingly often,” Nancy Salay, a Queen’s professor, said. “It’s fine to get together with someone to do your work, but this is where there’s a grey line for some people; it’s not okay to come up with a joint answer.”

Queen’s approaches breaches of academic integrity in a decentralized manner.

Professors are granted the autonomy to notify students of their suspicions of plagiarism on a one-on-one basis, with cases extending beyond the student-instructor relationship only when academic dishonesty has been explicitly affirmed, and classified as a more severe breach of academic integrity.

Insufficient evidence also prevents many cases from being labeled as instances of academic dishonesty, leaving several cases of suspicious academic behaviour undocumented. It’s thus difficult to assert precisely how many breaches of academic integrity have happened at Queen’s, especially when convoluted by the vast variance in the severity of cases.

A professor of philosophy and instructor of the Critical Thinking course offered online, Salay describes the evolving trends of academic dishonesty in an increasingly digital age.

“It’s certainly been incremental. Within the past five years, the sophistication of alternatives out there has really improved. I know people can find papers on a really wide variety of topics, and that just didn’t exist before,” she said.

According to Salay, significant adjustments have been made to the structure of online courses to evade countless breaches of academic integrity. The philosophy department in particular has been pressured to assign fewer essays and administer more in-class tests.

“We are very unhappy about having to do this,” Salay said. “Nobody can do the kind of research and thinking they need to in an in-class setting.”

Furthermore, Salay spoke to the impact of online learning, as universities, including Queen’s, continue to embrace this medium of education.

“Students get material by reading or listening to something. That’s the difference between online, and going in, turning off, and being part of a united experience,” Salay said.

Salay emphasized the problem that decreasingly stable attention spans present for the landscape of higher education.

“People are completely distracted. They can’t stay focused on one idea for more than three minutes, which is what the classroom experience is about.”

Still, evidence suggests it isn’t the method of instruction that delineates outcomes in student achievement. Research on the Effectiveness of Online Learning, a 2011 compilation of research on online learning, revealed considerable evidence in favour of online modes of instruction.

“The findings of hundreds, perhaps thousands of studies, over the decades and through the 1990s have been consistent — there are no significant differences in learning outcomes achieved by students engaged in face-to-face instruction compared to those participating in distance education,” the article stipulates. “This holds true regardless of the technology medium used, the discipline, or the type of student.” Salay emphasized the viability of online courses in regards to specific subject matter, noting how the use of laptops in an in-person lecture can be equally, if not more, detrimental to the learning experience.

“There is a place for online,” she said, adding that a course that is particularly content-heavy, or where the instructor simply passes along information, is well-suited to the online medium.

Still, the experience of learning directly from another human being remains invaluable. Traditionally, discussion has been the ultimate asset to higher education, posing an obstacle for online learning, according to Salay.

“There are some things you actually have to show people,” she said. “The best learning often happens by accident. A student asks a question and now we’re talking about it.”

“Where online won’t work is when part of what you want to teach is manifested in the actual learning experience itself.”

The majority of philosophy courses fall into this category, she said, where the learning experience lies less in the subject matter itself, and more in the method by which it is communicated.

“We need to have dialogue and discussions, because that’s what philosophy is,” Salay said. “The experience of philosophizing is a huge part of the learning experience. That’s a problem for online. If we could simulate that virtually, I don’t think it would be as big a problem.”

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