Nursing students in course conflict

Controversy arises over release of practice questions

Nursing Society President Eveline Traxler says although the three tests were reweighted, there were still discrepancies regarding the agreed upon marking scheme.
Nursing Society President Eveline Traxler says although the three tests were reweighted, there were still discrepancies regarding the agreed upon marking scheme.

Concerns regarding academic integrity have been raised in light of inconsistent evaluation procedure in a fourth-year nursing class.

Concepts of Acute and Critical Illness, taught by professor Ann Brown, has been met by an uproar of student protest in response to the release of confidential practice test questions for the course onto the NURS 403 WebCT site.

On Nov. 19 a presentation on academic integrity was made to the class by Academic Integrity Advisor James Lee, with Director of the School of Nursing Cynthia Baker also in attendance. The presentation was followed up with a class discussion on the topic of the circulating practice test questions and how the course was to be completed.

Outgoing Nursing Science Society President Eveline Traxler said the issue was brought to her attention after the meeting.

“I was contacted initially by the class following their first meeting about the issue from Professor Brown,” she said. “Essentially students felt there was no resolution to the issue. Some students felt that they were being accused unfairly of academic dishonesty.”

Traxler said another meeting with the class was called for the next day.

“They discussed a variety of options they could pursue. Unfortunately, there was not 100 per cent consensus,” she said. “An e-mail arrived the next day on the 21st to essentially reweight the three tests according to the discussion that they had the previous day.”

According to the e-mail sent by Brown, the overall weight of the first two unit tests was to be decreased by 10 per cent.

Traxler said there were discrepancies regarding the agreed upon revised marking scheme.

“The next day, which would have been Saturday, November 22, the results of the unit test number two were posted on the WebCT site. Interestingly enough, four of the 76 questions were eliminated due to duplication. Later that same day, the results of test three then appeared on the website,” she said. “Three of those 60 questions were eliminated. One due to a lack of a correct answer, one due to an ambiguous answer and one due to an inappropriate question which was not covered in either in-class or from the text.”

In an e-mail which was sent to the class on Dec. 1, Brown stated “Follow-up has revealed that, during my leave in 2007-08 and unknown to me, a confidential test bank of questions seems to have been posted on the NURS 403 course website in the fall of 2007. Moreover, this website remained open until September 2008, providing some current 4th year students with access to the questions.”

According to the e-mail, the marking scheme for the course would adhere to its original weighting. The first two unit test marks would be recalculated—minus the questions which were found to be released onto WebCT.

Traxler said students in the Fall NURS 403 class had access to the questions after they were removed from WebCT.

“It was given to students in the fall term NURS 403 by students who had gotten it off of the WebCT webpage in the summer.”

Traxler said it was the manner in which the School of Nursing addressed the issue which concerned the students of NURS 403 the most.

“The biggest issue that the students had was not with the duplication of the questions, rather it was the way in which School of Nursing and Professor Brown handled the situation.”

Brown refused to speak to the Journal.

Director of the School of Nursing Cynthia Baker said she is aware of the widespread circulation of practice test bank questions within the nursing faculty.

“There have been student allegations that the test bank questions were circulated and have been circulated by e-mail for a number of years,” she said. “They said that in class too, they said that when I met with them.”

Baker said that unlike in other faculties, it is policy for test questions to remain confidential within the School of Nursing.

“In the school of nursing, except for one course most of the exams are confidential. That’s quite common in nursing schools for exams to be treated as confidential.”

Baker said the last-minute marking scheme change as indicated in the Dec. 1 email was the result of a meeting initiated by students who were concerned with the release of the confidential practice questions.

“The alteration in the weighting was recommended at a meeting of students who had not had access to the test banks, senior administration and the academic integrity commissioner.”

Baker said she discussed concerns regarding the evaluation of NURS 403 with students in the class. She said the absence of protocol created a climate of chaos which was detrimental to both the faculty and nursing students.

“I think that the situation was worsened because appropriate academic processes were not followed and also because there was a widespread dissemination of defamatory and unproven, false allegations. I feel that the school has been harmed by this—and the students.”

Baker said the School of Nursing is looking into proactive ways to address the issue of academic integrity.

“We are going to be looking at our evaluation methods in some detail so that we can learn from this situation.”

Academic Affairs Commissioner Matthew Lombardi said this is an unusual case of academic grievance.

“Once I realized that there were so many different students coming in for the exact same reason, this was what I realized a case of a different nature and magnitude so I decided that I would handle this one myself.”

Lombardi said the majority of the complaints are regarding the last minute alteration of the course’s marking scheme.

“About a week before the final exam, without consulting anyone, Professor Brown completely changed the agreed upon settlement. She all of a sudden decided that the weighting of all the tests would be changed back to the original weighting as indicated on the syllabus, with all questions which were from the circulating test bank stricken.”

Lombardi said he feels NURS 403 students have been unfairly treated.

“These students did not cheat. These questions were on the NURS 403 course website. They were not stolen, they were not illegally circulated,” he said. “This is an error that was not the students fault, yet she falsely accused them of an academic integrity violation. Then when she admitted that the mistake wasn’t the students’ fault, she didn’t apologize for accusing them of that in the first place.”

The Journal contacted several students enrolled in NURS 403. All refused to go on record for fear of potentially straining their relationship with the School of Nursing administration and jeopardizing their academic appeal.

Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane said there isn’t a standardized university protocol to address information which is uploaded onto WebCT.

“Across the University the practice varies, there’s no central protocol governing this,” he said. “It very much depends on what a particular instructor wishes to achieve by using this system.”

Deane said there are no plans to institute any school-wide policy on the use of WebCT.

“I think it’s very important for whoever is making use of this kind of technology to be very clear on what the protocol of their particular use of it will be,” he said. “I don’t think it’s really possible nor is it probably desirable for the University to set a single set of guidelines for its use.”

There is no standardized policy for course evaluation as it is up to the professors’ discretion, Deane said.

“The range of methods by which an instructor can assess the level of achievement of students in a particular course is almost infinite. Instructors are encouraged to be creative in the way they assess students’ work, so that students are being assessed in a way that is appropriate to the subject matter.”

Deane said the University will address this issue with the concerns of the students as a priority.

“I think that the University’s main concern is that the process by which students’ progress is assessed should have integrity and should be defensible,” he said. “This is so that, however an instructor chooses to examine a course, we want the results of course to be fair to all concerns but to also be academically defensible and to have integrity in that sense.”

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