To cheat or not to cheat?

The move to an online learning environment may have made it easier for students to cheat. GRAPHIC BY DANA CAPISTRANO/GRAPHICS CENTER

Paavani Lella

Staff Writer

With the transition from in-person to online learning, in many cases there has been greater freedom and flexibility for students — including more freedom to cheat. According to the students interviewed, there was a general consensus that cheating has increased in the virtual setting because it is easier to pull off. 

However, according to Jonathan Hunt, co-chair of the University Academic Integrity Committee, the amount of cheating cases reported so far this academic year have been comparable to past years. “I don’t think we’ve seen any significant change in the number of violations reported,” he said. “We don’t have any data on reporting levels — that is, we have no way of knowing how many incidents go undiscovered or unreported.”

Despite there being no full-proof data about whether or not cheating has increased since the shift to online education, the question that remains on many students’ minds is: Do professors notice online cheating strategies as effectively as in-person cheating methods? 

Chair of the biology department, Jennifer Dever, said it is actually quite easy to notice when students cheat, particularly with free response questions. Dever mentioned that each student has their own way of speaking, and this way is similar to how they write— a connection which makes copied answers noticeable. 

However, she explained that things are trickier when it comes to other types of questions, such as multiple choice. “That’s where it’s on me to make those multiple choice a little challenging and limit the time,” Dever said. 

Dever also mentioned that there are multiple tip-offs that can potentially indicate whether or not a student cheated. “The irony is a lot of times people will cheat or copy off of one another. They write the wrong phrase, or they use the wrong word, or they misspell it the same way,” she said. Dever also noted that the same way students can Google answers to a test and paste them, professors can also reverse Google search a student’s answers and find out if they originated from a webpage or PDF. 

Emille Davie Lawrence, chair of the department of mathematics and statistics, is also privy to strategies students may use to cheat. “We notice certain patterns to student work, so when we are presented with a solution that looks like the work of a computer or someone with much more expertise than what a student has shown in class, a red flag goes up,” Lawrence said. She mentioned that the mathematics department works hard to detect cheating, but that there are instances when cheating can still go unnoticed. 

Hunt doesn’t think there is much that can be done to change the behavior of students who frequently cheat. “Research indicates that there are a few people who are really dishonest, and there isn’t much we can do to change their behavior. We worry more about the rest of us: the people who are basically honest but who can make serious mistakes sometimes,” he said.

Andrei Antokhin, a professor in the theology department, said it’s not only the act of cheating professors have to worry about, they must also be able to prove guilt as well. “I simply don’t know who’s cheating; who’s not cheating,” he said. “I caught a student cheating, but can I prove it? My intuition told me that he cheated, but could I prove that he exactly cheated?” 

Ability to avoid punishment without an admission of guilt may be one contributing factor, but what are the other elements of this online environment which seem to be encouraging students to cheat? 

“There’s a lot of pressure on us,” one biology major, who spoke to the Foghorn on the condition of anonymity for fear of incurring academic punishment, said. They explained that many students are going through challenging times and experiencing hardships such as the loss of family, as well as a loss of self. “Let’s be real, I feel like we’ve all cheated. You’re just using your resources. You gotta get by somehow,” they said.

One USF English major, who also wishes to remain anonymous, views cheating as an act of desperation. “As someone who has been in that position before, I remember cheating was almost more difficult and stressful to me than doing the work in itself,” they said. They said they felt that cheating isn’t the best solution to a difficult academic situation and that they never want to see themselves in that position again.

A second biology major, who also stipulated that they’d like to remain anonymous, believes professors should allow for the use of more resources on assignments given the unique educational circumstances. They mentioned that virtual learning has taken a mental toll on them, making it difficult to pay attention. They added that it does not matter how much they study, the material will just not stick in an online learning environment. “I can’t help [cheating]. It’s very difficult. I just feel that if teachers know, ‘Oh yeah, this person might cheat,’ why not just make [assessments] open-note and open-book,” they said.

This is exactly what Leslie King, an instructor in the biology department, is doing. “Even before we moved online, all my Canvas quizzes were open-book and open-note, but they were timed. And so, when you offer a timed assessment, that means that people will still have to study because there is no time to look everything up,” she said. “I took the same philosophy when we went to all courses online.” 

Part of this philosophy stems from King’s own collegiate experience, as she explained that when she was in college, many of her professors would allow her to write notes on an index card and use it during an exam. 

Perhaps, a bit of understanding would go a long way. As another USF student explained,“I feel that teachers shouldn’t just assume the worst when people are cheating.” The student suggested that professors should instead ask themselves if there is something besides laziness which is leading students to cheat. The student called cheating “a last resort.”

Paavani Lella is a freshman biology major and a Deputy News Editor at the Foghorn. She’s previously covered campus life and the administration. She can be reached at plella@dons.usfca.edu

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