Integrity, Communication Key To Avoiding Academic Misconduct
The discovery of a cheating incident during an online course at Texas A&M University in fall 2020 has led to opportunities for faculty, students and staff to improve communication to avoid such issues in the future, said the director of the Aggie Honor System Office (AHSO).
The Aggie Honor Code states: “An Aggie does not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do,” and AHSO Director Tim Powers ‘01 said his staff works diligently to educate students on the importance of the code, and to lead a fair investigation process when academic integrity is questioned.
“We help carry the torch so Aggies understand the core value of integrity,” said Powers, who earned both a bachelor’s in agricultural systems management and a Ph.D. in higher education administration at Texas A&M.
In classes – especially online – where opportunities exist to visit websites or otherwise seek help during exams, professors must clearly indicate to students what types of behavior constitute cheating.
According to Powers, from Aug. 21, 2019 to Aug. 20, 2020, his office recorded 621 instances of academic misconduct. Meanwhile, from Aug. 20, 2020 to the present, the office has recorded 1,330 cases.
“The move to online courses due to the pandemic has increased incidents of academic misconduct at universities around the nation,” Powers said.
Fall 2020 Incident
The incident at Texas A&M last fall involved academic misconduct in an online course that had 500 students, as well as a partner section with an additional 500 students that used the same course material.
“We became aware immediately before the Thanksgiving break of concerns that a faculty member had in a large section,” Powers said. “The faculty member brought this to our attention; he had around 70 students that he thought were completing assignments, exams and quizzes in an unrealistic timeframe – 45 seconds or 90 seconds – and doing suspicious things, such as letting an exam sit untouched for 30-45 minutes.”
Powers said the faculty member also found exam questions and multiple choice options hosted on a few different websites, unaffiliated with the university.
“Students were posting questions and then individuals were answering those questions as part of a subscription service,” Powers said, noting there are websites that offer live tutoring services, as well as sites where students can ask homework questions. “One student in particular was using that to complete his own exam. And then once those questions were answered, the answers were shared and made public for anyone to see.”
Upon learning of the faculty member’s suspicions, the honor office launched an investigation. “We discovered that this problem was bigger than just 70 students,” Powers said. At that point, the AHSO worked with the Provost’s Office and the college and department in which the course was hosted to give all 1,000 students the opportunity to self-report – to voluntarily come forward and admit if they’d participated in academic misconduct – with a prescribed set of consequences should they do so.
The result was that 193 students self-reported, Powers said, but 45 students who were strongly suspected of academic misconduct did not.
“Since then we have helped students who self-reported and we’re working with students who didn’t, but the suspicion was strong enough that academic integrity processes began,” Powers said, adding that students who self-reported did not face suspension.
Academic Integrity Process
The AHSO process provides students and faculty the opportunity to resolve allegations of academic misconduct, and may or may not result in sanctions.
“In what we call the ‘autonomous process,’ the faculty member identifies a suspicion that a student is engaging or may engage in academic misconduct,” Powers said. “They then allow the student to respond.”
For example, a faculty member may observe a student using a phone during a Zoom exam. “The student may respond, ‘my sister had gone into labor,’ or another such reason which can be proven and therefore exclude misconduct,” Powers said. “Or the faculty member decides, ‘I think this is academic misconduct,’ and then assigns a sanction, such as a zero on the exam.”
The sanction is reported to the honor office by the faculty member. “We follow up with the student and make sure they understand their rights and responsibilities as an accused student,” Powers said.
Then the student can either accept what the faculty member has decided or not, in which case, a second process begins that involves the Honor Council, which is an impartial group of students and faculty trained to conduct investigations into academic integrity. The council may also conduct a hearing, if necessary.
If a student is found to have participated in academic misconduct, the university has established sanctioning guidelines for the honor office. For a first offense, a student will receive an F in the course with an asterisk denoting academic misconduct.
Students can have the asterisk removed by taking a Remediation Course.
Other types of sanctions depend upon the seriousness of the misconduct. If the behavior is severe, Powers said, the Honor Council has the ability to suspend or expel students from the university.
He points to an example of severe misconduct several years ago when an undergraduate student enlisted a graduate student to take an exam for him.
“They discussed it numerous times, so they had many chances to make the right choice and did not,” Powers said. In that case, one student was expelled and the other was suspended for four years.
Faculty member Adam Pickens serves on the Honor Council to hear cases. An instructional associate professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health Department, School of Public Health, and managing director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center, Pickens said he’s aware of the fall 2020 incident, but has insulated himself from reports because he’s potentially serving on related investigations.
“It didn’t come as a surprise to me,” Pickens said, adding he’s seen websites like the one that came into question in the fall, and others, for quite a while. “I’ve sat on a number of hearings over the last few years for a variety of different majors across campus, and external websites like this are commonly a predominant cause.”
Powers said he and his team are working to better equip and encourage faculty to provide clarity and specificity about class expectations and what constitutes academic misconduct.
Use of the terms “open notes” and/or “open book” could be misconstrued by students; they may mean different things in different classes. Does “open book” mean the use of only the course textbook, or can students seek out other material? Does “open notes” mean only the handwritten notes the student has taken during class, or can they use notes from other students or from websites? “Those things need to be clarified,” Powers said
Students also need to ask questions, not of their peers, but of their professors if they are unclear about what constitutes cheating, Powers said.
Improved communication about the availability of resources for both students and faculty is also key. Faculty can use HonorLock, Respondus and the Aggie Proctoring Center to guard against misconduct. The Keep Teaching website provides detailed instructions on how to use those features.
Regarding student use of academic websites unaffiliated with the university, they can be useful, but students may be wasting money on them.
“Much of what they’re seeking help for on these sites is available at the university and already included in their student fees,” Powers said, pointing to the Math Learning Center and the University Writing Center. “Those centers are staffed with experts – students can ask questions and get help, and it’s free.”
The Academic Success Center and Office for Student Success also offer free resources.
Pickens said such resources are valuable to students’ personal development – an important factor to AHSO and Honor Council staff. “Students may think it’s just about a punitive process, but one of the overarching goals of the members of the Honor Council and the AHSO staff is to help students learn from the process,” he said.
Additionally, Powers said his peers and colleagues are talking with faculty about how best to teach students in this current environment.
“Exams may or may not be the best method; we’re asking faculty to be open to new and different ways of delivering information,” he said.
When it comes to academic misconduct, there is usually a positive correlation between risk and reward, said Grace Ranft-Garcia, a senior undergraduate student majoring in manufacturing and mechanical engineering technologies who serves on the Honor Council.
“The higher the risk a student might take, the higher the reward,” Ranft-Garcia said. “If a student is taking an exam in an in-person setting, the risk of getting caught cheating is much higher, but the reward is much higher than cheating on a homework assignment. When everything is online, students often perceive the risk to be lower.”
She said the fall 2020 incident is likely an example of students perceiving low risk rather than a lack of forethought or oversight on the part of the university or the AHSO.
“I instead see it as an example of why the AHSO is so important,” she said. “Without the AHSO, and the swift and decisive response by faculty and staff members, the fallout and the consequences could have been worse. And to be completely frank, without the AHSO, more incidents like this could happen.”
Ranft-Garcia said the most important part of the Aggie Honor Council is the focus on the growth of students.
“The entire process is framed around the idea that students have a huge capacity for growth and learning,” she said, adding the most rewarding aspect of serving on Honor Council is the impact she’s been able to have on students. “Being able to sit across from them and offer advice or resources has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life,” she said.
Powers said although the recent incident was disappointing, the fact that so many students came forward to admit wrongdoing was notable.
“Of course, we don’t want students to engage in academic misconduct, but when they took ownership it reminded me what it really means to be an Aggie – to have honor,” he said. “When that honor is momentarily lost, we work together to get it back.”