With in-person classes comes in-person test-taking—something many Cal Poly students have not experienced in over a year.
The challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic put pressure on students and faculty to transition to an online learning format. Students said this change allowed increased flexibility in test-taking, and despite learning difficulties, overall GPAs increased over the virtual year, as many students were allowed to use notes on exams or take courses credit/no credit.
However, online test-taking appears to have blurred the line for some students about academic integrity.
Academic integrity refers to a student’s commitment and exhibition of honesty in their education according to the International Center for Academic Integrity website.
The two types of academic integrity violations include cheating, as defined on the OSRR website as, “obtaining or attempting to obtain, or aiding another to obtain credit for work, or any improvement in evaluation of performance, by any dishonest or deceptive means,” and plagiarism, “the act of using intentionally or unintentionally the ideas or work of another person or persons as if they were one’s own without giving proper credit to the source.”
The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSRR) website officially states that Cal Poly has a zero-tolerance policy for any type of academic cheating or plagiarism.
With the majority of classes offered virtually in the 2020-2021 academic year, OSRR saw an increase in academic integrity violations at Cal Poly. A total of 474 cases of academic integrity violations were reported in that virtual year, according to Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Rights & Responsibilities David Groom.
During the 2019-2020 academic year, 359 cases were reported. The spring quarter of this academic year was when Cal Poly shifted to an online format.
These two academic years have a significant increase from the cases reported in the years prior when Cal Poly courses had been exclusively in-person, as there were 182 cases reported in 2016-2017, 101 reported in 2017-2018 and 183 reported in 2018-2019, according to Groom.
In evaluating the reasons for this increase, Groom reflected on the pressures students faced during the pandemic and was hesitant to draw a correlation between an online format and an increase in academic integrity violations due to the nature of unprecedented times.
“There were different parameters. There was a different format. There was maybe more opportunity. People were disparate, they were spread out, they were not here,” Groom said. “Proctoring looked different—it’s a whole different format for education and assessing learning. Maybe because there was less direct observation of someone doing their work, there was more opportunity for tech to be used in different ways.”
Groom said he saw many cases of prohibited collaboration during test-taking with an online format.
“There were cases of similar answers on exams, similar uniquely wrong answers, things that were done uniquely that couldn’t have been explained unless there was some sort of collusion or collaboration,” Groom said.
Biological sciences sophomore Hannah Dutta said that there was a lack of accountability when it came to testing in online classes.
“The professor isn’t there to watch you take the test,” Dutta said. “They can’t control what you look at. They can’t control if you’re really texting someone in the middle class.”
Although some classes incorporated lock-down browsers and proctoring to avoid plagiarism, students still found ways around that.
“I know people who would like put their answers or put their notes on the screen [in front of them] to like look at the camera but they’re actually looking behind them,” Dutta said. “People would find ways to cheat that system.”
Communications studies sophomore Lily Hanson said she had similar experiences in her classes with lock-down browsers and proctoring tools.
“If students want to cheat, they’ll find a way,” Hanson said.
Dutta said some students in her class would utilize a TV monitor to share someone’s computer screen so they could take the test together in one room at the same time.
“Every week a new person was like the test, the guinea pig, and they would put that person as the one to take the test first and then they would base their answers off of what they said, but if they got it wrong, there’d be the correct answers,” Dutta said. “I don’t know, it was super creative.”
In another story, Dutta said her entire anthropology class got scolded by the professor for cheating on an exam through a lengthy Google Doc shared amongst everyone, where classmates would write down their answers to test questions.
Consequences for academic integrity violations vary from case to case, but the process always begins with faculty identifying the violation, making contact with the student, taking action reflected in the student’s grade and filing an official report to OSRR.
“Irrespective of some of these other steps, this behavior should be reported to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, and the should is imperative, you need to do it, partly because we want to keep track of a potential broader behavior,” Groom said.
As detailed in Order 298, OSRR then has the right to impose sanctions on the student which may include disciplinary probation for a period of time or an education experience workshop, amongst other actions.
“I can say our goal was our students’ success, their academic growth and development balanced with holding them accountable to the expectations while balancing everything that was going on—we kept that at front of mind,” Groom said.
OSRR was unable to share the statistics on academic integrity violations for the current academic year with Mustang News, as there has not been enough data to collect a comprehensive view of what trends will appear this year, according to Groom.
However, as Cal Poly offers more in-person instruction again this academic year, Groom suspects that there may be less opportunity for academic integrity violations, but it is unclear how these trends may change.