The pandemic has presented U of T with unique challenges to maintaining academic integrity, according to the provost’s Annual Report on Cases of Academic Discipline for the 2019–2020 year.

The report noted that some students have taken advantage of online learning by committing academic offences through using unauthorized aids during assessments. In the Faculty of Arts & Science, the number of academic offences increased from 657 in the 2018–2019 academic year to 751 in 2019–2020. However, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that many divisions did not see an increase in academic offenses during the 2019–2020 academic year. 

The Varsity has broken down the shifting nature of academic offences and how the university deals with them. In particular, the computer science department’s academic integrity coordinator shared how deterring cheating can often create more work for instructors and lead to lower quality assignments.

From online learning to the growing popularity of outsourcing assignments, the university is adapting to a changing environment.

Accidents still count 

When a student is suspected of an academic offence, they move through a four-stage process: they meet with the class instructor, then with the department chair, and finally with the faculty dean before the case is looked over by a tribunal. Conversations with an instructor cannot be used against a student at the tribunal; however, discussions with a dean can.

In an interview with The Varsity, one student, who wished to remain anonymous due to fears that it might affect their future employment, went over their experience with the academic offence process after being accused of one following an examination. 

At the beginning of the 2020–2021 academic year, they were taking their first midterm, which was a timed test that could be taken at any time within a longer time slot. After finishing the test at the beginning of the allotted time slot, they sent a message in a group chat saying that the test was hard and giving vague details about what students should look out for.

“I didn’t give any answers [and] didn’t [include] any really important specifics about the test,” the student said. “[The academic integrity code] clearly says, ‘No communicating with your peers about the test,’ but I was like, ‘Crap, I thought that was just about answers.’ ”

Two weeks later, they received an email that said they had to schedule a meeting with their professor because they were suspected of an academic offence. The professor claimed to have screenshots of a group chat where they shared information about the test, and the student confessed to having sent a message during the test period.

They asked for specifics on the case, but their request was denied and they were told to wait. Four months later, the dean scheduled a meeting with them, and they were eventually sanctioned, receiving a zero on the midterm and a note on their transcript. Six other students who either replied or saw the message were also flagged. 

The student noted that the wait time between their initial meeting with their professor and the tribunal meeting was especially stressful. 

“I just wish that there was a bit more support for me mentally during the process because it was really, really traumatizing to wait to hear back about a big life-changing… decision [and], meanwhile, having to do more tests for the course,” they explained.

Despite the final decision, the student said that the tribunal itself listened carefully to their version of events. Though they stood their ground on the punishment, the tribunal expressed sympathy for the student’s situation.

The student added that some things could have been communicated more clearly. For example, after receiving an email that wrote that they were free to seek legal counsel, they contacted a clinic thinking that the case was more serious than they had supposed. 

However, when they asked their registrar about it, the registrar said that they didn’t recommend doing that because the university would think the student was “strong-arming” it.

Searching for cheating

In an interview with The Varsity, Associate Professor Tom Fairgrieve, an academic integrity coordinator in the Department of Computer Science, outlined the process through which instructors try to identify academic offences in their courses. “[Moss] is a tool that we use that looks at similarity. It’s a bit like Turnitin for written essays, but it is specialized for working with software,” Fairgrieve said. 

He noted that the software itself does not detect an academic offence; rather, it finds likely candidates by assessing the similarity between submissions. A professor then has to check and decide whether the similarity could have occurred coincidentally, or whether it constitutes cheating. 

Additionally, professors have to keep an eye out for forums and websites that host answers to assignments and tests, which can be a time-consuming process. “It is going to be instructor dependent on… how much time they have to do that sort of thing,” Fairgrieves added.

With the sudden transition to online learning came new avenues for cheating. For instance, Fairgrieve noted that before the pandemic, cheating was mainly done on assignments, but cheating on tests has now increased significantly due to their online nature.

According to Fairgrieve, the vast majority of academic offence cases in the Department of Computer Science are in early first-year courses like CSC104 — Computational Thinking and CSC108 — Introduction to Computer Programming. He added that there was no strong correlation between a course being a prerequisite for a program of study and the frequency of academic offences.

Instructors can take some measures to deter students from cheating on their assignments and tests, including making multiple different versions of a test and distributing them at random among students, or creating new assignments every year. The situation is not ideal, however, as the overhead of dealing with multiple versions of a test or assignment introduces more complications and can even decrease the quality of these evaluations. 

Karen Reid, a teaching stream professor in the Department of Computer Science, wrote in an email to The Varsity, “For some courses creating new assignments is an enormous amount of work and when we can’t reuse them, students lose the benefit of refined assignments.”

It is unclear how effective these measures are at deterring students from committing an academic offence since many more cases could be going undetected. Additionally, some acts of plagiarism are hard to detect with the software tools and measures currently in place. While the work may still be original, a student might have purchased it from an online service and submitted it as their own.

“We can’t guarantee that all violations of academic integrity will be caught,” said Fairgrieve, “just in the same way that if I decide to speed on the 401, I may not be caught.”

Even when a student does get accused of a violation, sanctions can’t be imposed unless the student admits to committing the offence. If the student does not admit to committing the offence, the case may be escalated to a higher academic integrity office until it reaches the provost’s office, where the student is officially charged and a hearing takes place in front of a tribunal to decide whether the student should be convicted based on the available evidence.

Both Fairgrieve and Reid shared the sentiment that cheating, and the infrastructure set up to detect and deter cheaters, harms everyone — from potentially causing innocent people to get accused to creating increased stress and tension on platforms like Piazza, where students might be reluctant to provide useful help for fear of crossing a line.

As cheating is a phenomenon that is likely not going away, Fairgrieve thinks not much can be done about it other than talking to students, trusting in their honesty, and hoping that those who do violate the rules get caught.

Fairgrieve said, “The only thing we can do is talk to our students about the appropriate ways to talk to others about the homework and give them some guidance that way.”