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Opinion: To reduce academic offenses, professors should cause students less stress

Third-party proctoring services increase student stress, while alternative examination methods can ease it
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Third-party proctors may stress out an already anxious student body. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
Third-party proctors may stress out an already anxious student body. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

The pandemic has been a trying time, and it appears that the resulting stress has pushed students to cheat more. According to the Provost’s Annual Report on Cases of Academic Discipline, academic offences increased significantly during the 2019–2020 school year. This begs the question: how should U of T reduce cheating given the switch to online classes? 

The report noted that the number of student offenders “increased in 2019-20 to a total of 2.3% of the total student population.” It is important to highlight that the biggest increase is in offences related to the use of unauthorized aid, which according to that same report, “doubled in magnitude, and comprised more than 40 percent of all offences” in the 2019–2020 academic year. No other kind of offence has increased that significantly.

U of T has tried to counter the use of unauthorized aid by partnering with third-party proctoring services such as ProctorU and Examity. These companies aim to ensure academic integrity by providing services like monitoring and recording students while they take tests

In theory, proctoring sounds ideal and very practical. However, a Varsity article describes how proctoring has led not only to privacy concerns, but also to software malfunctions and racial bias from the proctors themselves. The article reported that proctoring mechanisms can lead students to feel anxious during a time that is already stressful because of the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, increasing the use of third-party proctors would be detrimental to an already anxious student body. 

Professors can implement open-book exams — which can be formatted to test application and student knowledge rather than memory — instead of proctoring. That way, students can focus on practically applying what they have acquired throughout the course without being too worried about memorizing formulas, vocabulary words, or data — all of which could be easily retrieved by a simple Google search in a professional setting. 

While evidence is mixed as to whether open-book exams are better than closed-book exams, the former do produce significantly lower levels of stress than the latter, according to a 2019 study. Importantly, students who are less stressed are less likely to cheat. Hence, the implementation of open-book exams could maintain academic integrity without sacrificing student well-being. 

In cases where implementing an open-book exam is impossible or detrimental to a course, professors have other options for improving students’ well-being while maintaining academic integrity. For example, they could replace exams with other assignments, such as essays. Similar to open-book exams, essays test students on the ability to apply their knowledge and structure their ideas in a cohesive manner. 

If nothing else, professors could make assignments such as essays have more weight on courses’ final grades than memory-based, closed-book exams. One of the main reasons that students cheat is the pressure to achieve high grades. Many students commit academic offences because they worry about their performance, and they feel that their grades matter more than whether or not they have actually learned the course material. Thus, by using open-book exams or essays — instead of memory-based, closed-book tests — one could shift the importance to knowledge rather than memorization and reduce the chance of students using unauthorized aids. 

These alternatives are neither new nor groundbreaking. Many professors have used them during this pandemic, and I am hopeful that they will be able to share positive results with their colleagues. However, the professors who have used these solutions have done so because of their own will and initiative — at U of T, there is no official rule regarding exams that concerns the university as a whole. 

Even though these solutions may not be ideal for some professors, they are better than using proctoring services. Furthermore, they will only be temporary, as this pandemic will — hopefully — be a short-lived blister in our lives. Adapting exam and assignment formats to an online setting is simply yet another temporary change U of T is undergoing during the pandemic, but it should be done in a way that helps students the most — not only to ensure academic integrity, but also to improve the mental well-being of students.

Josefina Novoa Reátegui is a second-year student studying psychology and anthropology.