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Academic misconduct spikes during pandemic, professors offer solutions

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Some professors are rethinking their approaches to academic misconduct in a year where cheating has increased sharply.

Duke’s transition to virtual courses over the past year has been marked by a spike in academic misconduct cases across several departments. Some professors think that reducing student stress is essential for reversing the trend.

Over the course of fall 2019, the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards received 89 reports of academic misconduct, but a year later, the total for fall 2020 has jumped to 243, administrators told students last month. 

Despite this rise in misconduct cases, the office’s first priority remains unchanged: providing students with the resources they need to succeed, OSC Director Jeanna McCullers wrote in an email. 

However, McCullers wrote that cases of misconduct that reach the office are met with substantial consequences, especially those involving repeat offenders.

“The vast majority of students pursue their academic studies with integrity, but we will continue to address academic misconduct cases and keep the campus community aware of any noticeable trends,” McCullers wrote. “I hope that students who are experiencing challenges in their coursework will reach out to their respective faculty members as soon as possible to seek assistance.”

McCullers added that the OSC plans to spend a portion of the coming summer analyzing more nuanced misconduct data, such as specific courses associated with higher case totals and related statistics.

Owen Astrachan, associate director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Computer Science, is committed to lowering misconduct case numbers by putting students first. 

Astrachan taught Computer Science 201, Data Structures and Algorithms, during the fall 2020 semester. The class is one of the department’s largest and more fast-paced courses.

As a way to reduce the load on their students, Astrachan and his colleagues opted to move away from traditional three-hour midterms in favor of a less daunting format. Exams are now broken up into short online quizzes to be taken over the course of the semester, with opportunities for retakes.

“I’m hopeful that showing that we want students to have less stress will make a difference,” Astrachan said. “There are definitely students taking advantage of being able to take exams in their rooms, but it’s easier to check for similarities online because handwritten tests look so different.”

Several universities across the country, including Harvard, utilize a “regret clause” for certain assignments. Harvard students have a 72-hour window to retract their assignment and take a zero as a grade if they feel they have acted improperly, avoiding an honor code case entirely.

Astrachan noted that this policy gives students the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions. He prefers the regret clause to the practice of emailing a class and saying that students cheated on an exam or assignment, which “can make [students] overthink what they had done, even if they had just texted a friend and asked if a test was hard.”

“In almost every misconduct case, [the student] says that they messed up and that it was due to stress about grades,” Astrachan said. “Dialogue still has to happen with student affairs, but [the regret clause] could be useful.”

Instructor of Romance Studies Ken Stewart has implemented a few minor changes to his course, Spanish 301, Advanced Spanish Writing, in order to lessen students’ stress and hopefully decrease misconduct as well. 

“Quizzes this year are open-note, which hopefully cuts down on stress and reduces the need to ‘cheat’ since students can use their resources,” Stewart said. “If you depend on those resources, you’ll run out of time, since the quizzes are timed. Students still have their own moral compass to follow, of course, but the line is pretty much drawn at peer collaboration.”

Throughout the pandemic, Stewart has focused on promoting open communication between himself and his students despite the obstacles posed by virtual learning. This mindset carries over to his strategy for handling student misconduct cases. 

“I would start by asking questions, not to be accusatory but to let the student take ownership of the situation,” Stewart explained. “The students know that I know [what they have done], but I still try to give them leeway to try to find the source of the problem. You need that sort of human interaction.”

While Astrachan, McCullers and Stewart think that lowering student stress is useful in lowering misconduct case numbers, they also believe that discouraging cheating will benefit students themselves in the long run. 

“We want students to learn the material themselves in order to have that mastery of the subject which will help them down the road,” Astrachan said. “If you don’t succeed now, you won’t succeed later at an interview or on a job. You have to know how to do stuff on your own.”

McCullers mentioned resources such as the Academic Resource Center and the Thompson Writing Center as havens for stressed-out students. These organizations were also mentioned in the March 17 email.

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