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University of Victoria turns efforts to rooting out cheaters

University of Victoria

University of Victoria

Cheating schemes don’t get much more complicated than this: A student sits a medical college admission test at the University of Victoria and uses a pinhole camera to transmit the questions across the Strait of Georgia, in return for answers.

As part of the scheme, Josiah Ruben had recruited several people as tutors via Craigslist ads telling them to show up at the University of British Columbia to take so-called sample exams.

Housman Rezazadeh-Azar used a pinhole camera to capture images of the exam he was taking, sent them wirelessly to Ruben, who loaded them onto a thumb drive. Once the tutors answered them, Ruben relayed the answers via earphone to Rezazadeh-Azar, court documents said.

Two prospective tutors called police after finding it suspicious that Ruben was wearing a headset and talking to someone.

The upshot of the Jan. 29, 2010, incident: A charge of fraud over $5,000 for both Rezazadeh-Azar and Ruben.

The case attracted widespread attention, which wasn’t surprising, since criminal prosecution seldom involves university exams.

So what happened?

The Crown prosecutor handling the case decided to drop the fraud charges and proceed with charges of infringement of the Copyright Act of Canada — presumably for infringing on the exam contents. Both men pleaded guilty in Richmond provincial court on April 12, 2012.

Provincial court judge Ronald Fratkin granted the men absolute discharges, despite the Crown’s request that they be fined. According to the B.C. Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, that immediately removes a criminal record, despite a guilty plea.

Colin Macleod, an associate professor of philosophy and law at the University of Victoria, is reluctant to pass judgment on the absolute discharge without knowing more, but doesn’t think it’s sending the wrong signal to prospective cheaters.

“The fact that the parties involved faced serious legal consequences and pled guilty to violating the law indicates that the matter was treated very seriously,” Macleod said in an email. “Indeed, the fact that the case was treated as a serious legal matter and received significant press coverage suggests to me that the message sent is that such cheating will not be tolerated.”

That’s certainly the message that University of Victoria — which was just the venue for the test Rezazadeh-Azar was sitting in 2010, along with more than 3,000 people worldwide — wants to send its own students

Since 2004, UVic has had a strict policy that takes responsibility for dealing with cheaters out of the hands of individual instructors — alleged violations of academic integrity are brought to the attention of department chairs and severe or multiple offences go as far as the dean of a faculty and from there to offices of vice-presidents and even the president. One the president can permanently suspend a student for cheating.

That policy is now undergoing an overhaul to ensure procedures are spelled out clearly — including who needs to be informed of suspected violations, how much time can elapse between alleged violation and response, how to manage repeat violators, how records are kept and who should have access to them, said Catherine Mateer, associate vice-president of academic planning.

“We want them to move quickly and respond immediately,” she said. As soon as professors or instructors have evidence of a breach, they’re expected to inform students in writing and arrange a meeting with the instructor, the chair of the department and the student, along with a person of the student’s choice.

Mateer said few students commit serious breaches of academic integrity — fewer than five have been permanently kicked out, out of up to 35 in disciplinary probation or suspension. “We have 20,000 students — it’s a very, very small number of students that we identify with serious concerns about academic integrity.”

Just what constitutes cheating is multi-faceted, ranging from plagiarism — something that the Internet has made easier than ever — to sharing work, submitting the same work to different courses or hiring tutors or paper mills to write essays.

Academic misconduct by university students is not a widely studied subject, but a 2006 University of Guelph and Rutgers study found that among undergraduates, 53 per cent admitted to serious cheating on written work and 18 per cent admitted to serious test cheating, according to the Canadian Council on Learning. Among graduate students, it said, 35 per cent admitted to serious cheating on written work, while only nine per cent admitted to serious cheating on tests.

The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, surveyed nearly 20,000 students across the country in 2002-2003, including those at UVic.

Mateer was not able to discuss specifics about UVic students who violated academic integrity policies because she doesn’t have access to the list. But the most recent version of UBC’s student-discipline report, dating from 2011-2012, showed 36 students were suspended for copying exam answers, forging medical notes to excuse missing work, writing an exam for a fellow student, forging a transcript to gain admission or plagiarizing from an online source. (While UBC makes violations and penalties available online anonymously, Mateer said UVic is not considering following the same path.)

One challenging area, Mateer said, is group work on assignments, and how instructors can ensure students are not taking credit for someone else’s work.

Harvard University recently decided to force about 60 students to withdraw — likely for two to four terms — for sharing answers in a take-home test last spring, and questions remain about whether the professor’s instructions were sufficiently clear.

Mateer said few people are trying to scam the system. “I think students get overwhelmed, they get too much on their plate, or I think sometimes they don’t feel they can do it well enough [on their own].

“I’ve seen people be very contrite, very tearful, very sorry.”

Prof. Mary Ellen Purkis, dean of the faculty of human and social development, said she’s had three cases of cheating brought to her attention in the last seven years. In one case, two students copied each other’s work on a paper assigned to be written independently. The others copied from books and websites.

In one of the more audacious examples former dean of graduate studies Aaron Devor has come across, a student at another campus tried to pass off a publication of a UVic prof as his thesis.

One controversial area is editing services — English professor and writing advisor Kim Blank said he’s known colleagues to rip down posters that advertise editing services, calling them invitations to cheat.

Students often hire such services to write papers for them, Blank said. It’s a form of cheating that’s usually hard to trace — but not always. “Last year, a ghost writer inadvertently sent a student’s paper to me via email, since my email address had been mixed into the ‘reply,’ because the student had forwarded the assignment to the ghost writer,” Blank said in an email to the Times Colonist. “The student failed the course and I thanked the ghost writer for being so helpful.”

In an average year, Blank says, he adjudicates about 20 cases involving academic integrity.Typically, those cases involve plagiarism.

“A student — usually out of a combination of dishonesty and laziness, often with a dash of either stupidity or arrogance — will simply cut and paste something found [on] the Internet into his or her paper as if he or she wrote it; that is, there will be no quotation marks or citation,” he said in an email. “They fail the assignment, and in almost all cases, the course as well.”

‘Young people under pressure sometimes makes poor decisions’

When it comes to plagiarism, technology has been a mixed bag. It may have made it easier for students to find sources from which to cheat or even to buy papers that are written to order, said Macleod — but on the flip side, it’s easier to catch. “It’s sometimes quite easy for instructors to find plagiarized material simply by Googling suspicious passages.”

Last fall, two cases of plagiarism were brought to Macleod’s attention. “Both cases involved papers that contained unattributed quotations from websites — in one case, the whole paper was simply copied from a webpage,” he said. “And both instances were detected through simple Google searches.”

Mateer says technology probably does give students more ways to cheat. Perhaps more importantly, it’s “blurring the lines” of ownership of intellectual property and how to reference it.

How students can build upon the work of others without claiming it as their own “is a difficult concept and something that they need to learn,” she said.

Mateer said professors are encouraged to talk about academic integrity policy in every course, every year, and even provide examples of plagiarism in class.

Blank has little sympathy for cheaters, arguing UVic students are fully aware of what constitutes cheating — all course outlines describe plagiarism in detail, and the subject is also covered in class. In some courses, students are even required to sign a form indicating that they understand plagiarism and academic integrity.

“Every now and then a student, when confronted with the clear evidence that large chunks of a text were taken word-for-word from another source and plunked directly into his or her own paper, claims he or she has no idea how it got there,” he added.

Fourth-year student Ainsley Wilkinson said anyone who’s gone through high school knows how to cite a paper properly. “If not in high school, you learn within your first month.”

Wilkinson and fellow student Valerie Ziegler say professors shoulder some blame if they give the same test two years in a row and second-time students cheat because the answers have circulated. If in doubt, don’t take chances, they said.

Fourth-year student Alan Moore recalls how his economics instructor gave out the same assignment twice, but corrected a confusing question the second time around. A “bunch of students” were caught answering the first version. That said, he thinks cheating is a “pretty unusual” occurrence.

Preventing cheating involves more than educating students about the rules of academic integrity, said Emily Rogers, chairwoman of the UVic Students’ Society.

“I think cheating is really a symptom of students being overwhelmed or unable to handle the demands that are placed on them for whatever reason,” she said.

At 22, she can’t say whether students today are more pressured than, say, a decade ago, but argues they’re facing “incredible pressure” due to the uncertain economy. “In the past, a post-secondary degree was potentially a ticket to a job. Now it’s a ticket to $27,000 worth of debt.”

“The amount of uncertainty that students are facing is — I would say — absolutely unprecedented,” Rogers said. “And I think that leads to a greater culture of competition and a culture of expecting excellence from oneself rather than a culture of learning and support, which is what should be fostered in an academic institution.”

Math professor Gary MacGillivray, an executive member of the UVic Faculty Association, said he doesn’t believe cheating has increased during his 20 years at the university, adding the academic integrity policy “works pretty well” in assuring fairness for both the student and the instructor.

“Once you get to the point of meeting with the student and showing the evidence, almost all of the students — well over 90 per cent — admit what has happened, take their ‘medicine’ — and possibly a referral for some needed help — and move on,” he said in an email.

He said many different pressures can tempt students to cheat, from family expectations to outside jobs that leave little time for study, and sometimes there are underlying problems such as addiction and depression. “None of this justifies a violation of academic integrity, but it does suggest proceeding with caution and being sure to act in the best educational interest of the student,” he said.

“Young people under pressure sometimes make poor decisions. It has always been that way. Part of it is being young and part of it is being human.”

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