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Ohio State academic misconduct cases on the rise

Smith Laboratory houses labs for the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Engineering. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

The temptation to cheat is as old as the idea of administering exams and writing essays.

As technology continues to evolve, cheating has become easier through the use of group chat apps like GroupMe and websites like Course Hero that let students share course materials. As a result, more Ohio State students are giving in to the temptation.

A Lantern review of annual reports and statistics compiled by Ohio State’s Committee on Academic Misconduct reveals a large spike in the number of reported cases of cheating over the past four school years. Interviews with university officials and a report the committee shared with the Ohio State Board of Trustees identify technology as a major factor that helps students cheat — and also helps them get caught.

“In the past five years the level of complexity, sophistication and volume of academic misconduct cases has trended upward,” the report said. “In some cases, this trend aligns with the increased use of technology inside and outside of the classroom.”

The university has seen a 57 percent increase in academic misconduct cases from 553 cases in the 2014-15 academic year to 906 cases last school year, records show. Academic misconduct is defined by COAM on its website as a failure to follow the rules and guidelines outlined in the Student Code of Conduct.

Cases rose 31 percent in the past two academic years, from 2016-17 to 2017-18.

The increase in misconduct cases was driven by jumps in the chemistry, computer and science engineering departments, as well as the Department of Marketing and Logistics in the Fisher College of Business.

While consistently at the top of COAM’s reports, chemistry classes saw an increase last school year to 272 cases from 145 in 2016-17.

The Department of Computer Science and Engineering maintained its place as the second-biggest contributor to misconduct cases, and saw a significant rise in the number of cases from 46 cases in 2016-17 to 89 cases in 2017-18.

The department did not respond to a request for comment from The Lantern.

The third-largest contributor to 2017-18 cases, the Department of Marketing and Logistics in Fisher, had 85 cases after not appearing on the 2016-17 report at all.

Terry Gustafson, vice chair for undergraduate studies in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, said technology accounted for the jump in misconduct cases, but also helped professors catch attempts at cheating.

Gustafson said the department implemented the use of Turnitin last year — a website that checks the originality of assignments students submit for grading — for all lab reports in general chemistry classes.

“I think that a lot of students previously were probably, perhaps using other people’s work but it was just not caught, but now we can look at what is happening across sections, across different instructors, even if they’re doing the same lab report,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson said the department saw a similar trend with organic chemistry classes two years ago, but those numbers fell after the initial spike, and he hopes the same will happen with the first-year general chemistry classes.

Gustafson said the chemistry department sees most cases of academic misconduct in lower-level courses, which is a trend reflected across all departments on campus.

“I think that a lot of students previously were probably, perhaps using other people’s work but it was just not caught, but now we can look at what is happening across sections, across different instructors, even if they’re doing the same lab report.” —Terry Gustafson, vice chair for undergraduate studies in the department of chemistry and biochemistry

According to COAM’s 2017-18 report, 44.2 percent of all misconduct cases happen in 1000 level courses and only 5.2 percent of all cases happen in 4000 level courses.

Gustafson said that, ultimately, COAM’s goal is not to be a punisher, but to put students back on the right track.

“I think if you look at COAM’s overall purpose, part of this is just to make sure students get educated,” Gustafson said. “Honestly, the sanctions are really intended to help educate the student, provide enough of a pain that they’re less likely to do this again and by doing it in their first year we hope that it obviates them having more serious cases later on.”

Susan Olesik, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said one reason for most cases occurring in lower-level classes is because some intelligent students who come to Ohio State might have been able to get by in high school without much studying.

“Ohio State has the great privilege of having students who have strong intellect these days, and so it is not uncommon for students with that strong intellect to not necessarily have great study skills,” Olesik said.

The department has sought to combat that problem by requiring instructors of first-semester classes to include a lecture about metacognition — examining your own thinking process — and studying skills, usually around the time the first exam approaches.

“It’s not specifically related to chemistry but we feel it is so important that every one of the instructors has some process by which they communicate some strategies on thinking about your own learning and taking responsibility for your own learning in ways that we hope will help them to be successful,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson said, while the spike in last year’s report can be attributed to instituting Turnitin, the department is aware its numbers tend to be higher than others, and believe some of it might be due to chemistry being required for many high-stress education paths, such as medical school.

“I honestly think chemistry can be such an important course,” Gustafson said. “The pressure for performing well in the course can push students.”

The committee’s report, presented to the Audit and Compliance Committee of the Board of Trustees in August, noted among the contributing factors was student confusion about authorized and unauthorized collaboration.

To illustrate the point, the report offered two case studies: one from the College of Veterinary Medicine and one from the Fisher College of Business.

In the veterinary class, of a group of 85 students identified as having collaborated on a take-home exam, 84 were ultimately found to be in violation of the honor code and given zeros on the assignment.

Steps taken by the veterinary college following this case were presented in the report and included a strengthened honor code, five specific exam and grading types, and emphasis on in-class grades to avoid unsanctioned collaboration combined with increased use of proctors.

The report also clarified standards on collaboration for out-of-class assignments and “required that all syllabi include a description of the grading types and specific statements on academic integrity and misconduct.”

In the business class, 83 students were found to have collaborated on an assignment in violation of the honor code. Of those students, 14 were suspended and 66 were put on probation.

The Lantern reported last year on the use of GroupMe by 83 business school students that led to a misconduct case.

In its report to the Board, COAM presented the steps the veterinary college took in response to the incident as building blocks to a campus-wide strategy.

“Using the model developed by the College of Veterinary Medicine, several colleges and departments are in the process of inventorying and examining grading assignments within certain courses to assess academic misconduct risks and develop approaches and tools for instructors and students with which to mitigate them,” the report said.

The rise in cases was not the only change, as the severity of punitive action also saw an increase, according to COAM yearly reports.

In 2016-17, 15.2 percent of cases resulted in only a “formal reprimand,” while in 2017-18, that fell to 6.3 percent of cases. On the other hand, in 2016-17, 79 percent of cases resulted in disciplinary probation, while in 2017-18, that rose to 87 percent of all cases.

In addition, the number of cases that impacted a student’s grade further than only the assignment in question saw a significant increase last school year.

In 2016-17, 56.3 percent of cases resulted in a zero being given on all or part of the assignment in question, while in 2017-18 that number fell to 27.2 percent of all cases.

Consequently, last school year, 44.6 percent of cases saw a “further reduction of final letter grade in the course,” up from 24.9 percent the previous year. Similarly, in 2017-18, 13.9 percent of cases resulted in the student receiving a failing mark for the course by “action of university committee,” up from 4.6 percent in 2016-17.

The university said in a statement that this does not reflect any effort for more punitive actions, but reflects the nature of the cases in the different years.

“Each case is decided on the evidence and circumstances for that individual case. Any shift in the sanctions most likely reflects a change in the circumstances for the specific cases,” Ben Johnson, university spokesman, said in an email. “Sanctions for each case are commensurate with the violation and decided independent of the outcomes of any other cases.”

Moving forward, the university hopes to prevent the rising numbers by using COAM’s plan focusing largely on the use of technology.

Technology has presented itself as the proverbial double-edged sword when it comes to cheating; it can facilitate or be used to catch it. But Gustafson said there is likely a larger cultural question to be answered.

“Is it part of the culture?” he asked rhetorically. “Do you want everything for free off the web and this is just part of that?”

 

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