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OU students, faculty attribute rise in academic misconduct cases to online classes, pandemic’s effect on mental health

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Seed Sower

The Seed Sower in front of mums on the South Oval on Nov. 4.

In March of 2020, COVID-19 forced OU students and faculty to leave campus, move classes online and completely change their normal habits. As the community adapted to virtual learning, OU found itself in the same situation as many universities across the country.

With classes shifting online, cases of academic misconduct began to rise.

Will Spain is the assistant director of the OU Office of Academic Integrity Programs and has worked in the office since 2012. Prior to working in the Office of Academic Integrity, he worked in the Office of Legal Counsel and in athletic compliance.

From the 2018-19 academic year to the 2019-20 academic year, OU saw a 57.6 percent increase in academic misconduct cases, going from 565 cases to 891. The next year, the Office of Academic Integrity received 886 academic misconduct cases, following the same trend as the year prior. Spain said the rise in cases is largely due to students taking classes at home. 

Spain also said those most affected by the change were students who were used to and preferred having their professor in person, having their tests proctored and not having access to other devices while taking exams. Many of the students he met with regarding academic integrity issues had no intention to cheat, but factors like mental health, access to technology and lack of true proctoring affected students' decisions, Spain said.

Another resource students used more frequently to help them cheat is Chegg, an online platform where students can rent textbooks, receive tutoring and also find answers to questions on homework and exams.

Political science and letters senior Aaron Turner currently serves as the chair for the integrity council, a student-led group that educates students on academic integrity and guides students through the academic misconduct process “to protect the value of the OU degree.”

Turner said while there’s a time and a place for Chegg, an exam environment is not it.

“In many ways, it's a lot like a less reliable version of our math center here on campus. You take a problem to Chegg and someone answers it and tells you how they got that answer,” Turner said. “Where we get into a problem is when people are taking test questions or big homework problems to Chegg and then not doing their own original work. … Therefore, it’s academic misconduct.”

Spain said the issue with Chegg is that students get immediate answers rather than working through the steps and learning the processes, like they would in action tutoring. Additionally, Spain said many students don’t understand that using Chegg for answers is actually plagiarism, the most common form of academic misconduct that OU sees.

“(Plagiarism) has traditionally been our breadwinner in terms of academic misconduct,” Spain said. “I actually haven't run the exact numbers on this, and some of that was because of difficulty quantifying what exactly we should call some of these newer types of academic misconduct. If I am using Chegg, is it collaboration? Or is it plagiarism? There can be some distinction there.”

One of the integrity council’s main goals is to educate students on academic integrity at OU to prevent academic misconduct. The idea is, if students understand what academic misconduct looks like and what the process is following a report, they will be less likely to engage in it.

If a student is reported to the Office of Academic Integrity, the report gets sent to Spain’s office, where he then processes the information and meets with students if the situation calls for more than a warning.In these meetings, Spain explains what the student was reported for, what the academic misconduct process looks like and what their rights are as a student. He will also recommend a sanction and give the student the option for an investigation.

If the student wants to proceed with an investigation, the integrity council and other faculty members will oversee the process, which will lead to a hearing led by Spain. From there, a panel reaches a resolution and assigns a sanction. 

Throughout the process, students are allowed to have an adviser present. Advisers can be parents, friends, outside lawyers or an adviser from the Student Government Association General Counsel. These advisers are paid for by the university, can step in if a student does not have someone to serve in this role and can serve as a neutral adviser for the student.

Second year OU Law student Nick Hazelrigg currently serves in this general counsel role.

“I saw this opportunity, and I was like, ‘This would be a good way to do some public service and make some money on the side and also hone my legal skills a little bit,’” Hazelrigg said. 

Hazelrigg said his role with students who have been accused of academic misconduct is to walk them through the process, answer all questions and go with them to any meetings or hearings. He said the two most beneficial aspects of having an SGA adviser are that they can make the process less scary for students and help strategize the best way to present their case at their hearing.

Ultimately, the goals of the misconduct process are to teach students the value of academic integrity and how it can impact a student’s learning and to protect the value of the OU degree. 

“At the end of the day, when we go to OU, we all want to get a degree from OU that is valuable in the job market,” Hazelrigg said. “We can't do that if OU has a reputation for being a school where people are allowed to get away with cheating and academic misconduct. So it's important, obviously, to prosecute cases of academic misconduct.”

Turner also emphasized the value of the OU degree and how cheating in class can affect a student’s future career.

“The stuff you learn here can have real world applications,” Turner said. “If you slept through Engineering 3030, which is how to make a bridge stand up, and then all of a sudden, you're asked to make a bridge, you would want to know, and you would want someone who hasn't cheated.”

Spain, Turner and Hazelrigg each emphasized the importance and effectiveness of on-campus tutoring resources and reaching out to their professors when they’re struggling in a course. However, they also explained that professors can take certain actions to prevent academic misconduct in their classes.

Turner believes effective communication with students is one of the best ways to gain students’ respect and prevent cheating in a course. 

“I think professors who are open and honest about their standards and willing to talk to people are pretty good at preventing academic misconduct,” Turner said. “But I also understand that not every professor can be in a class with only 20 people, and so sometimes, there is a question of workload management for them. But I do think that candor and willingness to communicate does a lot of legwork to prevent misconduct.”

Hazelrigg believes that mental health plays a major role in a student’s likelihood to cheat. 

“I think that (COVID-19) has affected a lot of people's mental health. So I personally think that's part of it as well. School has changed in COVID, but also we have changed as a result of COVID, and we're not all doing as well as we might have otherwise,” Hazelrigg said.

Hazelrigg said if professors were more aware and understanding of their students’ mental health, more students may seek out other resources instead of cheating.

“I think a good professor would know that you can't grow as a student if you are going through a mental health crisis that's untreated,” Hazelrigg said. “So I think that my advice to professors is to just care about your students' mental health. You get to decide how much you care and what that looks like in your classroom, but you should care about it and it should be a thought that you have.”

As OU stays in its current hybrid model and continues to move toward a fully in-person experience, Spain expects to see academic misconduct numbers start to drift back down to the 500-600 case range. Turner and Hazelrigg expect this as well and are hopeful to see OU life return to what most students and faculty consider “normal.”

“I am hopeful that people will be less stressed. I'm hopeful that people will be generally more excited for class and less inclined to fake their way through and commit academic misconduct. Really, I'm just hopeful,” Turner said. “I think being back in the real world will be good for a lot of people's mental health. It's certainly good for mine.”

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