Plagiarism and Cheating in Response to the Pandemic

Plagiarism and Cheating in Response to the Pandemic

Lee Ann Clements, PhD Director of Academic Integrity, Professor of Biology & Marine Science, Jacksonville University

The move to remote learning in the wake of the pandemic has produced some unusual trends in the incidents of academic integrity violations at Jacksonville University.  The data show that people of all ages when presented with stressful, uncertain times make bad decisions based on lack of information. This includes reaching out to others for comfort and reassurance, even when they do not have the answers.  Professors and administrators need to be aware of the ways our course design, our reaction to the rapid shift to distance learning, and our reliance on familiar assessments of student progress may have contributed to the trend.

The number of offenses I have seen in the last two months of the semester exceeded both the number and percentage of incidents predicted for the semester. Based on the five previous years of data we should have seen between 44% and 52% of the annual cases in the spring semester (average of 47%). However, this academic year 61% of cases were in the spring, and 60% of the spring term cases occurred after students began remote learning. A normal semester would have approximately 50% in the last half of the term, starting to increase at mid-terms.  This year the increase was dramatic and correlated with the move to remote learning, 3 weeks after mid-terms.

The types of academic integrity violations also shifted with plagiarism declining (2018-2019 68%; 2019-2020 47%) and cheating on tests increasing (2018-2019 7%; 2019-2020 21%). None of the faculty assigned more papers after the shift, and students write papers regardless of the mode of delivery of content.  The bulk of cases were among traditional student population forced to transition when the pandemic forced closures of classrooms. The population of exclusively online students did not show any shift in number, percentage, or types of incidents.

Students expressed their difficulty understanding instructions in the virtual setting, and difficulty contacting professors. When confused, they reached out to their classmates via group chats (typically snapchat) rather than emailing the professor. Many students applied rules of collaboration that were standard for homework and other types of assignments to testing situations.  Still others blurred the lines for communicating with classmates during tests delivered in online format.

Faculty struggled with moving rapidly to online delivery of content AND online assessments. We made assumptions that students all had the necessary skills and technology to do complex work on the LMS platform.  What can we do in light of the likelihood that distance instruction and testing may become more commonplace in future semesters? The first answer is to take a lesson from our colleagues who have specialized in online course development. At Jacksonville University, the Academic Technology Office is running a series of webinars including best practices for delivery of content, assignment design, feedback, and assessments. This is timely, as many courses may need to be fully or partially online in the fall term.  Secondly, we should think about our course objectives in terms of essentials for individual attainment, and preferably mastered in a collaborative setting. Finally, we need clear instructions with examples, and we must be available in multiple formats to our students.

About the Author
Dr. Lee Ann Clements is the Director of Academic Integrity and a Professor of Biology and Marine Science at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida. She received her BA in Biology at the University of Virginia, and her MS and PhD in Marine Science from the University of South Carolina. She has served in multiple administrative positions at Jacksonville University including Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Associate Provost.