Students grapple with academic dishonesty

Distance learning creates different opportunities for cheating

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Seth Klein

Each class at Acalanes High School relies on a basic foundation of trust and academic honesty. However, the transition to distance learning in the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year spells uncertainty for the integral relationship between students and teachers.

The decision for Acalanes to continue distance learning during this school year forces teachers and administrators to try to thwart possible academic dishonesty in an online environment.

Cheating has always posed challenges, even in a pre-COVID schooling environment. However, since the shift to distance learning in March of the 2019-2020 school year, cheating on assignments is even easier for students who hope to lighten their workload or get a better grade.

But before students cheat, they must weigh the risks and rewards of their actions.

“Whether or not students cheat will vary from student to student depending on if they are prepared for what they are cheating on. If students are not prepared they will be more inclined to cheat,” sophomore Zach Robb said.

In response to shifting completely online, Acalanes recently implemented Canvas, a learning management system, which replaced the previously used system, SchoolLoop. Canvas integrates several different websites involved in teaching, helping teachers adjust to distance learning. Popular services such as Zoom and Google Drive are accessible through Canvas, with more to hopefully come in the future.

However, Canvas cannot stop all the issues with online learning on its own, including students’ attempts to cheat on assignments.

“I think Canvas is an excellent tool, but if a student is determined to cheat, he or she will,” English teacher Erin Barth said.

Luckily, Canvas is working to improve and add more sites as external tools to mitigate the struggles teachers and students have while accessing these sites. One site coming to Canvas in the near future is turnitin.com, which many teachers already used in past years, to check plagiarism among students.

“Some of [the functions embedded in Canvas to prevent cheating] include timed assessments, randomized questions, and individualized assessments- for example in a class yesterday we had 30 different versions of a test given assessing the same concepts but using different questions, a secure browser, and more,” Acalanes Union High School District Associate Superintendent Aida Glimme said. 

Unlike the fourth quarter of last school year, students have heavier work loads and a schedule resembling a regular school day. The transition between a relaxing summer to rigorous classwork in the fall  leaves students feeling unprepared for the school year to start, turning to academic dishonesty in response.

“Now that school is actually being taken seriously, by the teachers especially, I think that people are being a lot more dishonest because it’s harder,” sophomore Blaine Wampler said. “It’s easier to cheat, but the assignments are also harder.” 

To reduce cheating this fall, many teachers must reassess how they teach online, including math teacher Harriet Kaizer. Kaizer believes that the solution to stopping academic dishonesty is deeply rooted in the educational atmosphere.

“It’s more about the environment we can create in our classes and the relationships we can create with the students,” Kaizer said.

To help create this environment, many teachers adapted to an open-note strategy, allowing students to use their notes and worksheets on select assessments. Barth believes that this strategy will better prepare honest and hardworking students for final exams.

“They are only hurting themselves if they [cheat]. If they plan on taking the exam at the end of the year and are cheating their way through the course and the timed essays, they won’t pass, and I’ve told them that,” Barth said.

Many students share a similar understanding of the consequences of cheating in the academic classes they take. One of these students is senior Anthony Mirabito, who is taking AP Calculus, among other rigorous courses

“My teacher is doing basically nothing to prevent cheating because he recognizes the fact that he can’t control it,” Mirabito said. “But he also stressed to us that the entire purpose of taking AP Calculus is to be prepared for college-level calculus and to be prepared for the AP test at the end of the year.” 

While cheating on individual assignments can raise students’ grades temporarily, some students find themselves unprepared for large tests or assignments.

Some teachers also believe that school exists primarily to educate children, with grades used to confirm that a student understands a topic. However, in highly competitive schools like Acalanes, cheating allows students to skip the hurdle of understanding while still earning good grades.

“I wish grades would be less important so class could be more about the learning but that is the nature of the community we are in and the world we live in when it comes to getting into colleges,” Kaizer said.

Despite teachers warning their students about the consequences of cheating, many students still find cheating unavoidable because of the cutthroat community that Kaizer described.

The motivation for cheating differs from student to student, but one recurring reason students cheat is to help raise their grades in difficult classes.

“The pressure of school and getting good grades can be super intense,” one anonymous cheater said.

Another anonymous cheater shares a similar motive.

“I only occasionally do it on homework if I have an insane workload that night and I am feeling overwhelmed,”  the anonymous cheater said. 

Possibly a result of the competitive Acalanes community, many forms of academic dishonesty have risen since the beginning of distance learning, especially types of cheating that are easier to get away without teachers present.

While 16.6 percent of California students in 2019 admitted to using a cheat sheet on a test in the month before the survey collected results, 29.6 percent of Acalanes students said they used a cheat sheet during just the start of the 2020-2021 school year. In addition, the percentage of students who used an electronic device to get help during a quiz or test increased from 14.1 percent to 25.9 percent since 2019.

However, some forms of cheating have understandably decreased during distance learning because of the new conditions students are in. For instance, copying off of someone without permission, decreased from 29.1 percent to just 3.7 percent.

With the transition to online learning, the lack of knowledge about technology among certain teachers leads to an inability to fully prevent cheating. Luckily, the administration helped teachers migrate to Canvas and familiarize them with online learning tools such as seminars and lessons to prevent cheating before the start of the school year. Glimme, among other administrators, helped educate teachers across the District on how to prevent cheating during this transition.

“When students turn in assignments, teachers have different applications they are able to utilize to ‘run the answers’ through to compare the answers to what is available on the web or what is submitted by other students,” Glimme said.

Teachers also look for alternative ways to assess students which will in turn prevent cheating. By changing the content of an assessment, teachers may find better ways to encourage academic honesty.

Abri Brar, the district’s Director of Curricular Innovation and Technology, helped the district transition to Canvas before school started. Brar has helped the district hold meetings with teachers to help them adjust to Canvas, including three weekly workshops to provide answers to teacher feedback.

Brar believes that changing the types of questions given to students can improve the way teachers assess them.

“Traditional assessments can be adapted, but increasingly we are finding that we need more authentic assessments that offer students the ability to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways– fewer multiple choice exams, and more skill and performance-based assessments,” Brar said.

By testing students on their work, in addition to their final answer, teachers can ensure that students understand the topic and are not cheating to get the correct answer.

“Evaluation of skill attainment is the primary function of any assessment. These assessments can be done in a variety of ways and we have technology tools that can help,” Brar said.

Another way teachers at some schools attempt to prevent cheating during online tests is by hiring online proctors to administer assessments. However, several teachers at Acalanes disagree with this.

“I don’t feel like we need to go to this level right now. Honestly, I’ve seen almost all students take academic honesty seriously and I feel like the vast majority of students are abiding by the rules and expectations of their teachers,” math teacher Dan Appel said.

Despite the trust Appel has for students, freshman William Weber, among many others, believes that students will cheat on assignments regardless of a teacher’s tech-savviness.

“Everyone will cheat in all classes even if the teachers are familiar with tech. There are just some things teachers cannot prevent and a lot of my teachers openly admit that,” Weber said.

The administration encourages students to take responsibility and be honest in classes in hopes to confront academic dishonesty. While respectfully asking students not to cheat works some of the time, Wampler believes that this method does not work for all students.

“Some students are too far gone with [cheating]. They’re not going to stop, especially because it’s so easy now,” Wampler said.

While many teachers actively work to stop students from cheating on assignments and tests, they are not the ones at fault when students decide to cheat.

“It tends to be completely independent of the teacher. Teachers police situations as best they can but it is not their job to stop you from cheating, that is your job,” Associate Principal Mike Plant said.

The new methods teachers can use in Canvas to prevent cheating will also help put a stop to  the rogue students who decide to cheat. 

“I hope that [academic dishonesty] does not [increase] but I know that it is tempting and that it increased in the spring. I think that we can limit it with some of the mentioned strategies,” Glimme said. 

Students must put in effort while learning even if they are not in a physical classroom. The honesty that students show while learning can help them become more trustworthy in college and future schooling.

“I encourage students to understand that decisions about things like cheating shape how you want to live your life and who you want to be as a human. It’s okay to make mistakes, and the academic pressure students feel can result in morally ambiguous choices, but eventually you have to take ownership of the evolution of your character,” Plant said.