Academic Integrity During the Pandemic and Beyond

Virtual Classes? Online Exams? Testing websites? 

By Leslie Mertz for the American Chemical Society

Woman sitting on floor writing in notebook with laptop
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexel

While concerns of student cheating are nothing new, the pandemic-forced shift to a virtual environment and online exams, has made it a top issue for academics. Faculty members are altering their exams, chairs are fielding complaints from instructors and students, and academics across the board are trying to figure out how best to encourage and ensure academic integrity.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) Approval Program put the topic front and center at its spring chair convening, both in answer to the widespread concern and to accentuate its guideline emphasizing ethics as an intentional part of instruction in undergraduate chemistry programs (section 7.6 of the ACS Guidlines and Evaluation Procedures for Bachelor's Degree Programs).  Academic leaders from across the country not only aired the issues they are facing, but also shared and discussed the steps they and their faculty members are taking to promote a commitment to the fundamental values of academic integrity — honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility and courage — for both online and in-person courses.

Solutions for a growing problem

A major issue addressed during the main convening discussion, as well as in the convening’s four breakout sessions, was Chegg and similar online services that provide students with access to exam questions and answers that have been previously uploaded by other students. Although students have historically shared old exams, Chegg and similar websites provide instantaneous answers to any paying customer, making them simple portals that students can use, especially in an online setting, noted Michelle Brooks, Ph.D., senior manager of the ACS Approval Program. “I don’t think the idea is new to the pandemic; it’s just the accessibility of it.” As long as a student can afford the service, she added, “everybody can get the answers to exams.”

To combat the temptation to use test-bank websites, or to look up an answer online participants at the convening discussed a variety of approaches. Some include:

  • modifying test questions for new exams, so that the questions are not  repeated verbatim from one class to the next
  • drawing molecular structures instead of providing the molecular names as a way to prevent students from easily typing in questions into search engines
  • writing original and open-ended questions, and combining it with a time limit for responses
  • developing a large pool of test questions and randomly drawing from that pool so each student’s test is unique
  • switching to oral tests when possible

While all of those suggestions can help alleviate cheating, they aren’t easy to implement. “I think the biggest takeaway from my breakout session, and it came up multiple times, is that most people know best practices to reduce integrity violations in the classroom, or on exams and assignments, but the problem is that every one of those things takes significant amounts of time to implement, which means either reduced curricular time in the classroom or additional time outside of the classroom on the part of the faculty,” said Eric Davis, Ph.D., associate chemistry professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, who helped lead the session on academic integrity in the classroom. “The question becomes: Where do we strike the balance between discouraging cheating, and leaving enough time for ourselves both personally, and within the course to get through the material?”

An option that several chairs mentioned was to move away from the traditional midterm-and-final testing regime and to a multiple-quiz format. One proponent was Kristy Mardis, professor and acting chair of the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Engineering Studies at Chicago State University, who co-led the breakout session on assessment methods to discourage academic dishonesty. “For lower-level chemistry courses, for instance, I will put together a series of three-question, 15-minute quizzes, and the students have to ace all of them,” she described, noting that each student can take a quiz multiple times until he or she passes. “It’s a way to make sure the students know the material vs. giving them partial credit, but without them gaining that basic skill. And since the quiz has such a short time limit, students can’t really ‘chegg’ it.”

Mardis said the multiple-quiz format doesn’t require any more of her time than the midterm-final approach, but she acknowledged that it is not appropriate for every course. “It’s different in a general chemistry vs. a more advanced class where the problems are much longer and more complicated. I can’t imagine writing 15 quizzes for an advanced chemistry class!”

Academic leaders, particularly those from some of the larger institutions, mentioned that their faculty members are retaining midterms and finals, but trying to combat cheating with linear exams combined with a time limit. Both are designed to reduce the opportunity for students to live-chat and share answers during the test. Such exams may decrease dishonesty, but they have their downsides, contended Vahe Bandarian, associate chair of the University of Utah Department of Chemistry, who co-led the session on remote education and academic integrity. “One thing I have always told my students to do – and something most of them have been instructed to do throughout their schooling – is to go through the exam quickly, answer the questions that are easiest for them, and then go back to the more challenging questions later. With a linear exam, however, we are not only changing the rules, but also putting some students at a real disadvantage, especially those who have a weakness in certain areas, such as math,” he remarked. “I think we should consider the equity issue that comes to play with linear exams, notably in big classes at larger universities likely to have students with a wide range of skill levels.”

Turning the Tables

Participants at the convening also debated how they might be able to use connectivity and internet accessibility to educational advantage. “We had an interesting discussion in our breakout session on academic integrity in the classroom about whether student use of test banks is an act of academic dishonesty, and many of us came to the conclusion that it’s not, because once a test paper leaves your hands and goes back to the student, the student can do whatever they want with it,” remarked Susan Oxley, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of the St. Mary’s University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in San Antonio, Texas. “The group also felt that it really is up to the faculty member to concede that these resources are out there and consider how to make this a more equitable situation so all students have the same access to these resources, and think about entering a fruitful conversation with students about how to use old exams as a study aid and learning tool, rather than just memorizing specific questions.”

Proactive measures are a good idea, noted Rachael Kipp, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Division of Physical Sciences at Suffolk University in Boston. “The people in our breakout session on academic integrity and equity wanted to be rigorous about preventing cheating, but didn’t want to use things like lockdown browsers because they set the wrong tone in the classroom, one that suggests we’re assuming the students are cheating. Instead, we talked more about positive strategies.” Possible ways to help disincentivize cheating included using open-book and open-note tests; organizing study groups; and talking to students one-on-one, she said. “In other words, take precautions but instead of spending all your time looking for the cheaters, use that time to support the people who are there to learn.”

Some of the participants mentioned building exams with online access in mind and perhaps creating tests that were fully open-access, so that students are permitted to consult such a wide range of online resources that cheating would have marginal if any benefits.

Laying the foundation

Beyond encouraging students to be honest while doing their assignments and taking exams, the educational leaders at the convening noted the importance of laying the groundwork for academic integrity.

Most noted that they typically include the topic in two or three departmental meetings each semester or term, and have upped that number during the pandemic, but the way they engage students varied from institution to institution, and sometimes faculty member to faculty member. A number reported that they relied on a section in a student handbook to inform students about plagiarism and cheating, with a few requiring freshmen to sign a pledge to remain honest during their educational careers. Several described individual faculty members who included a sentence or two on the syllabus for each course, added a statement to exams, distributed handouts in class, or ran class activities around honest and dishonest behaviors.

Besides explaining academic integrity to students, the groundwork for all institutions – both small and large -- should also include developing a centralized response to cheating, Bandarian said. “I would be willing to bet that most administrators haven’t sat down and looked at their academic code-of-conduct statements in the context of an electronic environment, and therefore do not have a specific reporting structure within the university to handle it. That means the complaints don’t go very far.”

When an administrative policy is in place, however, faculty and students alike recognize that the university takes academic integrity seriously and will quickly, efficiently and equitably deal with violations, Bandarian asserted. “If students know the university is going to follow up, they might think twice before they do it. At the same time, it is a boost for the morale of the faculty who otherwise might think the university doesn’t really care (because they don’t see any resolution on complaints), and for those honest students who otherwise would feel like they are falling behind because they aren’t cheating but everyone else is.”

No easy answers

While the convening didn’t solve the ever-evolving problem of cheating, it did provide considerable food for thought about both reactive and proactive approaches to deal with it. “The whole discussion was encouraging,” remarked Mahalia Randle, ACS Scholarship Program Manager, who co-led the session on academic integrity and equity. “It highlighted that there is a lot of space for the conversation to continue, because cheating isn’t a new concept. And given everything that is going on now, this seems to be a great time for department chairs and faculty to really think about academic integrity, especially from the equity lens.” 

We essentially had to redesign our entire research curriculum over the summer, which was a big stressor,” said chemistry and physics professor and chair Rich Gurney, Ph.D.