University faces dramatic increase in academic misconduct over the pandemic

Illustration by Seulgi Smith

Davina Efetie, Contributing Writer

VCU experienced a dramatic increase in the number of academic misconducts reported during the 2020-21 academic year, according to an NPR article.

Director of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity Karen Belanger said in an interview that VCU reported 364 cases of academic misconduct in the 2019-20 year and 1,077 in the 2020-21 school year. This increase came as a result of universities having to move lectures online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the article.

“Students lost track of the guardrail,” Belanger said. “When you’re sitting in your home and you’re unsure of something, it seems natural to go to your device, support system or to the internet to look up information. When no proctor or camera is watching you, one can lose track of the guardrails originally set in place.”

Of reported students, 73% were found responsible for violating academic integrity during the 2020-21 academic year, Belanger stated in an email.

According to the office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, the honor system and standards of academic conduct detail the types of academic misconduct prohibited by the school honor policy, such as cheating. 

VCU imposes sanctions for any breach of academic integrity. There are two classifications of such sanctions: “Class A” and “Class B.” An example of a Class-A sanction would be a grade of “0” on an assignment. For a Class-B sanction, the minimum punishment a student would receive would be a grade of “F” in the course and depending on the severity of the case, suspension or expulsion. 

The minimum sanction is honor probation for one year for any defiance of the academic honor policy. If a student is found accountable for another violation while on honor probation they could either face suspension or expulsion, according to the office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity 

Belanger stated that 73% of the students found responsible for academic misconduct were assigned Class-A sanctions during the 2020-21 academic year.

“Throughout the pandemic, we tried to be sensitive to unique environments and situations students were in,” Belanger said. “There was an element of leniency, but that also depends on the nature of what occurred.”

Belanger explains in an email that some examples of the unique situations students faced during the pandemic were isolation, loneliness, as well as financial, health and safety concerns.

“When I say there was lenience during the last academic year, I don’t mean to say that students were not held accountable for violating the policy,” Belanger stated in an email. “Rather I mean to say we weighed these unique circumstances when determining appropriate consequences for violating the policy.” 

Faculty can see students’ activity within the Canvas website through the course access reportaccording to Director of Academic Technologies Colleen Bishop. Examples of these activities include the content a student viewed within the Canvas course and the amount of times the student viewed it. 

Criminal justice professor Blythe A.B. Balestrieri stated in an email she prefers consistent assessments, where students are able to get immediate feedback on how they did, which helps them retain information.

“Weekly unit-specific quizzes help me determine how well students are understanding the material, and what I can improve to help them on that front,” Balestrieri stated.

Balestrieri stated her decision to change her testing format had little to do with COVID-19. She said she feels that students dislike lengthy exams.

Although with all the uncertainties and challenges the pandemic has brought, I do hope it has been helpful for students to be able to take shorter, unit-focused quizzes on their own time in a less anxiety-inducing setting,” Balestrieri stated.

Belanger stated in the NPR article that students were desperate to connect during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused them to use group chat platforms such as GroupMe where homework solutions and exam answers were discussed. 

“Students didn’t look at their home environment the same way as in the classroom,” Belanger said.

Although Belanger said the majority of reports come from professors or teaching assistants, a quarter of the reports came from students during the 2020-21 academic year. 

“There would be instances where students didn’t want to be caught up with something improper in the group chats,” Belanger said. “They wanted to be able to continue in the chat but felt like they couldn’t because cheating or other misconduct was happening.” 

Now that lectures have started to return to an in-person format, junior health, physical education and exercise science major Kelley Muanya said she’s feeling more comfortable as a student.

“It feels good to have some structure back in my life,” Muanya said. “Being back keeps me more focused and on top of academic schedules and other extracurricular activities that I have to do.”

VCU has also provided various on-campus resources, such as the Campus Learning Center which is also back in person. The CLC offers free tools such as tutoring and supplemental instruction for students. Other on-campus resources are available for students, and more can be found on the Division of Student Affairs website.

Contributing Writer Emma Carlson contributed to this report. 

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