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September 2020

Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses: Part 2

By Ana Larson

Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, returns this week to discuss cheating in online courses. 

Those of us who have taught introductory astronomy in a classroom are quite aware of the number of ways students can cheat (a one-word catch-all for "academic dishonesty"). None of us should be surprised that teaching courses either partially or totally online brings in even more ways. The easiest to catch were those that were not in the student's own words. A quick search on the Internet using part or all of the question text would reveal the source. Here I cover one of the Internet sources (there are multiple similar sources online) for student plagiarism that I discovered in my Seattle Central College (SCC) introductory astronomy course, and the actions I took to deter students from cheating.

Under my policies, the first time a student's cheating was discovered, they got a 0 for that question. If they did it again, for even just 1 question without a citation, they got a 0 for the whole assignment. Since I wanted them to learn the material, which required doing the activity correctly on their own, I allowed these students to resubmit the assignment for at least partial credit. Students attending open enrollment colleges and universities can face personal, family, work, insufficient academic preparedness, and other challenges that interfere with assignment deadlines. With a few exceptions, students appreciated this additional opportunity to do well in the course, a two-way dialog was started, and their motivation for learning and doing well in the course seemed to increase.

Being a co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy lecture workbook, I had the opportunity to use some of the activities starting in ~2017. By autumn quarter, 2019, I had put together a curriculum that successfully had these online students using all of the features of 10 activities found in the 2nd edition workbook.

By better preparing students for the activity, I felt that students would be less inclined to cheat. (Small number statistics precludes any conclusion, however.) I include a partial autumn quarter 2019 syllabus at the end of this blog.

Most of the students submitted multiple-page images for each activity through Canvas. Over the ~2 years of using the 2nd ed. activities, there were at least 2-4 students (out of an average of 22 students per quarter) who cheated by plagiarizing Internet sources. For me, the most distressing examples of plagiarizing involved students sending in images of complete pages of the workbook to Chegg.com and asking for "help." There were at least 3 "experts" who answered every question for students who submitted pages. Students would then use those answers verbatim.

Something you might consider: I ended up subscribing to Chegg.com over a few quarters in order to have access to all answers. There was a fee, but access saved me time overall, and I was better informed during discussions with students about how problematic this use of the Internet was. Plus, students recognized their instructor was Internet savvy! I then allowed students to resubmit their assignments.

While conducting some independent research, I found a question posed on Quora.com and particularly liked this answer to "Is Chegg cheating?" by Jiří Lebl:

Mostly, yes (it is cheating and you shouldn’t do it). It is also the worst way to study. At least in mathematics (I teach mathematics), homework assignments are exactly that. Exercises. Using Chegg is like going to the gym to watch other people exercise. Actually worse, you are paying other people to exercise in front of you and then telling other people you have exercised.

What drove my efforts to combat this behavior over all quarters was the possibility that students would encourage others to sign up for my online course because they were able to cheat without getting caught. Maybe saying, "I got a good grade and didn't even have to try!" Fortunately, no student ever implied anything close to this based on teaching evaluations.

There is action being taken to reduce this cheating at some of the very-top-needed levels! Reading these documents gave me hope, and I strongly recommend them to you as well.

In order to deter students from cheating in my own course, I use the syllabus as a contract for learning and include language that emphasizes the risks that come with cheating. Here’s a partial sample of my online course syllabus at SCC for Winter, 2020:

Astronomy 100 0L - Syllabus -Winter 2020 QUARTER

You should consider the syllabus for this course as your contract for learning. I will uphold my end and I expect each of you to adhere to course policies and procedures in addition to those set forth by Seattle Central College.

Academic Integrity
By participating in this course, you have agreed to the following: "Academic integrity is a basic guiding principle for all academic activity at Seattle Central Community College, allowing the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest, and responsible manner. In accordance with the College's Code of Conduct, I will practice integrity in regard to all academic assignments. I will not engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation or deception because such acts of dishonesty violate the fundamental ethical principles of the College community and compromise the worth of work completed by others."

PLUS: It is expressly forbidden under the honor code of Seattle Central College for students to extract information from the Internet without proper referencing, claiming it as their own.  When a student plagiarizes, I give a 0 for that assignment.  I will be reporting the dishonesty to the eLearning office unless the student can give me a good reason why I should not.  I will be examining that student's answers very carefully in all future assignments and it is quite likely that that student will simply fail the course if he or she does not actually answer questions with their own words.

Mon Feb 24, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Discussion - A cross-section of humans versus a cluster or birth of stars due by 11:59pm

Wed Feb 26, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Web Research - Planetary Nebulae and White Dwarfs in the News due by 11:59pm

Thu Feb 27, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Activity - Preparation and Math Review Quiz 7 due by 11:59pm

Fri Feb 28, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Activity - Determining the Ages of Star Clusters due by 11:59pm

With each assignment, students also had to agree to the following: "The answers provided here are mine alone unless otherwise referenced." Combined with the language in the syllabus, this served as a successful deterrent for the most part, but a few students would still take the chance each quarter.

The assignments listed here for Lesson 7 were typical for each lesson. Spacing the assignments over the course of a few days each week helped me identify which students were procrastinating and needed nudges. The preparation and math review quizzes were the pre-activity questions from the 2nd edition of the workbook. The questions were multiple choice, and students could take each quiz twice. Students were given a 3-day grace period for turning in assignments, without penalty.

We can't overemphasize the importance of making it clear to students (and checking that each student understands) what our policies are when the school's honor code is broken. Find out what the policies for cheating are in your department and college. Hopefully you are not left to make policies on your own and are also free to add personal requirements.


Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses

By Ana Larson

This week, we have a guest post by Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, from the University of Washington. 

First, an introduction: twenty-two years ago (1998), as adjunct faculty, I developed an online course for Seattle Central College (SCC), which was Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) at the time. Online courses were just starting to become more available, and the learning management systems (LMS) were quite rudimentary compared to what we have today. I taught the online Astronomy 101 every quarter, every year, up until the 2020 Spring quarter, which is when enrollment at the college dropped.

In addition to required textbook reading, this online course consisted of three assignments each week: posting to a graded discussion board (and responding to other posts), a web research essay, and a lab-like assignment. As the years passed and the LMS became more sophisticated and included many more options for instructors and students, I added tutorials and short quizzes to prepare students for these assignments. 

This past decade has seen greater numbers of students enrolling in online courses, becoming better at self-motivation, and getting assignments in on time. However, there have always been those students, roughly 10-20 percent of the class, who just did not want to do the steps needed to learn the material. 

At first, this took the form of plagiarizing content from the Internet, primarily Wikipedia, but other sources were used as well. These instances were fairly easy to catch because the wording of the answers was obviously not in the student's voice. In these early days, some students copied and pasted material directly, including the links to other websites! Over the past few years, however, cheating has been harder and harder to catch, due mainly to websites like CourseHero and Chegg.

In an effort to help you discourage cheating in your own online/hybrid classrooms, I've listed my three best practices to discourage cheating in my online course below:

1) Give explicit information: The very first assignment that students had to submit was a graded quiz on the content of the course syllabus and the policies and procedures of the college. Extra emphasis was given on the college's honor code and on what, exactly, cheating included. My syllabi included explicit examples of what constituted plagiarism and the consequences when unreferenced direct sources were used. In the last five years or so, students could use up to three outside sources, but those outside sources needed to be properly referenced using correct MLA or APA format. Students were given examples and helpful web links.

2) State consequences: Students were told that they could get a 0 on an entire assignment even if only one answer involved plagiarism, which was the most common way of cheating in the course. I also outlined what was acceptable when students worked together, which I encouraged. In practice, if students were working on an early assignment and only a few of their answers involved cheating, I gave 0s for only those answers, with the caveat that any future instances would result in a 0 for the entire assignment. 

3) Immediately follow up: I interacted directly with students via course email and discussed why they got the grade they did. Most of the time, students were allowed to resubmit the assignment. I can think of only one or two examples where students did not respond to an email and continued plagiarizing. Those students failed the course.

Cheating is always upsetting, in any course, but in Astronomy 101, we have a unique opportunity to redirect students who cheat "by accident" by giving them the benefit of learning these important lessons without suffering from long-term consequences.