Academic misconduct at UBC: How and why do students cheat?

From the accusation that over 100 students cheated on a MATH 100 midterm, to more accusations of cheating using Chegg, UBC saw many reports of seemingly widespread cheating this year.

Although UBC has not yet confirmed whether cheating has actually increased this year, we dove into UBC's annual disciplinary reports from the last five years to see how and how often UBC students cheat.

The established categories of academic misconduct, tailored for this article, are: 1) plagiarism (including self-plagiarism), 2) cheating — subcategories include unauthorized collaboration and cheating on exams — 3) falsification of information, documents, academic records etc. and 4) failure to comply with disciplinary measures.

Finally, there is also a category for other incidents that do not fit under any of the above categories, one such case being “inappropriately manipulating three images in his/her doctoral dissertation.”

The categories are largely based on the definitions provided by UBC. Multiple incidents of misconduct from the same individual but applying to different categories have been counted separately. All cheating done on exams is recorded under the category “Cheating — Exam” including any plagiarism committed on an exam.

Cheating, by category

Plagiarism is by far the most popular form of academic misconduct at UBC, and has maintained roughly the same level since 2015.

There are many anomalies in the most recent data for the 2019/20 school year, potentially due to the transition to online classes in March — although UBC declined to provide detailed information of when certain cheating incidents occurred for privacy reasons. The number of exam cheating cases more than doubled. These episodes included a case in which nine people were caught using a group chat application to share answers during an exam.

There was also a significant rise of second-time offenders in 2019/20. Whereas previous years saw at most one to two; last year saw eight. The first three-time offender in five years was also recorded in the 2019/20 report.

2019/20 saw a subtle decline in cheating through collaboration incidents and in falsifying documents.

In an emailed statement to The Ubyssey, Dr. Simon Bates, associate-provost, teaching and learning, said that “at this time it’s difficult to speculate on whether there has been an increase in the number of cases of academic misconduct this year [2020/21] over last [2019/20].”

According to Bates, all allegations for academic misconduct are first reported to the dean's office of the course's faculty. A team consisting of the respective dean and another faculty representative reviews the report.

Each case is resolved in one of three ways: “Dismissing the allegation; giving the student a warning; or referring the matter to the President's Committee for possible disciplinary measures by the President,” Bates wrote.

Why do students cheat?

While the data for this year may not be available yet, Bates reports that there are active efforts at UBC to see how misconduct can be alleviated.

Charles Bingham, a professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University, said he thinks that the psychology behind cheating is different from a professor’s perspective than a student’s. He said that instead of cheating being a moral decision, most students see it as being a practical one.

“Professors think people are choosing between good or bad, right or wrong,” Bingham said. “Oftentimes from a student’s perspective, it’s not that clear-cut.”

Bingham speculated that certain students who face external pressures from work, family responsibilities and academic competition between peers are more likely to cheat than others. He also said that due to the implications of online learning, there is little resistance to committing academic misconduct.

Bingham said that universities are not approaching academic misconduct correctly when they assume that cheating is a moral rather than practical decision taken by students. He says that punishments like failing grades are unproductive and most times, students don’t even realize they exist.

In terms of mitigating academic misconduct, Bingham suggested having assignments that require students to come up with unique answers and having smaller class sizes to avoid the need to repeat exams or administer generic assignments.

“The change has to come right from the professor ... we have to change the terms of the game so that cheating won’t be so tempting,” Bingham said.

Bates said the work done at UBC around academic misconduct will include “[looking] at how course designs might be used to support academic integrity, how better to define and communicate to students what is and is not acceptable in their various course contexts.”

“One of the key outputs from these groups will be central repositories of information and resources for faculty and students around academic integrity,” Bates wrote.