Review Your Institution’s Ban on Academic Misconduct – And Remind Students
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, some colleges and universities have seen sharp increases in reports of academic misconduct, which more than tripled at Virginia Commonwealth University, more than doubled at the University of Georgia, and grew by over 50% at The Ohio State University.
It’s unclear how much the increases are attributable to more cheating and how much to improved detection ─ but anecdotal reports suggest that the shift to remote learning drove the most prevalent forms of cheating. Several factors likely contribute, including additional pressure on students and uncertainty about what constitutes “cheating” in a remote environment.
Take this opportunity to assess your college or university’s policy and disciplinary procedures related to academic misconduct. Disputes between students and schools over sanctions for misconduct (academic or otherwise) frequently come down to “fairness,” so your policy and procedures should be:
- Readily accessible
- Written in language making clear the applicable standards and potential penalties for violations
- Apply explicitly to in-person and remote learning
Making your policy and disciplinary procedures clear and transparent, following those procedures, educating students about your school’s academic integrity standards, and helping faculty enforce those standards will help eliminate confusion and reduce claims.
Ensure Your Policy Clearly Defines Academic Misconduct
The policy should explain in plain language the types of behavior your school deems academic misconduct. Lack of clarity about prohibited conduct is a potentially dangerous policy weakness that could let students claim they were unaware certain activity was forbidden, an unfairness “red flag.”
In 2021, a Syracuse University student who was suspended for allegedly cheating on several take-home, open-book exams during the pandemic sued, claiming (among other things) that he didn’t know collaboration during exams was prohibited.
At minimum, your policy should identify behaviors that qualify widely as academic misconduct, such as:
- Cheating or helping others cheat on exams, papers, assignments, or research projects
- Plagiarizing written work
- Purchasing exams or papers from others, including on the internet
- Changing grades or otherwise falsifying academic records, including records used in the application process
- Fabricating data or research
- Violating ethical or professional standards for a major or program of study
- Sabotaging or damaging others’ work
Keep the Online Context in Mind if Expanding Your Policy
While sites like Chegg and Course Hero market themselves as online study and tutoring tools, in 2020 institutions including Boston University, Georgia Tech, and Texas Tech University investigated multiple students for misusing Chegg to access answers for exams or assignments during remote learning.
Some schools directly address how such sites can run afoul of their academic misconduct policies. For example:
- Colorado State University outlines when using them does or doesn’t qualify as academic misconduct.
- Iowa State University explains what faculty should do if they believe students are abusing Chegg.
- Purdue University created a list of “everyday examples” of academic dishonesty, including under what circumstances it considers using Chegg “a form of copying and plagiarism.”
Adhere to Your School’s Disciplinary Procedures
Stakes are especially high in academic discipline matters where suspension or expulsion may result, making it likelier a student will bring (or threaten) a court challenge. Evaluate the disciplinary procedures that apply to academic misconduct cases at your school. Do they accurately reflect how these matters are handled?
Failing to substantially comply with procedures your school created may hand a student strong contractual or due process grounds to dispute an adverse outcome and sanctions, likely arguing the process was unfair and at a minimum seeking a “do-over.”
In the Syracuse lawsuit, the student also claimed he was denied a fair disciplinary hearing because of various procedural missteps, including being misled about an adviser’s role and the university’s failure to record the proceeding.
Work to increase the likelihood your procedures will be perceived as fair. Evaluate if they:
- Identify the committees or people who may be involved in bringing, investigating, and adjudicating allegations of academic misconduct and handling any appeals.
- Explain the accused students’ formal rights.
- Define the applicable standard of evidence.
- Explain whether accused students may have advisers, supporters, or attorneys present at hearings ─ and, if so, whether the procedures describe any limitations on the ability of those people to participate.
- List all potential sanctions, such as written warnings, referrals to counseling, repeating assignments or exams, grade adjustments, probation, transcript notations, suspension, or expulsion.
- Detail student appeal rights, including permissible bases for appeal (such as an alleged violation of due process or the discovery of new evidence) and appeal deadlines.
- Describe recordkeeping practices, including where records are maintained, for how long, and who can access them.
- Include FAQs or similar practical guidance to the process for students.
If revisions to the procedures are needed, make them in consultation with counsel. Explain changes to the campus community, giving students advance notice of their effective date.
Especially in the remote learning context, students must understand which behaviors constitute cheating, such as using group chats or unauthorized materials during exams.
After seeing their cases rise, Georgia and Ohio State trained students on what qualifies as academic misconduct.
Some schools, like the University of Washington’s College of Engineering, cover this topic during in-person orientation and other first-year sessions, but institutions increasingly train virtually; Northern Illinois University and Providence College require online tutorials on academic integrity, and Washington University mandates a video featuring campus community members discussing potential consequences of violating its policy. The University of California, San Diego provides multiple training options, including virtual workshops on academic integrity. As with most training, peer education can be very effective; students at Johns Hopkins University created an online module for fellow students.
Don’t neglect faculty, who may need help addressing academic misconduct. Strongly encourage them to make expectations clear up front and give students specific examples of prohibited behavior; consider recommending their syllabi link to the academic misconduct policy.
Your institution can reduce violations by warning students in advance that an instructor may use software to uncover plagiarism or an online tracking system such as Examity, HonorLock, or ProctorU to flag possible cheating on exams. However, ensure people (not technology) make final determinations about whether cheating occurred.
The University of California, Berkeley provides additional help through its Center for Teaching; similarly, the University of Washington offers targeted tips for in-class exams, homework, and writing assignments. The University of North Texas and the University of Missouri System have resources promoting academic integrity in online courses, while Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences gives instructors of in-person and online courses strategies to combat cheating.
Institutions that recommend faculty include statements about academic integrity on their syllabi often provide sample language, like Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, specific guidelines can be helpful for faculty authorized to impose sanctions such as course failure.
About the Author
Hillary Pettegrew, Esq.
Senior Risk Management Counsel
Hillary’s areas of expertise include employment law, Title IX, and study abroad issues. Before joining the Risk Research team, she practiced employment law and handled UE education liability claims.