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“It’s totally unfair”: Concerns over academic misconduct amid pandemic create disparity in university assessments

Digital Composition by Masih K.

November 27, 2020

By Naama Weingarten

While some professors steer away from high stakes exams, some resort to heavy online proctoring many students say hurts their academic success.

Much like many university professors, as the COVID-19 pandemic dawned and online school became a new norm, Dr. David Harpp tried using a different approach to assessments than he has in his past 54 years teaching at McGill University. 

Aside from instructing at McGill’s faculty of science, Harpp spent the past few decades publishing research about the detection and prevention of cheating on multiple-choice exams. Along with colleagues, he developed an extensive method to detect cheating in multiple choice exams through a computer program that flags students who appeared to have copied from one another.

In an analysis of his methods published in the Journal of Chemical Education, Harpp wrote that as a result of the techniques he developed, copying at McGill’s midterms and final exams were reduced to nearly zero over a 27-year period.

But then the pandemic came, and so did an increase in academic misconduct as virtual school gave students new opportunities to cheat. Representatives from Ryerson University, University of Toronto Scarborough, and the University of Waterloo told Burnout Digital they have experienced an increase in academic misconduct throughout the pandemic. 

Harpp said the new reality of online school and its restrictions made him let go of the methods he’s used for years and instead take the approach of open-book tests for his class, but not all university professors followed suit. 

It appears that throughout the pandemic, university professors are taking vastly differing approaches to enforce academic misconduct, creating disparities and inconsistencies in how students are assessed across the country. 

As for McGill’s faculty of science, Harpp said a decision was made to allow open-book exams because they didn’t believe there was a way to properly supervise students in an online environment. 

Dr. David Harpp, a professor at McGill University’s faculty of science and an expert on academic misconduct.

“We collectively thought that by permitting an open-book exam you’re acknowledging what is going to take place probably anyways,” said Harpp. His previous method to detect cheating did so by comparing common wrong answers while taking into account where students were sitting. This semester, he has nearly 1000 students in various locations as opposed to one. His pre-pandemic method of assessments also required numerous invigilators. 

“How are you going to surveil this?” Harpp said. Now, his only request for students is that they don’t collaborate with each other while taking the open-book tests. 

While online school presented new, unprecedented challenges for university students, it also gave them creative opportunities to cheat on assessments.

Note: Students were willing to speak anonymously to Burnout Digital about the ways they’ve cheated on their online assessments. Their initials have been altered to protect their identity.

Aside from using their notes or opening different computer tabs, students reported cheating on unproctored tests primarily by chatting with their peers through group chats, Facetime, or apps like Zoom and Discord. Students also reported using so-called “homework help” websites where other students upload test answers. 

Even while being proctored, some students reported being able to cheat by taping physical paper notes against their computer screens so they’re undetected by their webcams.

Paper taped to a laptop screen, a method some student utilize to look at their notes while taking proctored assessments (Naama Weingarten/Burnout Digital)

Despite the potential of webcams to detect academic misconduct, Harpp said he doesn’t consider their use appropriate. 

“My opinion is that if you have to resort to that you’re creeping out the students. You’re probably damaging the student’s capacity to concentrate,” said Harpp. He added that he wouldn’t tolerate them at any of his exams and felt that students would object to their use – an occurrence that happened in other universities. 

Back in the spring, over 9,000 students signed a petition titled “Stop Concordia University from using proctored webcam exams.” The petition even cited Mcgill’s different methods of assessing students, saying that “other universities including McGill have not put [proctored webcam exams] in place and it is ridiculous for Concordia to be considering this while there is the COVID-19 pandemic going on.” 

The petition is marked as resolved and in the fall, the university encouraged professors to give serious consideration to alternative assessment forms while still ensuring students complete their course requirements. The university also suggested other ways professors can minimize cheating without the use of proctoring tools, like creating multiple versions of a test or set a time limit and start time for assessments. 

Meanwhile, at Wilfrid Laurier University, a petition is circulating around social media calling to remove the need for webcams during online examinations at the school. The petition, which garnered over 2,000 signatures in two days, states that “some professors have even gone as far as having students show the inside of their drawers when doing the environmental scan prior to the examination. These strict conditions are only harming the academic success of students.”

M.S., a psychology student at Laurier who chose to remain anonymous for this story, is one of the thousands of students who signed the recent petition. 

“I signed it because I believe that the stresses of being watched can affect your overall grade,” she said.

Three out of four of M.S.’s classes this fall enforce proctoring methods such as a lockdown browser and the use of webcams. Some of her classes even go as far as making her do a full scan of her room with her webcam before starting an assessment. M.S. said that the pressure of being watched has a negative effect on her performance. 

“I tend to stress out during tests and when I feel like I’m being watched, I get more anxiety and I’m not focused on my work,” she said. 

Back in the summer, CBC News reported that an attempt to require Laurier math students to install a webcam for their online exam in May was dropped in response to student outcry. However, it appears that this response to student demands was not implemented consistently across the university, as some Laurier students like M.S. still report having to take tests with webcams during the fall. 

In a statement released by the university on October 30, the school said that they “have heard loud and clear from students who are frustrated by the detailed requirements they’re being asked to follow to write tests/exams remotely in some courses.” The statement said that the school is now working with faculties and instructors to develop solutions to concerns about assessment requirements that were raised and that they want to hear more feedback from students. “If you feel that any of the elements required by your instructor related to exam proctoring or oversight seem unreasonable or are causing you undue stress,” says the statement, you can either raise the issue with your program chair or email

In most universities like York, Ryerson, U of T, and Waterloo, there is no common policy on remote supervision and the way academic integrity is enforced is ultimately up to individual professors. 

Harpp said he’s not sure what other professors outside of the faculty of science at McGill are implementing to supervise students. He said that because his class, World of Chemistry-Drugs, is an elective, he thinks his open-book method might be different from some of the other courses in the university. However, in regards to exams, McGill’s website says that all exams will either be take-home, open-book, or oral. 

Amanda McKenzie, a quality assurance director at the University of Waterloo, said that because of the principle of academic freedom, all the universities can do is encourage professors not to proctor students and promote alternatives like open-book tests and summative assessments. McKenzie said that the use of proctoring has been minimal throughout the university.

Amanda McKenzie, a quality assurance director at the University of Waterloo

More schools like York and the University of Toronto Scarborough said they encourage staff to use alternative methods of supervising students aside from proctoring devices. 

However, when the decision of how to implement academic integrity is ultimately left up to professors, it can create disparities in the way students are assessed within the same university or even the same faculty. 

Karina Levin is a Business Technology Management student at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management. She reports having regular tests where she has to film herself using her webcam through Zoom. She said that being watched increases her stress levels before and during the test.

“It makes me nervous. My room is really messy and everyone can see you and have the ability to pin your screen so I have to make sure everything around me looks good.” Levin said she often takes up to an hour before a test to clean her room and put some effort into her look because she’s scared of being judged by her professor or classmates. 

Meanwhile, F.R., another student at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management majoring in law and business, said that she has never been proctored once since the beginning of the pandemic. She uses the opportunity to cheat by face timing her classmates while taking assessments, which helped her do better in some of her classes.

When asked about the lack of consistency in assessments across the school, Ryerson did not provide a comment in time for publication

N.T., a Ryerson Faculty of Fashion and Design student, is also yet to have a proctored assessment and regularly completes her tests using her notes while on a call with her peers. She said she feels lucky that all of her instructors went for the unproctored approach. 

“I just find it so invasive, and even kind of ableist sometimes,” she said. “Especially for students who have attention deficit disorder or anxiety and can’t focus for a long period of time.” 

Proctoring devices can flag things like whether students get up from their seats, the sounds they make, and even their eye movement, which can create challenges for students with learning disabilities or ADHD.

M.S., the Laurier psychology student with primarily proctored tests, has ADHD and said she normally likes to read her questions out loud in order to concentrate but can’t because of proctoring. She was also asked to avoid looking away from her screen, all of which makes her more nervous. 

“I feel like it puts me on the spot. I’m worried that I’m doing something to mess up and then I’ll be accused of academic misconduct,” she said.

H.B., a Ryerson social work student, said that her two past proctored tests resulted in high stress that actually ended up distracting her from the assessments themselves. In one of them, she tried cheating by taping her written notes to her screen but ended up doing poorly anyways. 

“It was probably the worst I’ve ever done on an exam,” she said. “Even though I had my notes I didn’t look at them that much because I was so anxious.”

One of H.B.’s classes uses open book tests while another one of her classes cancelled all exams. She said she finds this inconsistency odd and has been less stressed in her other classes that don’t use proctoring. However, given the disparities between each professor’s method of assessment, H.B. Is afraid that students who are more heavily proctored might be put at a disadvantage once they apply to grad school and have to compete with students who may have only had open book assessments. 

“If someone else has an opportunity like that in a course they’re going to excel and have the marks you might not be able to achieve,” she said. “It’s totally unfair.” 

Ever since Harpp started implementing open-note assessments in his World of Chemistry-Drugs course at McGill, his class average increased from roughly 77 percent, in the B-plus range, to 86 percent, in the low A range. He said that so far, he’s received anecdotal feedback from students saying that they actually learn better from their open-book assessments. Harpp also gives students double-time to complete their tests once they start them, which accommodates students with disabilities. 

“It’s extraordinarily efficient,” Harpp said. 

Given the positive results his approach is getting so far, Harpp started questioning the use of methods to detect academic misconduct he previously published and utilized for decades. 

“Giving an exam in the traditional time honored way of having invigilation is a complicated and flawed system,” he said.

“It’s starting to occur to me after many years of giving exams and having had over 60-thousand students in my class over the years and giving over about 200-thousand exams, that I may have been doing it in an inefficient fashion with respect to how much students are learning.” 

Dr. David Harpp

Although Harpp can’t definitively say that students will benefit from open-book tests due a lack of formal evidence, he does believe that if a professor wants to evaluate what students can look up in a relatively limited period of time, they give them a chance to learn while they are actually taking an exam. 

H.B., the Ryerson social work student, said that she feels more motivated to study and make good notes for open book tests because she knows she’ll have access to her resources. As opposed to the tests she would normally cram for and tend to forget the material the shortly after, she said she remembers more from her open book tests as the lack of stress helps her concentrate. 

“When [the test is] open book and I know I have access to my questions, I’m actually focusing instead of having a complete meltdown,” she said. 

H.B. added that proctored assessments that primarily test a student’s ability to memorize aren’t always reflective of their future industry where they will likely have access to their resources, a message that Harpp also expressed. 

“We don’t limit ourselves when we write a paper in science or in chemistry,” said Harpp. “We don’t limit ourselves to what we have in memory. We look up at everything. Everybody looks up everything.” 

Despite calls from students that the disparity in enforcing academic misconduct is unfair, educators don’t know how consistency can be achieved. Harpp said he doesn’t know how a consistent method of enforcing academic integrity could be implemented across different schools. 

“It’s an inconsistency and you’re never, ever, going to find consistent behaviour on the part of universities,” he said. “There’s a disparity and I don’t know how it’s going to be resolved.” 

“Fundamentally, I don’t think it’s fair,” said McKenzie. “But because it’s in the hands of individual instructors it’s very hard to ensure consistency.” Mckenzie also attributes the variety of methods used to assess students to the different disciplines each program may have, where different forms of assessment may work better with their content. 

Despite the absence of a formal solution, the lack of consistency in university assessments could potentially last beyond the pandemic. In the long term, McKenzie said she thinks Waterloo’s new approach to assessments will remain modified. 

“I think people were skeptical about changing and also perhaps there was never an incentive to change,” she said. But now that Waterloo is using alternative methods of assessment, she believes the university will maintain and probably leverage from them.

Like McKenzie, Harpp also said that he intends to maintain open book assessments at his class at McGill once the pandemic is over. 

“It’s altogether a more efficient, simplified way and I don’t see that the students are going to be learning any more by memorizing frantically and under the old method,” he said. “Now they are able to look at their notes with some level of calmness.”

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