After the completion of spring 2020 final exams, 200 out of 800 students in Statistics (ST) 311 were accused of academic integrity violations on the class’s final exam, said Tyler Johnson, ST 311 course coordinator, in a statement to Technician.
Due to remote learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ST 311 final exam, administered by Johnson, was given through Moodle, an online learning platform. Johnson provided several accommodations on the exam, such as a 48-hour completion window and access to notes and course materials.
“I relied upon trust in students that they would not exploit these accommodations; in hindsight, it's now very clear to me that that trust is not a security measure,” Johnson said in his statement. “That does not mitigate a student's responsibility to behave in a manner consistent with the academic integrity statements of their exams and the university Code of Student Conduct.”
Johnson said he opposed students’ use of Chegg, an online tutoring website, on the final exam.
Sarah Sisk, a third-year studying animal science and a student in the class, claimed she and other students were unaware that Chegg was not allowed during the ST 311 exam and used Chegg to help answer exam questions.
On May 20, a few weeks after the exam, Johnson sent emails to students who used Chegg, notifying them they were accused of academic misconduct and outlining the sanctions he recommended to the Office of Student Conduct. The sanctions Johnson recommended included a score of zero for all exams on which Chegg was used, completion of an academic integrity module through Moodle and academic integrity probation.
Academic integrity probation is a “pre-suspension status,” according to the NC State Office of Student Conduct website. Students who are found to have committed further academic misconduct while under academic integrity probation face suspension or possible expulsion, depending on the specific offense.
The exact charges faced by students accused of using Chegg were outlined in the email from John as follows:
Cheating (c): Using materials, equipment, or assistance in connection with an assignment, examination, or other academic exercise which have not been authorized by the faculty member, including but not limited to, notes, calculator, or other technology.
Cheating (i): Failing to comply with a specific condition of academic integrity which has been clearly announced in a particular course.
After being notified of cheating accusations through Johnson’s email, Sisk said she realized many other ST 311 students were being charged with the same allegations. In response, Sisk created a Change.org petition to present and garner support for her viewpoint. As of July 18, the petition has 715 signatures out of a goal of 1,000.
“It’s not just students trying to get out of a punishment,” Sisk said. “That’s not our point. We wanted to start the petition to try and say, ‘Hey, it’s not just us who think this way.’ [...] There’s 700-plus people who think this was not right and things shouldn’t have gone about the way they did.”
The petition centers around the claim that the students were unaware they were not allowed to use Chegg, due to emails Johnson sent prior to the exam. According to Sisk, Johnson stated in his emails that “any resource is available.”
Sisk said students used Chegg on both the course’s second exam and the final exam, but were not charged with cheating until after the final exam. Both exams were administered after the class transitioned to online learning.
“I felt kind of like we were trapped because, apparently, Tyler Johnson knew about that there were students using Chegg during Exam 2, but he didn’t do anything to let us know that that wasn’t allowed and that it needed to stop,” Sisk said.
Johnson said in his statement that he became aware of students using Chegg on the exam prior to the final, but was unsuccessful in his attempts to remove final exam questions from the service while the exam was being administered. He said that Chegg was “unresponsive” to his requests after he cited violations to the site's honor code.
A course announcement, which Sisk and the petition cites as the reason for the confusion about Chegg amongst ST 311 students, was sent out by Johnson on March 18. It states that exam restrictions may change, but exams “will be open to whatever resources you need.”
Another course announcement, dated April 24, outlines rules for the final exam more specifically.
“Posting questions from the exam elsewhere (such as homework help websites) will result in a 0 on the final exam and an academic integrity violation with the university,” the announcement reads. “Coordinating with other students, or individuals outside the course, on the exam in any way will result in a 0 on the final exam and an academic integrity violation with the university.”
Johnson requested to remove the exam questions from Chegg through the NC State Office of Student Conduct after the final exam. Following the request, Johnson received a report from Chegg containing account information for users who posted or accessed the questions. Johnson proceeded to file reports of academic integrity violations against the reported users with the Office of Student Conduct.
“Personally, regardless of the exact text of my announcements and academic integrity statements, I struggle to see how a student could view a tutor's solution to an exact copy of an exam question as a legitimate resource for use during an exam,” Johnson said in his statement.
Students who are accused of academic misconduct are given a form through the Office of Student Conduct called the Report of an Academic Integrity Violation (RAIV). RAIV offers students the option to either admit to academic misconduct and face immediate sanctions, or deny the allegations and pursue a hearing through the Office of Student Conduct.
Rebekah Wright, a third-year zoology major, chose to undergo a hearing through Student Conduct, and was found responsible for the academic integrity violation on her ST 311 final exam.
“It kind of seems like the hearing officer took Tyler’s side more seriously than mine,” Wright said. “He didn’t really say anything rude or anything, but it seemed like he was agreeing with Tyler more than me and not really listening to what I was saying.”
Several other students from ST 311 have already undergone their academic misconduct hearings, according to Johnson.
Sisk expressed concern over the impartiality of the Office of Student Conduct in hearings.
“They keep telling us that it’s not a court of law and it’s not innocent until proven guilty,” she said. “It’s basically guilty until you’re proven innocent and that even if there’s a shadow of a doubt that you are guilty of cheating, then they’re going to sentence you to the sanctions provided.”
Lasting for the duration of a student’s academic career at NC State, academic integrity probation, one of Johnson’s suggested sanctions and a common sanction in cases of academic misconduct, has potential ramifications for many areas of a student’s life, including on-campus employment, financial aid and scholarships.
Additionally, academic integrity probation may affect a student’s acceptance into graduate school, despite the probationary period expiring after a student finishes their undergraduate degree.
“Many of the students involved in this have future endeavors of attending grad school, med school, vet school and other things to further their education,” the petition reads. “It would be a shame to have them held back due to a miscommunication that happened during a pandemic after a drastic change in class structure.”
The petition mentions the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students in several other places.
“Tyler Johnson has shown no regard to the personal stresses we are enduring and have endured throughout the semester,” the petition reads. “We as students do not feel valued and have felt displaced as a result.”
Johnson addressed the issue of the pandemic in his statement to Technician.
“It's become my belief that I am most susceptible to a compromise in my personal values when I am under a significant amount of stress, and a moment of temptation to compromise those values is an opportunity to confirm their importance to myself,” Johnson said. “I hope the process of receiving an academic integrity violation is instructive and restorative for all students involved, and allows them to come to similar conclusions.”
In his statement, Johnson also mentioned there are many ST 311 students who were not accused of academic misconduct.
“I would also like to point out that, for the majority of ST 311 students, there is no evidence that these solutions were inappropriately accessed,” Johnson said. “Any student accessing the solutions may have derived a significant advantage over other students, which further emphasizes the importance of fair sanctions for those found responsible.”