Despite the changes to our everyday lives over the past several weeks, I am convinced that as a teacher it is my role and responsibility to keep my students accountable to the same high academic standards and ethical code of conduct as before COVID-19 upended our community.
Like other organizations, universities have adapted to the current reality, but this has raised new challenges. On March 13, the administration at Simon Fraser University, where I teach, announced that it was “transitioning all classes to alternate modes of delivery.” The remainder of my Differential Calculus class would be taught remotely.
My initial message to my students was that, regardless of the fact that we were forced to use technology to communicate, nothing else in the course had changed: the schedule of lectures, assignments, office hours, tutorials and exams remained in place and I expected them to stay fully focused on their studies. My underlying message was that students should keep their educational goals as an anchor during this unexpected situation for us all.
My sense is that we were able to maintain a semblance of business as usual. I used collaboration software integrated into the SFU learning management system to deliver my lectures and tutorials as well as to hold my office hours. The tutorials were mandatory, so I was taking attendance. The same students who regularly attended face-to-face meetings were still regularly showing up at our remote sessions.
In my view, over these past several weeks, my role as a teacher has been to keep at least one segment of my students’ lives as normal as possible. The mandatory physical-distancing rules led me to switch from an in-class midterm exam to a remote exam. I used an online collaborative grading platform to deliver exam problems to the class and collect students’ answers. In addition, over the last three weeks I’ve used the platform to manage weekly quizzes.
But, would they cheat?
An obvious question here is if I can trust my students to submit a remotely completed exam in the same way as they would normally: promptly and without sharing or checking their results with others. And, sadly, there is a good reason to ask that question. For example, the International Center for Academic Integrity provides a disappointing survey result that revealed about 68 percent of 71,000 undergraduate students admitted to “written or test cheating.”
To remind my students that the principles of academic integrity would still apply, a day before the midterm I sent to my class a message that included the following quote by Madison Sarratt (1891-1978), an academic and administrator from Vanderbilt University:
Tomorrow I will give you two examinations, one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry, for there are many good people in this world today who cannot pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good people in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.
I am happy to report that the majority of my class passed both the calculus and honesty exams. The class average on the second midterm was just slightly lower than the average on the first midterm. Out of 72 students who wrote both midterms, half did better on the in-class exam and 10 percent got the same score on both exams. These results indicate that students performed as expected on their second exam, suggesting they did not cheat.
My main worry about the final exam that my students will write in several days is that, by not being able to interact with my students face-to-face, I have no way to know how my students feel and think. Many of my students have exam anxiety under normal circumstances and I am concerned that these extraordinary times will likely increase the pressure they feel even more.
To address many of the unknowns and to help both students and instructors better navigate through this unprecedented situation, SFU and other Canadian universities are offering students a pass/fail option if they choose and to drop a course without penalty.
Still, there are decisions that I have to make. For example, how should I adjust my exam format and the exam questions in the present circumstances? Or, should I be concerned about the possibility of mass cheating?
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve discussed these and other questions with my colleagues across the country. Through our conversations it has become apparent to me that we are occupied by two main concerns: to protect our students’ well-being and to protect the integrity of academia. There has emerged a whole array of approaches to final exams across the country, from cancelling them to changing them to take-home exams to doing them as time-limited online quizzes.
A colleague’s comment on the draft of my final exam that it “seems to be about the right length for normal circumstances,” prompted another dilemma: Should I, despite all present constraints, treat my exam as a “normal” exam? It didn’t take me long to determine what my answer was: yes, for me this is a normal exam.
In my view, the two concerns – protecting students’ well-being and protecting the integrity of academia – are strongly interconnected. I see it as my main responsibility to help my students understand that what is crucial for their current and future well-being is that they adhere to the fundamental values of academic integrity: honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility. At the same time, only jointly can my students and I together keep these values and protect the integrity of the academic process.
My expectations from my current students are no different than what I expected from my students last year or 10 years ago or 30 years ago: show me that you learned the course material to the best of your abilities. At the same time, in my communications with my students, I acknowledge that we are living through quite unusual circumstances and I am telling them that they should focus on their studies. Among other benefits, this will give their lives meaning and structure while their routine and relationships are turned upside down.
And yes, I am expecting them to honour my trust and to write the exam on their own. How many of them will meet my expectations is possibly something that I will never know for sure.
P.S.: This note was published after the final exam was written and the letter grades were submitted. The average score on the final was just slightly lower than the average on the exam for the same course that I gave in December 2019.
Veselin Jungic is a 3M National Teaching Fellow and a professor in the department of mathematics at Simon Fraser University.