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General Chemistry faculty confront Honor Code violations in the online learning environment

Illustrated by Yifei Zhang

By Hasham Dhakwala     10/13/20 9:58pm

With classes being taught online or in a dual-delivery mode, professors have expressed concerns about increased cheating. General Chemistry Professor Kristi Kincaid said there have already been some issues with students cheating in General Chemistry, an introductory course with 343 students currently enrolled. 

According to Kincaid, it has been more challenging this year to prevent such occurrences.

“There is a physical challenge, right, because the tests are being delivered online,” Kincaid said. “We don’t have students in a room where we can restrict what they have access to. With people alone in a room, they have access to the internet if they want to, and there is nothing we can do to prevent that, basically.”

Kincaid said the Academic Restart Committee suggested professors offer open-note tests to limit the possibility of students violating the Rice Honor Code.

The Honor Council, which governs violations of the Rice Honor Code, has not changed any of their processes or procedures besides conducting meetings through Zoom, according to Sam Holloway, the chair of the Honor Council. 

“Accused students have all the same rights that they always have,” Holloway, a Brown College senior, said. “Our governing documents and overall procedures have not changed, our standards of review have not changed and the fairness of our proceedings has not changed.” 

Holloway said with limited data, it cannot be specifically said if cheating has increased this semester. 

“In the Fall 2020 semester to date, we have received one report of a possible Honor Code violation,” Holloway said. “It is important to note, though, that accusations do not usually come in at an even rate throughout the semester; we tend to receive many more accusations toward the end of the semester, so this low number of cases is not necessarily unusual at this point in the semester.”

According to Kincaid, it is possible that cheating might be more prevalent with the incoming class as they have not had the opportunity to fully understand and buy into the Rice community and honor code. Kincaid said it is difficult for students to get accustomed to classes being taught completely online and that could lead to underestimating the consequences of certain actions.

“Coming in this year, with everything remote, I am not sure if [new students] are getting the same feeling of being part of the Rice culture and the Rice Honor Code,” Kincaid said. “It seems a little more fake when it is online where this isn’t your real college experience.”

According to Kincaid, professors have attempted to clarify what the honor code is in the hopes that students will understand and take it more seriously. Kincaid said she had to speak to the students in General Chemistry upon hearing about students using GroupMe to exchange answers for homework assignments.

This GroupMe chat has a majority of the students enrolled and the teaching assistants for the class. 

”Clearly, the attitudes expressed by the students in sharing their answers showed the lack of understanding of the Honor Code,” Kincaid said. “So it is not one small specific incident or a few small fires, but it is this big smoke that we can see everywhere. There were instances where some students would say ‘you are not allowed to do that according to the Honor Code’ and others would respond by saying ‘as long as no one snitches, we will be fine.’”

Sachi Kishinchandani, a student in the class, said she would occasionally skim through the chat as an inactive member. 

“I knew what was happening in the chat wasn’t really right, but as a first-semester freshman student, I wasn’t sure about the extent of the Honor Code. I knew it applied to tests and quizzes, but I thought we were allowed to talk to each other about homework,” Kishinchandani, a freshman from Baker College, said. 

Kincaid said she did not report any cases to the Honor Council as of yet. However, she has made changes to the way exams work by decreasing the window of time to take the assessment in hopes of preventing some students from finishing early and sharing answers to questions. 

After Kincaid spoke to her students about the honor code, the effects were immediate, according to Kishinchandani. 

“Dr. Kincaid and Dr. [Lesa] Tran really let us know what they expected from us, but I think everyone got so scared about violating the Honor Code and a ton of people left the group chat that day,” Kishinchandani said.

Other courses, such as Immunology, have made it so that students must have their cameras turned on in Zoom while taking the exam according to Oliver Zhou, a senior at Martel College. 

Zhou said he does not think there is much of a difference in his upper-level courses in terms of increased cheating. He said he believes most upperclassmen at Rice follow the Honor Code and has not heard of reports of cheating. However, he said that some professors have adjusted the way exams work, such as his immunology class.

“Definitely, I have had more open-note tests … I think all of my classes have open-note tests this semester,” Zhou said. “In my immuno class, we do keep our cameras on while we are taking the test so that they can see that no one is with us while we are taking it because they are open-note, but you can’t have people helping you.” 

According to Holloway, there had been increased reports of cheating to the council when classes moved online abruptly midway during the Spring 2020 semester, where the Honor Council received the most cases that it has ever received in one single semester since its inception. 

With online classes, cheating can be both collaborative and individualistic in nature. Both types were reported to the Honor Council during the Spring 2020 semester, according to Holloway.

“I would personally estimate that the proportion of each type has been roughly the same since our transition to remote learning, with perhaps slightly more ‘individualistic offenses’ due to collaboration being more challenging between students who are not physically together,” Holloway said.

[10/19/20 9:24 p.m.] This article has been corrected to reflect that students traded answers for homework assignments, not for an exam. 

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