Over 600 students in a second-year accounting class at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business have been told they will have to retake a midterm exam after some students were accused of cheating online when their professor said they could use Google during the test.
Many of the students have complained about being forced to retake the exam on social media, saying those who completed the exam without cheating are being punished during an already stressful term of online learning.
"I put in hard work. I've spent the money. I took extra time, hours actually, preparing for the midterm and now everything is gone," said a second-year student who CBC has agreed not to name out of concern for academic repercussions.
"I think that's not fair at all."
Allegations of academic misconduct
Students had two hours to complete the Feb. 10 midterm, which is worth 30 per cent of their final grade, using an online platform called Wiley.
In an email a couple of weeks before the midterm, the professor described the exam as "open book" and said students were free to "use [their] textbook, notes, Google, anything."
A week after the midterm, the professor for the class, Kyla Gunderson, emailed students informing them that a number of incidents of academic misconduct had been found and that a formal investigation was underway.
"Anyone caught using external websites to solicit answers or those working together on the midterm will be disciplined accordingly," she wrote.
One of the external websites she alleges some students used is Chegg.com, a paid study website that provides step-by-step textbook solutions.
Some students feel the instructions about online resources were unclear.
Two students CBC spoke to say they didn't use websites like Chegg, but they understand why their classmates might have.
"Especially looking at the words 'Google' and 'anything' — that really means anything that I am able to find because Google [...] It's not a thing on its own, but it leads to many different external sites because it's a search engine," explained the first student.
"When you're in commerce, you're thinking like a lawyer," said another student CBC has agreed not to identify. "You want to take as much leeway as you can get and I'm guessing that's what a lot of people did."
In an email Gunderson sent on Feb. 17, after the alleged cheating had been discovered, she clarified that "using Google and the internet to look up terms, definitions and formulas is very different than copying and pasting a question from an exam into a search engine with the purpose of finding the exact answer."
"As adults, I hope all of you can exercise reasonable judgment to realize that and appreciate that would undermine the whole purpose of a midterm — and that it is clearly academic misconduct per the syllabus and UBC's code."
'Instructors are also struggling'
In an emailed statement, the associate dean of students at the Sauder school said other options were considered but the rewrite was determined to be the fairest option for all students.
"While we are empathetic that this does carry a burden for students during an already busy time of year, this re-examination will add clarity for all students on how to properly complete the new exam and will ensure a level playing field to assess students," said associate dean Kin Lo.
He also reminded UBC Sauder professors "to provide clear instructions and rules prior to commencing any examination process."
Sarah Elaine Eaton, a University of Calgary associate professor who specializes in academic integrity, says with online class sizes expanding, educators are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"When you have 600 students, you either need ways to grade them quickly or you need teaching assistants who can help you grade more creative ways of assessing," she said.
"As much as students are struggling during COVID, instructors are also struggling in order to create assignments and tests that are ethical."
In an email to the class, Gunderson apologized for the unclear instructions. She also pledged that if a student's overall final grade is better without the midterm rewrite, she will exclude the rewrite from the final grade.
Reports of threats
The cheating allegations and subsequent announcement of a rewrite have led to backlash from some students.
Gunderson stated in emails to the class that she had received "unkind" and "disappointing" messages to her anonymous inbox. The second student CBC interviewed says in a lecture shortly after the midterm, Gunderson said she had received death threats.
The student feels Gunderson's response to the situation has been fair and the reports of threats from students are "disheartening."
"She's giving us the opportunity to have another chance at it," he said. "She made a mistake in the beginning and it's unfortunate."
Lo said in an email to the class that he had also received "disturbing" reports of students being threatened with violence by other students.
"All instances of such threats will be investigated to the fullest extent of UBC's policy on non-academic misconduct and the law," he wrote.
The date of the makeup midterm has not been scheduled, but Lo says the Sauder school will consider the overall exam schedule in deciding when to hold it.