85 Ohio State veterinary students disciplined for cheating

June 15, 2016
Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN

Freelance writer Rachael Zimlich worked as a reporter for dvm360 magazine before returning to school to become a registered nurse. She now works at The Cleveland Clinic.

Incident opens discussion on academic misconduct in the digital age and the increasingly blurred lines between cheating and collaboration.

Photo courtesy of Ohio State University.Eighty-five students are under fire at the Ohio State University (OSU) College of Veterinary Medicine for engaging in "unauthorized collaboration on take-home assignments," according to a statement from OSU. This large-scale violation of the school's honor code may have rippling effects for the rest of the 650-student veterinary college.

The investigation was launched after the college found inconsistencies in student test-taking practices on take-home examinations completed online through a software application offered by the college.

Discipline

Citing federal privacy laws, the veterinary college has not released any individual or specific information but says the students were sanctioned by OSU's Student Judiciary Committee and that those sanctions were upheld by the college's Executive Committee. According to the statement, the sanctions were based on the nature and severity of the violation in accordance with the university honor code and standards. Possible sanctions for unauthorized collaboration can include warnings, grade penalties or dismissal from the program. Some students are reportedly appealing the sanctions at the university level.

Ongoing review

"Any form of academic misconduct is unacceptable," the university says in its statement. "The college is reassessing and implementing best practices in instructional and evaluative processes, identified during the investigation, to ensure both an optimal learning environment and academic integrity."

In the wake of the cheating accusations, college officials have announced they will review similar exams administered through the same software program going back to its installation two years ago and take any further action necessary. OSU spokesperson Chris Davey told dvm360 that the college would have no comment beyond its prepared statement and declined to answer questions about additional investigations or whether similar infractions have occurred in other degree programs at the university.

Student reaction

Students not involved in the cheating scandal are concerned about how news of it could affect how they're viewed by future employers when they graduate. One OSU student commented on a social media post about the situation, saying she now has "serious concern" for her future. "I hope this incident will not reflect poorly onto the college as a whole, though it is probably too late," she wrote in her post.

A student who spoke with dvm360 on condition of anonymity echoes these concerns. The student, who plans to graduate in 2019, says she hopes future employers will consider each applicant on a case-by-case basis, not based on anything that may have happened with other students at their alma mater. While she didn't take the exams in question, she has worked on take-home assignments throughout her studies and says there is a gray area that can leave students vulnerable.

This particular student, who did graduate studies at Rutgers University, participated in a lecture there that eerily foreshadowed the situation at Ohio State. The Rutgers class was presented with a case study about a student who discussed a take-home exam with a peer. Students were asked to determine the appropriate disciplinary action, and their suggestions ranged from warnings to probation. The instructor told the class that the student in question was ultimately dismissed from the university.

"The entire class was silent at hearing the severity of the punishment for collaboration," the student told dvm360. "The lecturer emphasized that even though she could sympathize with the class, the violation of honor code couldn't be overlooked. As I sat in silence at the verdict, I began contemplating why I felt the punishment was too severe, and I feel that it relates to the recent events at OSU.

"Students are encouraged in several classes to discuss case studies with our neighbors," the student continued. "Some professors have taken an innovative approach to giving us collaborative exams. Personally, I was nervous about taking a collaborative exam for fear that no one would study or that I would be relied on as the source for every answer. I found that this wasn't the case, and my other members showed up prepared and ready to discuss our different thought processes pertaining to the questions. I found that the discussions helped me retain the material and also reduced the anxiety of test taking."

Cheating or collaborating?

Some social media commenters have questioned whether the instructions were unclear on the Ohio State exam and whether or not the students knew collaboration was not allowed. Others have said the university should not have been surprised that online take-home exams would open the door to cheating.

The student who spoke with dvm360 said she understands how there can be confusion.

"I am unaware whether the testing protocols were clearly stated since I did not take the test," she said. "However, I feel there is a bigger question to shed light on here, and that is why 85 students have found themselves in violation of honor code. This question may relate back to the many definitions of collaboration that have formed in an age of innovative learning," she continued, adding that good, collaborative learning requires the same in-depth understanding of course content as one would need for a traditional exam.

"I think the gray area for students is that cheating is associated with an 'easy' or 'lazy way out,' a definition that hardly characterizes proactive collaborative discussion," she said. "It's possible for a student with this thinking to mentally dismiss collaboration from the grouping of cheating. I think although unfortunate, the violations at the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine shed light on a growing problem, which is that students have a blurred definition of the word 'cheating.'

"While collaboration is tolerated well in academic settings most of the time, there are exceptions, such as when individual knowledge needs to be tested. This distinction is not black and white to many students because collaboration ... can include a very productive out loud discussion, similar to what is promoted in many classes," the student continued. "I think the cheating cases that occurred at the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine open the conversation about what constitutes cheating in an environment of collaborative learning and will hopefully prevent students from making costly mistakes in the future."

University response

Changes are already being made at OSU, according the university's statement.

In addition to reviewing two years' worth of exams, the college plans to eliminate all take-home exams and quizzes for which collaboration is not permitted and institute new programming at the student level, including at orientation, about the college's honor code and university-wide expectations regarding academic conduct. Finally, the college will implement new training for faculty about academic misconduct in the digital age.

 

Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland and a former reporter for dvm360.