It started when Taylor Charron saw a Facebook post. The author, a freshman, was asking for old lab reports for reference for help with an introductory chemistry class. To Charron, the post seemed innocent enough. She’d taken the class taught by professor Alisha Bohnsack the year before and decided to help.
“I struggled with this class a lot and had to work my ass off to get an A in it,” Charron, a neuroscience senior, said. “I just kinda put myself in her shoes. She was probably super stressed out and didn’t know how to write a lab report.”
Although Charron didn’t know the person, she responded to the post on the page of an organization she was in.
“This kind of sounds naive, but none of my friends are pre-med and none of them are in the same classes as me, so I just didn’t expect the labs to be reused,” Charron said.
Several weeks after sending her lab report, Charron received a notice that she’d been accused of academic dishonesty.
Charron said she wasn’t aware of the student’s intention to copy her answers, but signed a paper accepting responsibility for the accusation and accompanying punishment of an essay and a note on her academic record.
“I did send a girl my lab report. I knew I was in the wrong there,” Charron said. “It was a 34 percent match from turnitin.com. There were 16 identical words together in a row. There’s less than one in a trillion chance of that happening. I mean, I can’t even fight that.”
Charron ended up receiving a sanction from the Office of the Dean of Students for “providing/receiving aid or assistance.” It is the most commonly cited violation, followed by “collusion” and “plagiarism,” and is one of 17 violation codes cited in academic dishonesty findings between fall 2015 and fall 2018, according to information obtained by The Daily Texan via open records request. Other violations include “altering graded documents” or “using, buying stealing, soliciting, or coercing.”
Between fall 2015 and fall 2018, 1,962 students were reported for academic dishonesty. 218 of those cases resulted in a no-violation finding.
Chemistry 204, an introductory class with an enrollment of over 1,000 every semester, had the largest number of students (179) referred to the Office of the Dean of Students between fall 2015 and fall 2018.
Bohnsack, who taught the course from 2015 until 2017, said she thinks the people she reports are good students who push themselves to do too much.
“A lot of them are pre-med and are involved in a lot of other organizations like fraternities and sororities,” Bohnsack said. “With the pressure, some students just make a decision that they don’t realize that is going to impact them so much.”
Lecturer Clint Tuttle, who teaches Management and Information Systems in the McCombs School of Business, reported the third largest number of students between fall 2015 and fall 2018. Although Tuttle reminds his students of cheat-detection capabilities within the class’ software, Cengage, he said he wasn’t surprised by the number of students he reported.
He was surprised to find out he reported more students than most other professors during this time period. Tuttle said he believes the reason his number was so high was consistency in enforcing his own rules.
When a professor believes a student has cheated, they have three options: Do nothing, directly refer them to the Office of the Dean of Students or call the student into their office. In either of the last two options, the student is presented with the option to sign a form, like the one given to Charron, accepting the accusation. If the professor administers this form, they then have the option to file it with the Office of the Dean of Students.
“I prefer to call (students) in so that they know I’m not angry and don’t hate them,” Tuttle said. “The paperwork should not be forced in either direction.”
Jarrod Morgan, founder of ProctorU, which he described as the largest provider of academic integrity services in the world, said as the number of online courses and credentialing programs has increased, so has the need for these services and softwares, including ProctorU, Turnitin and others.
“We need to believe in the integrity of the degrees we’re giving,” Morgan said.
Mihran Aroian, a business lecturer who formerly held a position in the Office of the Dean of Students, said it’s in a teacher’s best interest to report instances of academic dishonesty. If they catch a student and don’t report it to the Office of the Dean of Students, grade changes are considered arbitrary and students can contest the change at a later date. Additionally, Aroian said if there’s no record of prior violation, repeat offenders will continue to cheat without sanction.
But Aroian also said personal incentives may deter professors from wanting to accuse students in the first place.
In a study he co-authored in 2014, Aroian and former UT graduate student Raymond Brown found a relationship between the number of students a professor reports and their score on end-of-semester professor evaluation forms.
“If a student receives a citation while they’re in your class, it isn’t very likely that they’ll give you a high course evaluation,” Aroian said.
But, Aroian said, not reporting students is unfair to both students who do their work and those who commit academic dishonesty.
To help educate professors about academic dishonesty, Aroian invited experts on the subject to UT for a conference in 2015. But Aroian doesn’t know whether his efforts have been effective. Data on academic dishonesty that was once available on the Office of the Dean of Students’ website was recently removed.
“Hopefully our efforts are making a difference, but we really don’t know,” Aroian said. “People have always and will always cheat, and we can only hope that we’re catching them now that it’s gotten easier.”
Charron, who will continue her education at medical school in the fall, said the presence of an academic sanction on her record was a huge source of stress in the semester she received the sanction.
Academic records are confidential under FERPA, but many graduate programs require applicants to waive their rights. Although Charron said she had to disclose that she’d received an academic sanction in her applications and she was asked about the sanction in almost all her medical school interviews, she said most interviewers were sympathetic — one even said they’d received a similar sanction in their undergraduate years.
”Immediately when it happened I was like, ‘This is over. I’m going to get shunned from every school,’” Charron said. “And then I just honestly forgot it even happened.”