My perspective - Caught in what act?


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner & Press

What exactly does it mean to “cheat”?

Last week, the Brandon Sun reported on a situation facing the second year class of Nursing students at Brandon University. Following concerns that a final exam last November had been “compromised”, the entire class was made to retake the test and punished for academic dishonesty. But as more details have emerged, the situation seems less clear cut. At its core, this story raises what might be a fundamental disagreement about what it means to cheat.

The details are still coming out and I’m certain this isn’t everything. In an editorial, the Brandon Sun even said that they haven’t reported everything they’ve been told, only what they’ve been able to corroborate independently or through multiple sources. The story first came to light with coverage of a letter to the students from the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. In it, they said there was strong evidence that a final exam in the Nursing faculty had been compromised by a number of students and the whole class would have to retake it. Students would also face a penalty– the highest grade they could achieve on the exam would be 70 per cent. That might not be all, the BU student handbook notes that those who commit Academic Dishonesty may have it noted on their transcript, which if it happens, could have severe implications for the students future plans in both education and work.

It appeared that the students were in the wrong, but then, more information came out. On Saturday, the paper reported that they had been contacted by 14 people, including multiple students, as well as family and friends of students in the class. What these individuals told cast the story in a different light. Most of the sources said that the students had used a publicly available study guide, based on their text book, to prepare for the exam and that the instructor had pulled the exam questions from that study guide.

Based on this reported information, I have to wonder about the school’s broad definition of “academic dishonesty”. To me, to cheat requires the knowledge that what you are doing is giving you an unfair edge. If true, the students didn’t know what they were doing would be giving them an unfair advantage, they didn’t know that the questions they were studying would actually be on their exam.

It’s pretty clear that gaining access to a test before it’s given is wrong. But I think most would agree that using study guides is a valid and encouraged way to prepare for tests. Anyone who has put serious effort into studying for a test has used a multitude of resources to simulate the questions they might be asked. The instructor bears some responsibility to write tests that are fair and ensure that no students have an unfair advantage. Academic honesty doesn’t rest solely on the students.

The University’s student handbook outlines the ways in which students can commit academic dishonestly, but does nothing to lay out the expectations of teachers or professors. A student can’t present someone else’s work as their own, but no such guidelines seem to exist for instructors. If this story is true, the exam certainly wasn’t made up of original work.

The story isn’t over and I hope we see how it continues to develop, though this might be all we ever know. All of the 14 students, family and friends requested anonymity because they feared repercussions.  The student union hasn’t made an official statement and the school hasn’t yet responded. The secrecy surrounding this situation raises a whole other set of questions about academic honesty and what we expect not just from students, but the institutions that educate them.