CEGEP students become test subjects as they grapple with mental health, cheating, and their futures

As a large swath of Quebec adapts to life in the red zone, thousands of CEGEP students are trying to tune out public health announcements and focus instead on upcoming mid-term exams that could affect their futures.

It's only been a scant six weeks or so since they were plunged headlong into a new online learning universe.

Some young students said they are trying to manage a host of unusual kinds of stressors as they sit in their bedroom in front of a computer screen, often for up to 12 hours a day.

As Dawson student Camille Caputo-Messier said, "My desk is here, my bed is there. I turn around and think, 'I could really go for a nap right now!'"

All the students say it's hard to stay motivated and meet so many deadlines.

"Because it's all on a screen, it feels optional," added Caputo-Messier, who's studying to be a social worker.

"You're not sure you're understanding what's going on. It's a bit overwhelming and creates extra stress," said Gabrielle Giroux, a student at Dawson College.

The CEGEP students feel disconnected from teachers and classmates. Where are all the friends I was going to make? At the same time, they are too connected to a bunch of electronic devices they fear will fail when they need them most, during a class or quiz.

And there's more - are they learning all they need to learn, and will they be able to get good marks? Will they be affected by fellow students who find ways to take advantage of the online environment and cheat - whether because they can, or because they, too, are struggling to adapt?

A first-year Pure & Applied Science student at Champlain College in Saint-Lambert said he feels like he's at a disadvantage this year compared to other school years.

"For one of my classes, mechanics, we need to learn how to use a certain tool which will be useful in future semesters," explained Samuel Richard. "But now we're just sent videos of him using it, and from that, we have to understand."

John Abbott College student Emily Thom empathized with her younger peer. In her second year and studying Liberal Arts, she at least got to test-run distanced learning last winter, but this year it's full-speed ahead - and that's difficult.

"I definitely agree. These are unprecedented times. I think we're all adjusting to online learning," she said.

Thom said she misses the high-quality discussions they used to have in class. Teachers and students do their best to make it work, the 18-year-old said, "but there's a lag, there are technical issues, so I lose a part of that learning. It becomes more of a dull voice coming through my computer, and that's unfortunate."

Distance learning may be a necessary experiment to help mitigate the effects of a pandemic. Still, it means CEGEP students have also become test subjects at a critical point in their lives. It's not an easy transition, and may not be fair in terms of academic success, said Nancy Heath, a McGill professor who teaches in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology.

"CEGEP students are really in a unique situation, especially during COVID, because that period of time is a crossroads for these students. This is what's going to determine what university they get into, and it's extremely competitive right now in the Montreal region…and yet they're now being asked to learn online or in very different ways. This puts tremendous pressure on them," Heath said.

More fatigue and strain are being reported, often related to heavy workloads. John Abbott College surveyed their students at the end of last semester, and only 60 per cent agreed they were successfully managing their mental health.

It's easy to dismiss their concerns because they're resilient and young and will probably be fine - "and that's all true," said Heath, who is also a researcher. "But there's this tension between what the students need and what the CEGEPs feel obliged to do or provide, which is really to gate-keep or hold a high standard."

CHEATING AND PLAGIARISM ON THE RISE

That tension could be responsible for an increased number of complaints about possible cases of plagiarism and cheating at John Abbott College.

"Teachers are reporting more cases," Academic Dean Gordon Brown said, "because, in an online environment, it's harder to control as much as could be done in an in-person situation."

The new opportunities for cheating potentially exist at all online CEGEPS.

Richard recounted an incident where a half-hour into an online test at Champlain College, a student messaged everyone else in the class, asking them if they wanted to team up.

"I find it's particularly annoying because I don't want to cheat, but it's a disadvantage to everyone like me who's doing it fairly without cheating, while another part of the class is all doing it together," Richard said.

At Dawson College, a teacher told his math students to keep their hands where he could see them during an exam last week. But Giroux, a second-year commerce student, said it would have been easy "to put a sheet in front of you with all your formulas."

"We have access to everything," Giroux said, "and we're not being monitored in any way. So I think it's a lot easier to cheat for sure, and I think a lot of people are doing it."

It's difficult to determine how big an issue cheating has become.

Isabelle Delisle, Vanier College's Dean of General Education said it's a problem every school year, "and we have mechanisms to prevent it and detect it normally."

NEW SOLUTIONS

A new approach was needed this time around.

Administrators at Vanier and John Abbott Colleges focused on prevention. They provide students, they say, with an abundance of support services, online and in-person, to try and make up for some of what online schooling lacks.

Computer programs that detect plagiarism in essays are still being used at the colleges; yet, both institutions decided against using proctoring software to monitor students' sounds and motions to detect cheating.

The institutions preferred to "put more emphasis on training the teachers to adapt their assessments," said Annie-Claude Banville, Academic Dean at Vanier College, by reducing the number of multiple-choice quizzes and shifting to evaluations that demonstrate knowledge and competencies.

"There were privacy issues we weren't comfortable with," Banville said, and "we didn't want to turn the faculty into police officers."

John Abbott also asked its teachers to be very clear with students about their expectations for this semester and next to help them mentally prepare.

"Even this semester, we know that students with their health situations and those of their family members will be changing, and also the overall health situation in Montreal, so we've asked teachers to be as understanding of those situations as possible," said Dean Gordon Brown.

It's not easy. All CEGEPS are grappling with a new system foisted upon them by a virus, while still on a mission to provide quality education.

And CEGEP students are stuck in the middle.

Professor Heath thinks CEGEPs and universities both need to consider students' valid concerns, because she thinks COVID-19 has amplified any inequities that already exist.

"Across academia, we're very conscious about how COVID is impacting students' learning and even teachers' or professors' performances," she said.

UNIVERSITY CONSIDERATIONS

CTV News asked Concordia University if they will be considering the adverse effects the pandemic might have had on some applicants coming from CEGEP.

In an email, a spokesperson said that in part, the university is "aware of the challenges faced by CEGEP students as a result of the pandemic."

The plan so far at Concordia, the response continued, is to assess the strength of the CEGEP applicant pool as a whole when applications are reviewed in 2021. The university would then be flexible with students who seem likely to be admissible upon further investigation.

In the meantime, Heath counsels students to use any services provided by CEGEPS to help them with their stress and their understanding of course material.

"I think we in the university will benefit in that our students will be more resilient ultimately - the ones that do get there. But it is unfortunate how it's playing out." 

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