A week ago my colleague Rebecca wrote a great piece on contract cheating showcasing how a typical student often gets targeted by Facebook ads from ghostwriting companies. 

This got me thinking… if you were to see such ads often enough, wouldn’t it normalise ‘outsourcing’ what you can’t or don’t want to do? Especially if you are stressed out of your skull and facing a ‘high stakes’ assignment? Indeed, stress and pressure have come up as the top reasons for dishonest behaviour in the recent workshops on Academic Integrity, run by the Chair of Academic Senate Mariella Herberstein, PVC L&T Sherman Young and the Chair of Senate Learning and Teaching Committee Mitch Parsell. Another interesting takeaway from the workshop is that most ‘ghostwriting’ is NOT contract cheating. Instead, it’s the ‘well-meaning’ relatives and friends who might see their loved ones struggle with an assignment who decide to give them a helping hand…

If it seems too-far fetched, consider this: over half of the students surveyed in this annual student survey, “find the stress of studying difficult to cope with at university”. And, as we know, assignments and exams are on the top of the ‘stress-inducing’ list for most students.

Feeling overwhelmed coupled with personal or financial pressure to succeed breads an ideal climate for poor decision-making.

The key for helping such students is providing a lot of scaffolding. There are a couple of ideas on how you can engineer assignment ‘baby steps’ a bit later in this article.

1. Options and ownership

In addition to stress and pressure, another reason why some students choose to ‘outsource’ their assignments is simply not seeing the value of doing them. “I just want to get my degree and find a job in a travel company. How will ‘Referential Discourse Structures’ help me with that?”. This is where giving students options and ownership for their assignments can be particularly useful. For example, the teacher could provide the general ‘field’ and ask the students to formulate the specific ‘niche’ that they’ll be researching and writing about. Our ‘travel’ student might be more interested in the assignment if they could focus on ‘travel industry’ examples. Getting students to ‘customise’ their assignment to their areas of interest promotes students’ ownership and might address the ‘irrelevance’ reason for cheating.

2. Authentic assessment

Or, even better, think beyond written assignments and consider using ‘authentic’ = replicating the work environment = situations. An example that came up in the workshop is using role plays from a future workplace. Other examples: writing a blog post, designing an infographic or a brochure, creating a business plan, a pitch for a particular idea, etc. As Mitch Parsell observed during the workshop,

students are significantly less likely to engage in dishonest behaviour if they can see how a particular assignment prepares them for their future career.

3. Documenting ‘baby-steps’

But regardless of whether your assignment is at the ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ end of the spectrum, providing a lot of scaffolding is one of the most effective ways to ‘design out’ cheating. Why not get students to document their baby-steps, and make them public before they submit an assignment? For example, ask students to bring a list of their key literature to Tutorial 1, write up several key points from the literature for Tutorial 2, bring a draft outline for Tutorial 3…etc.?

Not only will it help to identify students who are ‘not on track’, but it’ll also provide invaluable opportunities for students to learn.

If you don’t want to take up too much valuable tutorial time, you can simply set aside 5 minutes and run these ‘staying on track’ sessions in a ‘rapid fire’ sharing style. Students can give each other feedback while you walk around the room giving your own comments. It’s of course important to frame these sessions in a positive light as ‘we are doing this to help you stay on track’ rather than ‘we are doing it to catch you’ approach.

If you don’t want to spend ANY tutorial time on tracking assignment progress, you may consider getting students to post these responses on the class forum. This will create an ‘electronic’ trail and will hopefully prevent most students from attempting ‘contract cheating’.

4. Techno scare

You might also inform students that Turnitin will soon be launching Authorship Investigation, which uses artificial intelligence to compare students’ writing samples and identify cases where the style has significantly changed. Who knows, it just might work as a ‘deterrent’ for some students… Although, my personal feeling is that this feature will probably work in favour of some ‘contract cheating’ companies as it would make some students hostages of a particular writer. I can already see how they will start selling ‘packages’ where the same writer will do all of your assignments…What a way to get ‘loyal’ customers!

5. Regular and honest conversations

The key message of the Academic Integrity workshop was that the best way to counterbalance the temptation to ‘outsource’ or ‘ask for help’ is through regular and honest conversations with our students about short-term and long-term effects of bad choices.

It is, admittedly, not an easy conversation to have, or, for that matter, not an easy message to sell to stressed and pressured students. But if we talk about it often enough, and raise students’ awareness of acceptable and not acceptable behaviour, we may stand a chance.

What’s next?

Did you know that there is an iLearn unit for students helping them to navigate the topic of Academic Integrity and Plagiarism? There is also a unit for staff with more ideas on alternative assessments and the ways to mitigate Academic Integrity issues.

Over to you! 

How do you help your students stay away from ‘cheating’ temptation? Share your tips below!

Posted by Olga Kozar

I'm a 'long-term' Mq girl. I did my PhD here and taught different courses, ranging from undergrad to PhD students. I then joined the Learning Innovation Hub, which I love. I'm passionate about good learning and teaching. Give me a shout if I can assist you in any way.

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