Assessment tasks designed around highly specialised language data are fantastic for student learning. In the discipline of speech sciences, the data sets are very specialised and limited in availability. Despite constantly refining the assignments every session, the growing use of document sharing sites by students is contributing to an increase in plagiarism and presenting challenges for marking.

Associate Professor Michael Proctor (Linguistics, FMHHS) explains the challenges and how they are approaching students to be part of the solution.


The assessment challenges

Learning linguistics requires continuous engagement with different types of language data. Especially in the speech sciences, this makes it an exciting discipline to teach when students can engage with real examples in both familiar and ‘exotic’ languages. At the same time, this presents special challenges for assessment task design and academic integrity – challenges which have increased with the growth in document sharing sites.

Some of the most effective assessment tasks for linguistics make use of specialised datasets that allow students to explore language at different levels of structure to help them gain new insights into its properties. These include annotated corpora, acoustic speech recordings, and MRI movies showing how the tongue moves.

Because of the specialised nature of these resources and limited data, deploying them in accessible ways for students to explore and analyse requires highly structured tasks.

(The image & video to the right is an example of a specialised resource).

MRI of tongue – click to watch this 9-second video of how the tongue moves during speech.

We’ve developed assignments using these data that are highly effective in assessing students’ understanding of language, and although these are constantly refined, there is a templatic structure to these assessments that means that some elements are highly similar, year to year.

Document-sharing sites undermine assessment

Document-sharing sites aimed at university students have created new problems with the deployment of these types of assessment tasks. Sites such as StuDocu and CourseHero – there are hundreds of others – allow students to post and access submissions to similar assignments from previous years, and this had led to an increase in the amount of plagiarism in recent semesters. Some of this is easily identifiable as overlap in Turnitin, but these sites facilitate other types of collusion that are less immediately evident. Entire responses, for example, are often modelled on previous submissions for similar assignments, which undermines the pedagogical utility of these types of tasks and makes it difficult to grade responses fairly and consistently.

The message to students: “Don’t compromise your education.”

In response to this growing phenomenon, we are working with the Academic Integrity Taskforce to update policies and procedures relating to the use of document sharing sites. We are talking to students to raise awareness about these sites, and the problems associated with their use, to try to improve the culture around academic integrity. Many students have not thought carefully about how they are using these sites – they might arrive at them after a quick Google search – and they are often unaware of the implications for Academic Integrity and Intellectual Property policies of the university. Some students do not seem to have considered that they have no control over how material posted to these sites will be used by other students, and that they may unwittingly be facilitating collusion, plagiarism and cheating.

Most importantly, we are trying to help students understand how the use of these sites compromises their education and that of others. We are making a greater effort to explain more carefully the purpose and design of assessment tasks. When releasing each task, we outline what students should be aiming to achieve and how it relates to unit and weekly learning outcomes. We emphasize the importance of originality not only in the content of the response but also in its structure. We hope that this better motivates the requirement that students complete each task on their own, and how these learning opportunities are missed when accessing someone else’s submission to a similar task.

Explaining the issues to students

We’ve prepared the documents below for our students to explain the issues and ask them to consider different perspectives. These accompany the release of assignment details and the information forms part of the overall discussion of the assignment requirements and expectations. To further reinforce the importance of the information, we would typically block access to the Turnitin submission link until students have read them.

  • Document sharing sites (1-page .pdf) addresses the issues and consequences of distributing MQ learning materials and positing to sharing sites.
  • Whose ideas (1-page .pdf) reinforces expectations for the submission of assessment tasks, clarifying plagiarism and encouraging correct citing of sources.

We’d welcome any feedback and invite others to use something similar to raise greater awareness around these sites, and to instill a better culture of academic integrity at Macquarie.

Like to continue the conversation?

To be honest, I think there’s still a lot of confusion and concern among students about all of these issues. I wish I could report that these documents had cleared everything up about originality, citation, plagiarism and collusion, but I think it’s more a case of an ongoing conversation where we’re trying to gradually educate and improve the culture by asking students to think about these issues from different perspectives.

Mike Proctor on why we should continue the conversation with staff and students about document sharing sites.

If you have any questions, comments, feedback or suggestions, or would just like to continue this conversation, email michael.proctor@mq.edu.au

If you see that a student has posted lecture content or their assessment to a site like StuDocu, CourseHero, or Chegg, please report it. There is a new referral pathway available via Feedback, Complaints and Misconduct Reporting and it now has the capacity to receive reports about file sharing on external sites by selecting ‘Reporting Academic Cheating Services’. Staff, students and members of the public can submit a report.


Mike Proctor is an Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Medicine, Health & Human Sciences and teaches in the Bachelor of Speech and Hearing Sciences. He investigates speech production and perception, and phonological organisation in human language. He uses MRI, electromagnetic articulography (EMA), ultrasound, eye-tracking, and other technologies to investigate how speech sounds are made and processed, and how language is acquired and used by adults, children, second language learners, and disordered populations.

Mike is also participating in Open for Observation – you can go along to one of his classes as an observer. Spaces are available to observe Mike’s SPHL3308 Speech Production class on 29 April or 6 May. Read more and register.

Banner image: Shutterstock
MRI & video of tongue courtesy of SPAN group, University of Southern California.

Posted by Michael Proctor

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