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Helping students excel with integrity

On 19 October 2016 the International Center for Academic Integrity called for education institutions to join an International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating. Using the hashtags #defeatthecheat and #excelwithintegrity, students and staff were invited to share their declarations of why ‘contract cheating’ (that is, paying someone to do your academic work) is wrong. The idea was to raise awareness – not just within institutions but in the public and legislative domains too.

A quick look at those hashtags on Twitter reveals a range of reasons why students are opposed to contract cheating – from missing opportunities to learn and develop key skills, worrying about impact on future career, and moral and ethical objections.

But the reality is that cheating does occur.

In September 2016, Associate Professor Tracey Bretag, Director of the Office for Academic Integrity at the University of South Australia Business School, visited the University of Canberra to give a talk on ‘The rise of contract cheating’. She cited recent news stories around contract cheating in Australia, including the 2015 MyMaster scandal which saw students suspended, expelled or stripped of degrees at several universities across the country. The investigation found that as many as 1000 students from 16 different universities had accessed MyMaster’s ghostwriting and test-sitting services.

As educators, we need to look at student workload across a whole course and try to avoid having multiple assignments due at the same point in time, so that students don’t feel overwhelmed.

Assignment Helps, Buy Term Papers Online, My Excellent Writer, Ninja Essays, Brain Trust Academic… just a handful of the ‘cheat sites’ based in Australia from which students can purchase written assignments and other services.

In the teaching and learning space, there has been much discussion around “designing out” cheating – i.e. designing assessment tasks in such a way that cheating is more difficult. As an Educational Designer, I work with teaching staff to help them rethink their assessment design – supporting a shift towards assessment tasks that are authentic, scenario-based, reflective, collaborative… But as Bretag highlighted in her talk, it’s not as simple as that – on today’s market, even ‘authentic’ and ‘personalised’ assignments like reflective accounts and work-based portfolios can be bought.

Clearly, we need a multi-faceted approach to this complex issue. As educators, we need to look at student workload across a whole course and try to avoid having multiple assignments due at the same point in time, so that students don’t feel overwhelmed. We need to provide regular opportunities for formative assessment, making sure that students receive constructive feedback on their progress. We need to create a space in which students feel comfortable admitting that they don’t understand something – perhaps using tools like confidence-based marking to send the message that it’s okay to be unsure, it’s all part of the learning process.

Universities also need to make sure that students have access to the support they need. A flexible self-study course like Avoiding Plagiarism helps students to understand what plagiarism is and gives clear guidance on good practice in referencing and citations. Students can take the course at a time that suits them and can revisit the Epigeum materials when they need to – for example, when writing an assignment.

We need to offer students support in developing their language and academic writing skills so that they feel confident using their own words. Interactive workshops, drop-in sessions, peer mentoring from other students, online tutoring services – all of these can help to ensure that we reach students on and off campus.

University admissions processes need to be rigorous enough that students aren’t set up for failure and are only admitted to courses when they have the necessary pre-requisites that will allow them to be successful. And, once admitted to the university, if a student is found to have plagiarised or cheated, then we need to have an appropriate response – viewing the incident as a learning opportunity and offering additional support whenever possible. Persistent cheating needs to be dealt with appropriately within a framework of institutional guidelines and national legislation.

There’s still work to be done in this area and there’s a need for greater awareness, more discussion, and collaboration between institutions and governments. Ultimately, all of us who work in higher education have a responsibility to help our students excel with integrity.

Featured image credit: Student working. By StartUp Stock Photos. CC0 Public Domain via Pexels

This article originally appeared on the Epigeum Insights blog

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