Assessment tasks that minimise students’ motivation to cheat

Academic dishonesty occurs for reasons that include students’ fear of missing deadlines, being overwhelmed and lack of language skills. Here are ways to reframe assessment

Temesgen Kifle's avatar
11 Jul 2023
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Higher education institutions try to reduce the prevalence of academic dishonesty through strategies that include penalties for misconduct, use of plagiarism-detection software, encouragement of new students to complete academic integrity modules and honour codes (for example, asking students to sign a statement to verify that work submitted is their own). Although these measures are useful, they are not optimal for preventing contract cheating, a form of academic misconduct in which a student employs or uses a third party to complete an assignment on their behalf. Contract cheating is difficult not only to detect but also to prosecute with evidence.

The Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) estimates that up to about 8 per cent of students might be engaged in contract cheating. Another source indicates that about 8 to 11 per cent of Australian university students submit assignments written by someone else, and more than 95 per cent of students who engage in contract cheating are not caught.

These alarming figures prompt calls for more action to promote academic integrity. So far, TEQSA has blocked around 250 commercial cheating service websites. However, this is not enough because the third party who completes work for a student might be a family member, a friend, a colleague or generative AI. To tackle contract cheating effectively, therefore, higher education institutions need to identify the reasons why students cheat and to design assessment tasks that minimise the need for students to engage in outsourcing behaviour.

Why do students cheat?

Students cheat for a variety of reasons. Let’s list the most common of these.

To avoid penalties for missing strict deadlines

Each semester, university students have to deal with strict assessment deadlines. Meeting strict deadlines can cause anxiety and stress. For anyone submitting after the deadline without an approved extension, a penalty can apply for each day the assignment is submitted after the due date. If students are overwhelmed by deadline stress and possible penalties for late submission, they might resort to contract cheating as a coping mechanism.

Students have too much assessment

There is a general feeling that universities are over-assessing their students. It is common for courses to have several summative assessment tasks. Assessment plays a major role in student learning; however, the objective of an assessment should take into account students’ time and effort. Too much assessment can cause anxiety for many students, and for some it can be a reason for engaging in contract cheating. 

Parental pressure to achieve good grades

One of the factors that leads students to undermine their own academic integrity is parental pressure to get good grades. Students whose academic performance is less than what is expected by their parents might turn to contract cheating to get the grade that their parents desire.

Students lack adequate language skills

Generally, in English-taught universities, students for whom English is not their first language face more challenges in meeting assessment requirements. Research shows that Australian university students whose first language is not English are more likely to engage in contract cheating

Students don’t understand what constitutes contract cheating

Students might think that contract cheating occurs only when a third party completes academic work for them for a payment. The misconception is that it is acceptable, however, for a family member, former student or colleague to complete an assignment on their behalf if no payment is offered in return. Students need to be clear that it is not the payment that constitutes contract cheating; rather, it is the practice of outsourcing behaviour.

The probability that cheating will be detected is low

Instructors can be reluctant to report contract cheating because it is hard to detect. It is rare for a student to be accused of contract cheating without evidence. This can create an atmosphere in which contract cheating is seen as a riskless practice.

The perception that “everybody does it” can also be used by students to rationalise their engagement in contract cheating.

Tips to prevent contract cheating in your class

So what can instructors do to reduce the incidence of contract cheating? These strategies offer ways to reframe assessment as well as alternative formats.

Allow late submissions without penalty

Penalties exist for a reason. Meeting deadlines can enhance students’ time-management skills, and a strict deadline helps instructors to give students timely feedback. However, penalties can also cause some students to resort to contract cheating. To reduce the occurrence of contract cheating, instructors could allow late submission without penalty. In some universities instructors give a grace period after the assignment due date.

Minimise summative assessment load

The objective of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning against a benchmark. Too many assessment tasks for each course can lead to an overwhelming workload for both students and instructors. Instructors can adopt diverse assessment methods, such as quizzes, group assignments, oral presentations and exams, to maximise the validity of assessments. However, it is important to strike a balance between assessment diversity and assessment load. Over-assessment can exert pressure on students and might tempt them to cheat, especially if the assessment tasks are heavily weighted. 

Make students submit multiple drafts

The likelihood that a student will engage in contract cheating is lessened when they are asked to submit multiple drafts of an essay. Making students submit multiple drafts of an assignment has two benefits: students get feedback from their instructor (or tutors) before making their final submissions; and contract cheating is more difficult. It is not easy for students to pay commercial providers for each draft nor to ask friends or colleagues to complete each draft of the assignment on their behalf.

Use oral assessment tasks

Asking students to discuss or present submitted assignments is useful to verify if contract cheating has taken place. For large classes, instructors can ask students to submit pre-recorded oral presentations to save time. 

Set unique assignment and reflection tasks

Reflective or unique assessment tasks are more difficult to outsource (for instance, asking students to write a reflective essay in class on what they have learned so far). Assessment tasks of this kind cannot be easily done using an essay mill or other third-party contract cheating services. Research shows that in-class tasks, reflections and personalised and unique tasks are some of the best assessment tasks that can be used by instructors to prevent contract cheating. 

Temesgen Kifle is a lecturer in the School of Economics at the University of Queensland.

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