A multi-pronged approach to deterring contract cheating in online assessment

The essay mills industry is booming in response to student demand. Irene Glendinning explains how universities must respond with a range of actions, not one quick fix

Irene Glendinning's avatar
Coventry University
25 Mar 2021
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How to design online courses and assessments to minimise plagiarism and cheating

There has been a great deal written on how to “design out” plagiarism and contract cheating, such as essay mills and ghostwriting. Although generally very good advice, assessment design is just part of the answer. The supply of essay mills is booming in response to the huge demand for their services from students. We must respond with a range of actions.

Authentic forms of assessment

It is well documented that we need to avoid setting essays with ready-made answers available to download or copy, and in moving to online learning, unsupervised closed-book exams, especially questions relying on rote learning and, of course, recycled assignments and exam questions. With online exams, it is easy to look up the answer or phone a friend, even when there is monitoring or supervision in place. There is even the option to have someone else sit the whole exam.

The best forms of assessment for deterring contract cheating involve synchronous conversations with students, such as a viva voce examination or oral presentation. Although that can be impractical for large classes, asking students to submit a short reflective video or personal diary is a good alternative. Making the assignment very specific to what has been taught in class, perhaps using a bespoke case study, can make it more difficult for a ghostwriter to respond. However, additional measures are needed.

Learn how and where to look for cheating

Some higher education providers believe they are immune to this problem, but denial and complacency are misplaced. Any student can be susceptible to tempting offers from essay mills. Detecting contract cheating is very hard. If educators are not actively looking, they will certainly not find any evidence, but clues can be found by learning how and where to look.

Written work with unexpectedly low or zero similarity scores should always be checked; a combination of minor factors should raise suspicions, for example: unusual sources, referencing or formatting; work that does not match the assessment brief, content may be waffly or too generic; use of vocabulary or techniques that the student is unlikely to have learned in class.

But all this could apply to much genuine work, so a follow-up process is needed before any accusations can be made.

Follow-up investigations to explore metadata in the document and compare the suspected work with other work the student has submitted can reveal convincing evidence of outside assistance and different “voices” across the student’s work. Although this evidence can be obtained manually, software tools are now available that can assemble and analyse all the information and greatly speed the investigation process.

The student could then be called to a viva voce to answers questions about the anomalies found and the process they followed. If the student cannot provide satisfactory answers, the allegations should be formalised and dealt with under the institutional academic conduct process.

My institution runs training for academic staff on detecting contract cheating and has created a checklist to guide markers on a range of clues that should trigger deeper investigation.

Communicate good conduct

Students who are engaged and interested in their learning are less likely to resort to cheating than students who feel unsupported and marginalised. Particularly in these challenging times, we must exercise the duty of care we owe our students. We trust students to do the right thing, but if they don’t understand our expectations, they cannot be fully blamed for their actions.

Yes, as adults they must take responsibility, but in a diverse student body there will always be students who do not grasp our view of acceptable conduct. Some students may have come from a culture where our concept of cheating is viewed as their normal behaviour, and this is not just about international students. When Australian research participants were asked for their views about contract cheating, the students showed complacency compared with their teachers’ concerns. We cannot assume that students share our values and perspectives unless we communicate with them about the broader consequences to their future lives.

Support staff to report cheating

Academic staff are trusted to set appropriate assessments that will evaluate students’ skills and understanding, ideally measured against intended learning outcomes. We also trust academic staff to be vigilant in identifying and reporting suspicions of student cheating. If they feel unsupported and undervalued, they may not take these obligations very seriously.

In the current climate, academic staff may be feeling overworked and isolated. If they notice a potential case of contract cheating, how much extra work would it take to report it? Would anyone notice if they ignored it? Provision of support for academic staff and clarity of reporting procedures are crucial for ensuring that students who have resorted to contract cheating are identified and corrective actions taken.

Support students to uphold integrity

The vast majority of our students are good ambassadors for promoting academic integrity within our institutions and beyond. Students with less scruples can be influenced to behave with integrity, but they may take a chance if they believe they will not be caught for cheating or if the consequences are seen as trivial.

Students need to be guided towards approved forms of support and guidance to ensure that they have no need to use dodgy external support and writing services. Students who have been seduced by contract cheating providers and find themselves being harassed and blackmailed need to know where to go for support.

Involve everyone in protecting academic standards

Academic standards are at risk unless higher education providers understand the signs and address the causes of contract cheating. If students recognise that contract cheating is more likely than not to be detected and will incur very serious consequences, they are less likely to ignore the advice. Finding the right balance between carrots and sticks is not easy, but effective communication about all these matters, involving the whole academic community, is vital.

Irene Glendinning is the academic manager for student experience at Coventry University.

Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Students in Higher Education (OIAHE)’s good practice framework – disciplinary procedures.

The Quality Assurance Agency for higher education’s guide on Contracting to Cheat in Higher Education.

Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA)’s toolkit to support quality assurance agencies to address academic integrity and contract cheating.


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