Write it for you wholesale

July 12, 2012

While I agree with George MacDonald Ross and Jude Carroll that creating independent, enthusiastic learners and redesigning assessments to make plagiarism more difficult are important, I fear that "beating the cheats" is proving more challenging than ever ("Cogitate, don't regurgitate", 5 July).

Ross suggests that the lecture, which students treat as providing "model answers", "should lose its central position in university teaching". A colleague and I tried precisely this approach on a new third-year option on American slavery this year. We replaced the traditional lecture programme with a series of podcasts and used the time we freed up for more small-group work and tutorials that emphasised problem-solving and document analysis.

A statistically significant minority of the students then rated the course as poor precisely because of this approach during the university's unit evaluation exercise, which is modelled on the National Student Survey. As long as the management-led overemphasis on "student satisfaction" as a measure of teaching quality remains, the lecture and indeed the "model answer" are quite safe, and academics who experiment with innovative and challenging classroom techniques run the risk of being labelled bad teachers.

Carroll's emphasis on redesigning assessments is wise but seems predicated on the assumption that the problem is basically one of students downloading material from the internet. The emerging danger, which both plagiarism-detection software and assignment redesign would struggle to counter, is "bespoke" coursework written to order.

In the area of South Manchester where I (and many undergraduates) live, the services of those prepared to write essays and assignments are widely advertised in newsagent windows. In my more pessimistic moments, I fear that we may have to move to 100 per cent unseen examinations and even vivas and presentations to tackle cheating. Even then, we would probably have to check IDs.

Gervase Phillips, Principal lecturer in history, Manchester Metropolitan University

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