Cheating ‘a learning opportunity’ for students

New approach to academic misconduct slashes university workload and leaves a better taste in the mouth – for staff as well as students

October 19, 2021
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When an activity log for a UNSW Sydney course revealed that 100 assignments had been submitted from the same internet protocol address, staff realised that they needed to rethink their approach to academic integrity.

“This is what cheating on a systemic, industrial scale looks like,” said Kane Murdoch, head of the university’s Student Conduct and Integrity Unit. “That’s the new reality that we need to address. How do we handle this many cases fairly and rigorously, without putting students through a lengthy and damaging process?”

The episode led to the university’s “Courageous Conversations” programme, a semi-formal alternative to traditional investigations. The unit contacted all the students in the course, explaining that the university had strong evidence of contract cheating and encouraging them to come clean if they had participated.

“We weren’t hugely confident that we would get a significant response,” Mr Murdoch told the inaugural forum of the Australian Academic Integrity Network, hosted by Torrens University. “We had information against 100-odd students. As it turned out, we got 130 admissions back.

“Part of that was because we laid out what the consequences were going to be for admission and for refusal to admit. Students…saw enough incentive to come forward.”

Under the programme, students suspected of cheating are invited to confidential meetings. Those who acknowledge misconduct typically fail the units but escape suspension or expulsion. Those who refuse to meet or refute the allegations risk formal investigations that could attract more severe penalties.

Mr Murdoch said the approach had proven an efficient response to a burgeoning problem, reducing the time taken dealing with misconduct cases by 64 per cent. The average turnaround time for cases of suspected collusion had plunged from 156 to 29 days – a figure that “speaks volumes” during Covid disruptions. “It’s unlikely that many academic integrity units have expanded wildly in the last 18 months,” he noted.

The reduced time frames meant that the university obtained rapid feedback on the types and prevalence of academic misconduct, while students spent less time worrying and distracted from their studies.

Mr Murdoch said his ideas had changed since his early days in the unit, when he relished the “thrill of the hunt” in investigating what was considered at the time to be “rare and egregious” offences.

He said the “legalistic” tone of university cheating investigations benefited nobody. “Our thinking has come back towards a more happy medium between how students feel and how we feel we’re doing our job,” he said.

Cath Ellis, UNSW’s associate dean of education, said the programme had been influenced by the arguments of US academic integrity expert Tricia Bertram Gallant. “We should be allowing students to develop ethical fitness,” Dr Ellis said.

“It’s all about embracing the teachable moment. Even serious academic misconduct is a mistake from which students have a right to learn. The key thing for us is that the student has the opportunity to remain part of our learning community – to be welcomed back in and reconciled with the academic community.”

Mr Murdoch said “reoffending” was low among students who had been through the process. Most appeared contrite, often apologising and even thanking staff – and ultimately leaving with “superior connections” to the university.

“They see the university as less of a monolith, comprised of people who…want to allow them to move on and make a mistake without having it be a terminal mistake.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

"... reducing the time taken dealing with misconduct cases by 64 per cent. The average turnaround time for cases of suspected collusion had plunged from 156 to 29 days ..." Could you explain how these numbers relate to each other?
That sounds like "no".
Would providing students with the ability to improve their academic integrity skills be an equally valid learning opportunity, rather than enhanced policing alone?
It is the time to move back to more closed-book examinations than these so called assignments/coursework kind of assessments.

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