Copycats spur system rethink

July 2, 2004

Conference reveals full extent of plagiarism and how the UK system is partly to blame. Phil Baty reports

Universities need a fundamental rethink of the way students are assessed as the preoccupation with "marks, credits and certificates" incites cheating on degree courses, an international plagiarism expert has said.

The rise of plagiarism may force academics to judge students on "portfolios" of work including videos of presentations and discussions of case material, as well as traditional one-off exams.

In a keynote speech at the inaugural Plagiarism Advisory Service conference, Russ Hunt of St Thomas University, Canada, warned: "University itself, as our profession has structured it, is the most effective possible situation for encouraging plagiarism and cheating."

Professor Hunt said that the alarming rise in internet-based plagiarism should be welcomed, as it would force the academic community to rethink how it teaches and, more important, how it assesses students.

He added: "If I wanted to learn how to improve my golf swing, or write (internet programming language) HTML, cheating would be the last thing that would ever occur to me. It would be utterly irrelevant to the situation. On the other hand, if I wanted a certificate saying that I could play a round in under 80 or produce a slick web page - and never expected actually to perform the activity in question - I might well consider cheating.

"This is the situation we've built for our students: a system in which the only incentives or motives anyone cares about are marks, credits and certificates."

Professor Hunt blamed "government policies which have tilted financial and social responsibility for education increasingly toward the students and their families".

But he also blamed the academic community. "When students say - as they regularly do - 'why should I do this if it's not marked?', they're saying exactly what educational institutions have been highly successful at teaching them to say," he said.

He said that universities needed a fundamental review of how they assess students' learning - and "we should welcome plagiarism because it has forced us to rethink how we teach".

"The assumption that a student's learning is accurately and readily tested by her ability to produce, in an artificial form that she'll never have to write again once she's survived formal education (the essay examination, the formal research paper), is questionable on the face of it and is increasingly untenable."

Ranald Macdonald, head of academic development at the Learning and Teaching Institute at Sheffield Hallam University, said: "There is too much emphasis on the high-stakes, summative assessment, where everything counts. It is a trap we've created for ourselves.

"If students believe that assessment is genuinely contributing to their learning, it doesn't need a mark. It needs good feedback to feed forward into their future learning."

Alastair Irons, associate dean of the School of Informatics at Northumbria University, said that different forms of assessment could dramatically reduce the incentive to plagiarise. He advocated the use of student "portfolios": a package of assessed work that could include videos of student presentations, discussions of case material and annotated case material.

He said portfolios encouraged students to reflect on their work, helped with time management and reduced the overall load of summative assessment, which could encourage plagiarism.

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