How to...Stop students from cheating

September 3, 1999

WHAT: There is a fine line between legitimate collaboration and collusion, says Jennifer Moon.

WHY: Team working is to be encouraged but lecturers must know how to spot unfair practices.

HOW: Edinburgh and Glasgow universities are not alone in facing the nightmare of student plagiarism (see page 4). Talk to members of staff in any university and - particularly if you close the door behind you - deep concerns about student cheating and plagiarism will often emerge. It is an attitude that can have serious academic consequences. Three years ago, for example, when I worked in another traditional university, the fear of plagiarism was hampering efforts to move from examination-based assessment to coursework.

The issue re-emerged when I was asked to find ways of providing guidance for university authorities on distinguishing between the positive aspects of collaboration in student team and group work, and undesirable collusion. The work was done and reported on - and then put back under the proverbial carpet.

In the course of these investigations it became obvious that there is little research on cheating and plagiarism in Britain but there is plenty in the United States. The American research suggests that about 60 per cent of students admit to cheating at some time in their higher education careers. British work by a team in the south west of England suggests that the figures are similar here.

If this is the case, then we are neglecting a massive issue of quality that warrants a great deal more attention across the sector. Beyond the worry about students copying material from the internet, we know that students can buy ready-written essays without any difficulty .

We are also aware that the factors that support the increase in cheating and plagiarism are becoming more common. There are more students who are less well known to their teachers and who, as a result, feel more anonymous. Staff are less likely to notice uncharacteristic styles in submitted work. And, in addition, more students adopt a strategic approach to higher education, wanting to get through with a reasonable degree while needing employment.

But simply reporting that there is more plagiarism and cheating is not enough. We need to learn more about how to avoid it, the circumstances that encourage it, how to advise students about unfair practice, and how to deal with cases when they occur. In the course of my discussions, it has become evident that first we need to sort out the vocabulary we use - particularly the manner in which we communicate codes of acceptable practice to students.

Cheating is a generic word that implies deceit. But in this context, it is best used to refer to a range of practices that might be employed to improvegrades in examinations.

It also applies to the creation of data. Plagiarism is technically the representation of another's work as one's own without acknowledgement or referencing. (The origin of the word "plagiarism" is, interestingly, the action of kidnapping.) This means that plagiarism incorporates collusion - a fact that is not always taken into consideration in institutional regulations.

Yet we also need to separate collaboration from collusion. The simplest definition of collaboration is that of working together for mutual benefit, or towards an end product that is better than one achievable through individual work.

Collusion implies the same process but with the intention to deceive a third party, normally the assessor. It is interesting to note that the word "collaboration" has acquired negative connotations - of helping an enemy. Awareness of such connotations is important when we are working with non native English speakers.

In the context of the management of cheating and plagiarism in higher education, it is not entirely helpful to bury collusion in regulations that refer to plagiarism, since those whose work is copied are also involved in the collusion. It seems easier, therefore, to accept that while collusion and plagiarism involve deceit of a third party, in collusion the party is aware of the crime, and in plagiarism, he or she is unaware of it. It is possible, as may have happened in Edinburgh, to collude in plagiarising the work of another.

Responses from lecturers fall in to three categories. Some say: "We don't have any problems like that." Others will admit to "odd cases, some of which have taken up an immense amount of time". A third group say they see and deal with only the tip of a large iceberg.

Experiences of dealing with cases are often traumatic for the lecturers as well as for students and there is often an attempt to cope with the matter within a department behind closed doors.

But there are a number of variables that will automatically determine how much cheating and plagiarism might occur within a department.

Where students are largely assessed by examination, plagiarism and collusion are not an issue, although there are still plenty of ways in which students can cheat.

Situations that are particularly vulnerable to collusion are those where similar work is required from year to year, or where students choose their own topics for work. In the sciences it is evident that the manufacture of data is relatively common. Pressures on students towards these unfair behaviours vary. It is easy to imagine that where language is a problem, or where students are living close together, the tendency to consult on a common assignment task in the first year of a course is an obvious means of simply surviving.

The boundary of acceptability is the real problem and it is complicated when we actively encourage or reward group or teamwork while insisting that students do the final "writing up" alone. When do they stop talking and write? There are, in fact, many ways in which joint work can be submitted fairly.

In a similar way it is the boundary of acceptability for plagiarism that is difficult. Most academic work relies on drawing from the material of others and referencing it, but are we sure that the new idea, the inspiration, is our own and not unconsciously lifted from elsewhere?

While one way of reducing cheating and plagiarism is to manage the nature of the work to be assessed, another is to tell students what constitutes unfair practice and to tell them not to do it. What students are told about cheating and plagiarism, even within one university, varies considerably, but a common feature is that much of the "telling" is done within a couple of weeks of one of the major changes in their lives, after their entry into higher education.

It may be three or four months or longer before an occasion arises in which they need to apply what they have been told in coursework. In addition, the manner in which this law of academic practice is often communicated tends to generate considerable fear, which can dominate or distort early coursework.

We do also tend to present the material in a manner that suggests that the boundaries of acceptable practice are clear-cut and we leave students floundering around trying to find out where these mythical boundaries are.

There are ways of reminding students that their obligations extend beyond the early course instructions. It is often regular practice to ask students to sign a disclaimer that is appended to significant project work, or sometimes even to every piece of submitted work. While the effect of this is uncertain, it is a reminder and ensures that students cannot claim ignorance (they signed it). Most disclaimers relate only to plagiarism. A useful addition is to add a second item: that students have not knowingly allowed others to copy their work. But the best way to prevent cheating, plagiarism and collusion is the threat of detection.

Jennifer Moon is staff development officer at Exeter University.

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