Prospering cheats on the up

December 19, 1997

THE EXPANSION of higher education has created a "worrying ambiguity" about cheating, a conference organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education heard last week.

Peter Ashworth, head of the Learning and Teaching Institute at Sheffield Hallam University, told delegates that the reduction in contact time between students and tutors, the rise of coursework-based assessment, worsening tutor:student ratios and the growth of technology all provided opportunities to cheat.

Reviewing his recent paper, Guilty in Whose Eyes? Professor Ashworth said: "Students feel neglected so they often deflect blame for their cheating to their institution." They accused universities of provoking or inviting cheating through "shortcomings and hypocrisies", such as setting too much course work or using flawed forms of assessment.

The rise of continuous assessment has been significant, he said. Students see cheating in the informal context of assignments as of a "lesser moral magnitude" than cheating in formal, unseen and invigilated exams, where there is a much greater perception of gravity.

In fact, copying and collusion in assessed course work, especially when a fellow student is in difficulty, is often perceived by students as justifiable because it does not have an immediate negative effect on the student's peer group.

Professor Ashworth said that problems have arisen through increased bureaucracy, so solutions must not be bureaucratic. "Increased control mechanisms like vivas, to make sure students can show that they have understood what they have written, may be a good idea, but they are time-consuming and time is precious."

He believes that guidance should be given in a more positive way. "We have seen so many rule books which simply say, 'plagiarism shouldn't happen, and here's what will happen to you if it does'. Institutions must say why it shouldn't happen, and explain the learning advantages."

There should be far more effort to "set more creative assignments, which cannot be copied", he said. "There are too many faceless lecturers but it always comes down to a lack of money."

Stephen Newstead, head of Plymouth University's psychology department, said his 1995 study of 2,000 undergraduates found that more than half had cheated, from the 2 per cent who admitted seducing tutors, to the 54 per cent who admitted copying work.

Professor Newstead, who is looking into the cultural differences in students' attitudes, agreed that the best way to improve the situation was to provide better guidance. "We should be much clearer about why the rules exist."

CARDIFF SCEPTICAL OF EXAM TRICK CLAIMS

THE University of Wales, Cardiff will be looking into its invigilation procedures following a suggestion of widespread cheating by students.

But it is sceptical about some findings revealed in the latest issue of the Welsh Journal of Education. Brian Smith, the vice chancellor, pointed in particular to a finding that 34.5 per cent of students had discussed questions with someone who sat the exam earlier. "That simply isn't possible. No exam paper is ever set twice here," he said.

The article, based on a survey of 337 social science students, also found that: 49.4 per cent admitted plagiarising articles from books or newspapers; 43.7 per cent said they had not contributed their fair share to a group project; 13.8 per cent had obtained answers from a colleague during an exam; 6.3 per cent had written assignments for other students; 5.7 per cent had copied someone else's assignment and claimed it as their own; 5.2 per cent had smuggled information into examinations; 0.6 per cent had taken a test for someone else. Professor Smith said the survey raised a worry about plagiarism in assessed work done outside traditional examination conditions. A meeting was held last week to discuss how to combat the problem and an internal magazine advised on how to spot plagiarism.

Cardiff insists that a minimum of 50 per cent of marks for each student are awarded on the basis of rigorously invigilated traditional examinations.

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