Lecture, essay, cheat, repeat… plagiarism, why it's endemic and 10 ways to avoid
What threw me was the complete absence of any critical thought around the nature of the problem. This is a cat and mouse game, where predictable, often identical assignments (largely long-form essays) are set, students procrastinate, share, cut and paste and increasingly purchase essays, only to wait sometimes weeks for often sparse feedback and a solitary grade.
There just doesn’t seem to be any will to solve the problem, only sticking plaster solutions, namely grammarly.com (free), academicpalgiarism.com (cheap) or turnitin.com (expensive) or SafeAssign.com (BlackBoard). Turnitin also has writecheck, a service that allows students to submit their work. Actually turnitin.com is not that expensive per student and pays for itself in being a massive deterrent, as well as taking the pressure off teachers.
But the game is getting more complex as, on one side, institutions and academics are bogged down in traditional trench warfare lobbing out the same old, big essay assignments, against guerrilla fighters using good comms, high tech and stealth. Actually, in truth, it’s more like wrestling, a sort of pre-planned charade where both sides play out a predictable set of routines. As long as institutions see this as a deficit problem (those pesky students and essay companies ruining our trade) nothing will change. This is a problem that needs smart solutions, not denial and mouse-traps.
In the red corner
On one side, institutions and academics set predictable assignments. The format is the lazy essay question. They often don’t change for years. In this case the speaker, who taught English, had been using identical assignments for seven years! Why does this happen? First, fossilised practice, second teaching comes second to research, third a dearth of assessment design skills, fourth the institution encourages this fossilised and primitive form of assessment, fifth, the quality bodies are stuck in a model that has barely changed in a hundred years.
In the blue corner
On the other side, students use tech that makes it easier for them to play the game and win. They’re on social media, making it easier to share. They have access to oodles of sources from which they can cut and paste. Beyond this they can buy relatively cheap, and undetectable, essays and dissertations, online. To be fair, they often don’t receive enough teaching and advice on how to do assignments with academic integrity. The psychology here is interesting. The assignment turns into a chore. They know that feedback will be light and that it is unpredictable when they will get the marked essay back. They start to see learning as a game.
Increasing numbers of students, with English as a second language, clearly results in more pressure to cheat. Their parents have paid through the nose and failure is hard to take as it involves huge loss of face. The practice of getting their essays translated from their first language is also commonplace, which makes plagiarism even harder to detect. Even with native English speakers, the pressures of student loans and high expectations from parents may push them to take this route. On top of this is the reluctance of academics to do the necessary detection work, which can be detailed and arduous, to follow up on cheating. You need a lot of very sure evidence to pull this off and most don’t even want to start the process and climb that bureaucratic mountain. Another protective layer on top of this, is the reluctance of the institution to admit it happens, as there’s reputation loss. This is a perfect storm, where students, teachers and institutions, literally institutionalize cheating.
If you repeatedly ask and don’t receive, you’re probably asking wrongly. I had a conversation with Professor at a top UK London University who was horrified when she was forced by the University to set essay questions for her pharmacology students. She thought it was a dumb-ass form of assessment for her subject and she was right. Essays are sometimes appropriate assignments if one wants long-form critical thought. But in many subjects shorter, more targeted assignments and testing are far better. There’s a lot of formative assessment techniques out there and essays are just one of them. Short answer questions, open-response, formative testing, adaptive testing. I’d argue that student blogs are often better than essays as one can see progress and it’s not something that’s easy to plagiarise. Truth be told, HE wants it easy, and essays are easy to set. They also have to accept that they are also easy to cheat.
One other problem in HE is the ready confusion between formative and summative assessment. There’s far too much marking and summative assessment in HE. If the assignment is a formative learning experience, why mark at all? It’s all about the feedback. Professor Black, who has spent decades studying this issue, recommends NOT marking to focus on feedback. Marking acts as an end point. High performing students get 80% then stop, assuming the other 20% is not worth the effort, low performing students get demotivated, What learners actually need is not a mark but detailed and constructive feedback.
There’s also the problem of what counts as plagiarism. One of the problems is that plagiarism sites often count direct quotes as plagiarism, confusing the stats and sending false positives into the system. A second problem is what constitutes ‘common knowledge’ i.e. stuff that doesn’t have to have citations. This is tricky.
But there’s an even worse problem in assessment. To rely on the essay format or long-form prose answers is to encourage students to memorise essays and play roulette with the subject in their finals. Students, the world over, play the game of final assessment by memorising essays. There's a pretence that it's testing critical thought. It's not.
We know the scale of the problem. Compare the scanty number of cases actually reported by institutions against the number and size of the companies offering such services. There’s a massive gap and this is just the tip of the iceberg, as most of it is in the grey economy, with even parents doing the cheating. Purchased essays and dissertations are now commonplace in Universities. But much of this is their own fault. They’re stagnant in their form of teaching and assessment, with the one hour lecture still the dominant, global pedagogy, and essays the commonest form of assessment. These are often written by disgruntled PhDs who can’t get jobs. This guy’s testimony is typical. You could legislate against such companies but it would just shift abroad. This is a huge industry. What we should do is add up the turnover of all of these companies then triple it, as most of it is black market.
A freshly written essay, costs about as much as an expensive meal for two. Remember, that as a return on investment, even a grand or two is well worth it, for that bit of paper with your University name on it and those numbers after the degree. That, as they keep telling us, is worth lots of muoolah.
What to do?
In truth, there are lots of alternatives to the long-form essay. Here’s ten for starters.
1. Think about what you want your students to achieve – the type of ‘learning’ i.e. factual knowledge, techniques, procedures, processes, critical thought etc. – then pick an appropriate assessment method.
2. If essays are required, think about notes, first drafts and so on. This is a far more useful form of learning and teaching. Why be so summative and final with a once-only submission process. Writing is not like that – it’s an iterative process.
3. Audio and video submission. I’ve seen this work well. It’s difficult to bullshit on a video or audio recording.
4. Presentations with questions. Make students present and put them under scrutiny through questioning. This is a far more sophisticated form of formative assessment.
5. More regular short form assessments during and at end of lectures. Read Eric Mazur on how to do this. He’s the master.
6. Peer assessment. Get students to critique and give feedback on each other’s work. It’s a good learning experience for both sides.
7. Quick fire quizzes have been shown to be extremely productive in terms of retention and recall in learning. Do this often. Why not at the end or during all lectures?
8. Don’t set predictable assignments, that have been set dozens of times before as banks of essays will have been already written. Set unusual assignments that are more closely aligned with your course, refer to lessons, lectures, class discussions and are not too generic. This makes it difficult for the external essay writers.
9. Set little Trojan Horses on the go – from Journals that the essay companies don’t have access to, or items from your own writing.
10. Check by Googling your assignment. You may find them being touted around.
This has reached crisis point. Everyone knows it but there’s a conspiracy of silence. Universities are scared to admit the scale of the problem, as they trade on reputation. We’ve created this monster but institutional inertia is incapable of solving the problem, as they refuses to change. And it’s not only coursework that’s a problem. Want to get into a good university from China, there’s lots of places you can get ‘advice’ and ‘help’ from. Speak to students who get to know their colleagues and they’ll be quick to tell you anecdotes about students who can barely speak English getting into Universities and still scoring well in essays. It’s endemic before the students even arrive. A more interesting problem, one barely recognised, is that many students from more privileged backgrounds, have parents who do this work for them. I’ve heard parents brazenly tell me about the essays they’ve written for their sprogs. This, I suspect, is an even bigger problem and one that discriminates against students who don’t have that support at home. It’s time for change folks. Will it happen? Will it hell.