I sat through a one hour talk (lecture) on plagiarism this
week, where the speaker (University plagiarism rep) showed not a single
citation but plenty of anecdotal bullet points. There was even a bit of
plagiarism from another plagiarism expert. As the old adage goes, when students
copy, it is plagiarism; academics call it research.
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
(cheap) or turnitin.com
(BlackBoard). Turnitin also have 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 hat 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 doig 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
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
In truth, there are lots of alternatives to the long-form
essay. Here’s ten for starters.
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.
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.
and video submission. I’ve seen this work well. It’s difficult to bullshit on a
video or audio recording.
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.
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?
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
little Trojan Horses on the go – from Journals that the essay companies don’t have
access to, or items from your own writing.
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.