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Educators need more resources to tackle contract cheating in universities

**Reposted with permission from MCERA**

Universities have often focused on assessment design to discourage students from outsourcing their assignments. But this approach is not effective, suggests a major new study.

Led by Dr Tracey Bretag, an Associate Professor in the University of South Australia’s School of Management, and her colleague from UniSA’s Teaching Innovation Unit, Dr Rowena Harper, the study finds a “perfect storm” of factors is putting the integrity of higher education at risk.

A reduction in public funding, increased competition, marketisation of education, disruptive technologies, fragile job markets, and a growing focus on credentials in the workplace are key elements in undermining academic integrity.

The study, conducted with co-authors from five other universities, surveyed more than 14,000 students and 1,100 staff across eight universities.

Students were asked how likely it was for contract cheating to occur across different types of assessment, and educators were asked which assessment tasks they used most often, and what support they received from their university to tackle contract cheating.

The study analysed this data to see which factors made students more inclined to think cheating was likely.

Typically, universities have advised staff that assessment design will help prevent contract cheating, but the results of this study show that the methods advocated are not always effective.

“Authentic assessment” is often touted as way of preventing contract cheating. Yet in two commonly used forms of authentic assessment, students still perceived contract cheating to be quite likely: 10 per cent thought it was likely for tasks that developed relevant professional skills, and 15 per cent for tasks where there is no right or wrong answer.

Indeed, large numbers of students thought contract cheating was likely in two of the other task types most commonly used by educators – tasks demanding research, analysis and thinking skills (19 per cent of students thought cheating was likely), and tasks that integrated vital knowledge and skills (14 per cent).

For assignments that were heavily weighted or had a short turnaround time, about one third of students thought cheating was likely. The results debunk previous perceptions that quick turnaround times could help prevent cheating.

The researchers also found that the assessment types that most discouraged cheating were used the least by staff.

These were oral explanations of written tasks (vivas) and tasks that were done in class, were personalised and unique, or involved reflection on a practicum.

The researchers suggest these forms of assessment are used infrequently because of a lack of resources devoted to teaching and learning in universities. They found the educators most likely to use these assessment models were those who reported greater institutional support in tackling contract cheating.

Factors outside of assessment type also played a major role in the likelihood of cheating.

Unsurprisingly, students who had reported cheating themselves were much more likely to think cheating was probable across all assessment types.

Students whose main language was not English also had a higher chance of thinking that cheating was likely for all assessment types, especially for tasks with short turnaround times.

Dr Bretag rejects any attempt to link this finding with negative stereotypes about international students. The issue, she says, is a lack of dedicated support for students who are feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of navigating unfamiliar tasks in a language other than their main one.

“Universities are very happy to take international students’ fees,” said Dr Bretag. “But the support isn’t always there, for instance, when language difficulties are an obstacle to learning.”

The research found students were much more likely to perceive a high chance of contract cheating if they thought that there were lots of opportunities to cheat.

Other factors that increased the perceived likelihood of cheating were dissatisfaction with the teaching and learning environment or studying in certain disciplines.

Commerce students, for instance, tended to think cheating was more likely, while health sciences students tended to think it was less likely. However, these effects were fairly mild.

The researchers say the study shows that there is no clear cause and effect relationship between assessment design and contract cheating. While some tasks appear to reduce the risk, in all task types some students still thought contract cheating was likely.

“This is critical to consider in the case of heavily weighted assessment and invigilated examinations, which have too frequently been assumed to be inherently secure forms of assessment, despite growing evidence to the contrary,” the researchers say.

“Our data suggest it is important to identify and address perceived opportunities to cheat for an assessment task, including invigilated examinations.

“Addressing sources of dissatisfaction with the teaching and learning environment is also necessary,” they say, “especially for students whose main language is not English.

“Finally, any strategy to address contract cheating must be supported by meaningful changes to institutional resourcing and supports to enable educators to make evidence-based improvements to their curriculum and teaching practice.”