Dr Christine Slade and Associate Prof Susan Rowland recently visited UTS to shed light on one of the most wicked problems in Higher Ed; contract cheating.

What is contract cheating?

Contract cheating occurs when a student gets someone else to complete an assessment task or a unit of study for them. It differs from other kinds of plagiarism in that the work submitted is not copied from existing sources, but is instead a tailor-made response to a specific assessment task. Services like Turnitin are therefore of limited use in preventing this kind of cheating.

Where is it happening? How are universities responding?

Contract cheating is a global problem. In Australia, the most publically visible instances of contract cheating occurred during the MyMaster scandal of 2015. The scandal affected a number of universities and prompted a range of initial responses, many of which focussed on improved detection of cheating.

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How can we prevent contract cheating?

It may not be possible to completely prevent contract cheating, though Slade and Rowland’s research and recommendations provide an excellent starting point from which to address the problem. Their recommendations include:

  • more robust policies and procedures
  • support for academics pursuing cases of misconduct
  • building a culture of integrity/encouraging honour codes
  • education of staff and students
  • technological solutions
  • strengthened assessment design

Unfortunately many of these recommendations require whole of institution responses that will take time to develop.

So what can I do right now?

You can discourage contract cheating by designing assessments that are difficult to outsource. The central aim is to reduce the payoff of cheating. Why pay someone else if it’s easier to do the work yourself?

Ways to reduce contract cheating through design include:

  • Personalised assessments where students create their own task in consultation with a staff member. Students then submit a formal proposal and receive feedback. Staff monitor students’ progress during class. The marker then compares the proposal with the completed assessment, in-class progress etc. Students write a reflection explaining how they completed their assessment
  • Use authentic assessments that require contact with external clients or observation of authentic activities. Students must obtain information that is only available from the client (e.g. from meetings, site visits etc.)
  • Flip the assessment criteria weightings for presentations. Allocate most of the weighting to questions asked after the presentation. Students who have not completed their own research will find these much harder to answer
  • Assess the process rather than the product. Assess the interactions between students during process in-person and online. This also has the benefit of directly assessing their teamwork competencies

Other strategies can be found in the work of Slade and Rowland and the new Contract Cheating and Assessment Design project led by Associate Professor Tracey Bretag and Dr Rowena Harper at the University of South Australia.

What’s the solution to contract cheating?

There is no silver bullet solution to contract cheating. A range of measures will be needed to limit the damage it causes though most of them will take some time to deploy. In the meantime we can reduce the incentive to cheat by making the payoff not worth the cost.

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