We need to talk about Contract Cheating
Emma Sanders is a Teaching and Learning Adviser in the Institute of Teaching and Learning (ITL). Rhea Poonevala was one of the ITL’s first Student Partners in 2020 and is currently a student on the BSc (Hons) IT with Business (ITMB) programme. Together they ensured a range of student voices fed into the work of the Contract Cheating Task and Finish Group. In this article, Emma reflects on their investigation into contract cheating at the University and discusses the findings with Rhea.
The University’s Contract Cheating Task & Finish Group (CCTG) convened for the first time in April 2020, with a remit to agree what support staff and students require in order to raise awareness and understanding about this specific form of academic malpractice.
Our own Professors Dave Schultz (FSE) and Dan Rigby (Hums) had already published papers on information literacy and the ‘market’ in essays respectively, and the group brought them together with academic representation from BMH as well as staff working across My Learning Essentials, Student Engagement, Student Conduct and Discipline (at university and faculty levels), and the Student Union’s Education Officer.
Rhea joined the group as a Student Partner in June 2020, having just completed her first year as an undergraduate. Rhea explains how “when I was first introduced to the project, I had never come across the term ‘contract cheating’. After researching it, I understood that it is the practice of engaging a third party to write an assignment on your behalf. It usually involves payment, which makes the cheating deliberate, pre-planned and intentional, despite being unethical – to the point that selling essays has been made illegal in some countries.”
Although I had experience of supporting malpractice panels, I had no idea that selling assignments is now a massive industry that markets aggressively to students. When it comes to contract cheating, there are so many angles to consider, and we had to work quickly and closely together in order to understand the phenomenon and put some measures in place in time for September. It was an involved and absorbing project. The Quality Assurance Agency’s reports were a hugely helpful source of condensed information, and Phill Dawson, a Professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, is a specialist on this topic: he’s a regular speaker at conferences, and his webpage, twitter feed, papers and monograph are all really useful.
Working with Rhea was easily one of the most rewarding parts of the project. Once briefed, she very quickly took over the running of a series of focus groups; from recruiting and selecting participants, devising activities to elicit their thoughts within the sessions, to delivering them online, she really hit the ground running. Doing everything via email and Zoom meant that Rhea working from Bangkok while I was in Stockport wasn’t an issue.
As for the findings, the CCTFG were blown away with the richness of the data Rhea had collected and the concise way she presented the students’ views. Rhea even agreed to tutor me on how to use Canvas afterwards! In short, we realised that tackling this problem is everybody’s responsibility. All our findings indicated that contract cheating should be tackled holistically, through promoting a culture of academic integrity. Our students said that “[the] implications of contract cheating should be made clear,” and that they thought “the University should talk more about it because it’s never discussed or discouraged by lecturers”.
We advocate a two-pronged Campaign and Train approach: campaigning which focusses on awareness and discussions around ethics, supported by training in skills such as information literacy and critical thinking, in addition to the usual note-making and referencing. We – at all levels of the institution – need to develop and implement a year-long programme of student-facing messaging and resources, which begin at Welcome and Induction, if not before students even arrive at the University – informed by the recommendations proposed by the CCTFG Student Focus Groups in July 2020.
To support our staff in having these conversations, the CCTFG produced the Contract Cheating Toolkit. This covers Prevention, Detection and Action, and offers insight into the question of why students plagiarise and cheat. While there is no debate that cheating is wrong, it’s important to remember that the majority of our students would agree, and to discuss the issue with sensitivity. The QAA report that “essay mill marketing seeks to exploit students who are feeling vulnerable or anxious, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.” These companies directly target students’ university email accounts to sell their services, and it isn’t always clear that their use is not legitimate. This WonkHE article highlights the dangers students face and how they can be exploited. Seen through this lens, it is as much a safeguarding issue as it is a conduct and discipline issue.
After that period of intense activity over the summer of 2020, the CCTFG agreed to reconvene in a year’s time to review progress and determine the next steps. So, we will be regrouping later this month. There is still much to do. We’ll be working with the Student Conduct and Discipline Committee (SCDC), and as part of this ongoing work the CCTFG would love to hear from colleagues about any local initiatives or resources, and would welcome case studies or blog posts about our colleagues’ experiences.
With many thanks to the CCTFG members: Lynda Ashcroft, Sam Aston, Laetitia Alexandratos, Jason Hall, Ian Hutt, Nasser Latif, Lisa McDonagh, Dan Rigby, Chloe Salins, Dave Schultz, Damien Tolan, Matthew Valentine, and Judy Williams for their input.
If you are interested in finding out more on topic of contract cheating or you’d like to be involved with our ongoing work, you can contact Emma through the Institute of Teaching and Learning via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources and training which may be of interest:
- The staff-facing Contract Cheating Toolkit covers Prevention; Detection; Action
- 1-page ‘quick guides’ for staff on: Contract Cheating Toolkit; Detecting Contract Cheating; Substantiating Contract Cheating; the Academic Malpractice Procedure Flowchart.
- Guidance on designing open book assessments is available in a resource produced by Sally Hickson (ITL Fellow) and colleagues from the OBL Assessment Group and ITL; this resource also includes advice on supporting students with open book exams and practical tips for delivery.
- Academic Integrity was included in the list of topics for Academic Advisors to discuss with their advisees, when students will be working in an OBL environment (Top Tips for Academic Advising: 2020/21)
- The New Academics Programme includes links to the Online and Blended Learning (OBL) Assessment Toolkit though workshops on assessment design
Student resources and messaging:
- Guidance to students on plagiarism and other forms of academic malpractice, has been updated to include Contract Cheating
- A warning about “Essay mills” has been added to the Student Microsite: Finances – Scams and Risks section
- Advice on “Avoiding academic malpractice” on the Student Microsite: Assessments and Exams section: Avoiding academic malpractice
- Student Support Microsite – Good Study Skills
- A digital poster Work Hard, Work Honestly, produced by the CCTFG Student Focus Groups (July 2020), is available to show via digital display screens in University-owned halls and UMSU around mid-Semester and before examination periods.
- The University of Manchester Library My Learning Essentials resource ‘Avoiding plagiarism‘ has been updated to include contract cheating
- “Contract Cheating and how to avoid it”, by Rhea Poonevala, on the Student News site.
Other recommended reading:
- Phillip Dawson Defending assessment security in a digital world: preventing e-cheating and supporting academic integrity in higher education (Routledge, London. 2021)
- Dan Rigby et al, (2015) Contract Cheating and the market in essays Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization Volume 111, March 2015, Pages 23-37
- Waller, R., and D. M. Schultz, 2014: How to succeed at university in GEES disciplines: Enhancing your information literacy skills. GEES, Higher Education Academy, 30 pp. [http://bit.ly/InfoLiteracySkills] (HEA resource)
References from this article:
- QAA (2020) Contracting to Cheat in Higher Education How to Address Essay Mills and Contract Cheating, 2nd Edition (QAA, 18 June 2020)
- QAA Assessing with integrity in digital delivery (QAA, 07 May 2020) part of Covid-19 supporting resources
We need to talk about Contract Cheating
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