Collaboration and Collusion

by | Mar 3, 2023 | Academic Integrity, Institute Fellowships, Projects

David Schultz is Professor of Synoptic Meteorology within the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. He is the author of the award-winning Eloquent Science: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Better Writer, Speaker, and Atmospheric Scientist and has published over 180 peer-reviewed journal articles on meteorological research, weather forecasting, scientific publishing, and education. David is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA) and twice winner of a University Teaching Excellence Award. In this post he talks with Emma Sanders (Secretary to the Contract Cheating Task & Finish Group) about encouraging students to collaborate to improve their academic writing and prepare them for the world of work.  


Your ITL Fellowship project was about forms of written assessment, and one strand looked at the line between collaboration and collusion. Can you tell us a bit more about why you wanted to explore this topic? 

It [students helping to improve each other’s writing for assessment] was one of those things that I always knew we should do more of, but I never heard anyone talk about it or ask the question, “How should we do this?” To me, the essence of doing a larger written piece or project (where each person is looking at a unique question or research topic) is that, unlike a test or an exam, you can come up with a first draft. You give it to the instructor, you get feedback, and then you improve it. I mean, that’s how life works. In most cases at a job, you have to deliver a report to the client or whoever, and the team works on the report: bouncing drafts off each other, making suggestions, tracking changes, until all the problems are fixed and it’s ready to be submitted. That’s also how we write papers as scientists: the lead author starts the draft and then the co-authors bash it around until it’s in perfectly good shape. And this should be particularly useful when you’re a student and you’re trying to learn appropriate writing styles. You have to get feedback, right? You just can’t submit something without knowing the rules, get a grade and then go, “okay, on to the next assignment”. I don’t feel there’s continuity there.  


 That’s an interesting perspective – you’re not coming from a “let’s stop collusion” angle, but from a “let’s encourage collaboration” angle. I’ve always thought that peer assessment is probably most valuable for the student who’s doing the marking and generating the feedback. As a student I tend to value feedback more from an academic who’s got a PhD and knows what they’re talking about! 

But that’s essentially where these ideas that I had came from, because both of these things are going on. I want to give the students feedback myself, but it would be great for the students to also learn to give each other feedback themselves. We all know that students work together, they hang out together after lectures, and they prepare for assignments together. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. 


 So that brings us to what’s ok, and what’s not. What counts as collusion is sometimes subjective, isn’t it?  I think these are matters of interpretation and intention, so [in the guidance I created for students] I just say, “don’t collaborate on any assessment” whereas you are arguing that it can be ok if, as an academic,  you’re closer to the context and the setting of the particular assignment.  

Ultimately the students still need to solve the problem independently, but they could at least have a discussion about the methods or the tricky steps or whatever, and that’s what I wanted to bring more of to my writing class. In particular I guess it really gelled with me thinking about our students whose first language isn’t English. For example, some have a tendency to not use the articles “a” and “the” correctly, while others do. So, I thought that if each of them shared their assignment with someone else, then maybe someone might point out, ‘Hey, look! This is why I chose articles in this situation, and I see you have a problem with it. But here’s how I learned how to overcome that.’” Myself being a native English speaker, I can only tell them simple rules.  But, I can’t really tell a non-native English speaker, “Well, I chose this one because it sounds right.” That’s not helpful. So, it really was that simple: Why couldn’t students simply share each other’s work and pick up on grammatical errors that they’re each making? 

Now, if at the same time they’re also commenting on poorly organized paragraphs or arguments that weren’t evidenced, then more power to them. That led me to question of how much of that sharing is allowed at the university, and to your question of where we draw the line. This happened maybe three years ago, somebody in the hierarchy of teaching and learning pointed me to the University’s Statement on Proofreading, which says that students can get work proofread as long as the feedback is all in kind of general terms, and they’re not actually altering the student’s report. The moment that someone starts altering the text on your document or whatever to fix a sentence for you, that’s when it crosses the line.  

And so, I started making that point in my classes. I encouraged students to share drafts with each other. “Get feedback”, I said, “Just don’t cross the line and start editing each other’s documents.” It obviously works best for assignments where everyone’s doing their own independent kind of project. It’s not the same as a homework question that everyone does, and then everyone passes around their answers—obviously, that’s not what I’m talking about here. And I was never under the illusion that, for large writing assignments, students were going to start editing each other’s writing—it just didn’t feel like that was something that they were going to do.  


 What’s next?   What would you like to do in this area, or what would you like to see the Uni or Sector do?  

I think we just need to address the lack of clarity around collusion and proofreading. It would be nice to have an afternoon with a bunch of people in a room shooting the breeze about this stuff and having a free-ranging discussion about the pros, the cons, the “could we do things better” that fall within all the rules and regulations—just allowing their brains to expand on this topic of teaching and learning and assessment. I think that, even if nothing changed, and we said that the rules were written perfectly good the way they are now, then I know I would come away with better appreciation for what it is we do, and how we can make this system work better.  


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