Talking Teaching

May 2, 2011

on academic honesty

I’m marking at the moment (essays & dissertations) and also (when I need a break) reading James Lang’s book On Course: a week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. (Yes, I know I’ve been teaching for yonks, but I know there’s always something new for me to learn & also it’s nice to look at possible resources that I can recommend to others.) Today I read his chapter for week 9, Academic Honesty.

Now, marking first-year essays for a class of 200 takes rather a long time, not least because the tutor & I tend to write reasonably extensive commentaries on each one. We’ve already given feedback to the whole class on what you could regard as ‘general’ issues: following formatting rules, remembering to cite & reference properly, reminding them that the marking rubric is provided for a reason (sigh!)… This is easy to do because the same things tend to crop up each year, even though we take care to work through them in tutorials well ahead of submission date. But the students still need to know what’s good, & what’s not, about the content of their work; hence the individual comments.

However, it used to take us longer to mark, because as well as the outright marking we’d also be checking for evidence of plagiarism – that is, when someone presents the words and ideas of others as their own. It’s often not that hard to pick up (clues like changes in word pattern, accuracy of grammar or punctuation, or even changes in font, for goodness’ sake!), but we were then having to tediously google each suspect phrase in an attempt to confirm or deny our suspicions before raising them with the students concerned. And believe me, that takes time! Up to 30 minutes, for a particularly questionable piece of work.

What’s changed? Many things. First up, we use TurnItIn & electronic submission of essays. More as a teaching tool than a punitive one: the system generates a ‘similarity’ report that highlights phrases, sentences, or (regrettably) whole paragraphs that are not original but can be traced to a journal article, book chapter, or work previously submitted by another student. So we can sit down with a student & go through the report with them, & talk about what’s happened before making a call on whether it needs to be Taken Further. But I’ve also got some TII reports with all identifying details removed, that we can use in tuts at the start of the semester as the basis of discussions about what academic honesty is, & why it’s important. (It does seem to work, too – before we made the decision to use TII, between 10 & 20% of those first-year essays would show evidence of plagiarism, & in about 5% it would be on a seriously grand scale. These days – well, this year it would be about 5% all up – but the confounding factor there is of course that we’ve made a conscious effort to formalise a lot of other processes as well.)

And I do believe it’s really, really important to have that discussion with students. It’s all very well to stand up the front of a lecture class & say, ‘academic honesty, blah blah blah,’ before moving on to that day’s ‘real’ business, but it’s highly unlikely that many students will take much out of that. Too often, I think, teaching staff can assume that the students will pick all this up by osmosis, and  it just doesn’t happen that way.They need to talk about it, to fit the concept in to their existing framework of ideas about the purpose & function of their studies.

They also need to practice the relevant skills (something that comes through again & again in the AAAS’s Vision & change report). So we give practice (in tuts & lab classes) on paraphrasing, citing, and referencing sources of information. Sometimes this generates some really interesting & valuable discussions on quite different issues. And of course, they need to recognise just why the concept of academic honesty is so important – more interesting discussions can arise from this. Some of that discussion focuses on why internet plagiarism is just as serious as any other form – and lecturers have to give clear instructions that this is so; otherwise it’s a problem that will only get worse, given how easy it is to cut-n-paste a bit from here & a bit from there & weave it together into a whole. Lang notes that in 1999, 10% of US students surveyed admitted to this form of plagiarism, but by 2005 this was up to almost 40% – and “a majority of students (77%) believe[d] that such cheating is not a very serious issue” (Lang, 2008).

But there are other steps that lecturers can put in place to reduce the likelihood of students deliberately cheating with coursework – I’m focusing on plagiarism here, but of course taking notes into exams, or storing information in electronic devices also come under this heading – and I was reminded of some of these when reading Lang’s book.  (Incidentally, he gives some quite alarming statistics about the incidence of self-reported cheating by US students: some studies found up to 50% of students saying that they’d done this at least once in the previous year. And that includes Masters & PhD students.)

An obvious step is to use different assessment items each year. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I suspect that for many (all too many) papers the questions used in tests and exams don’t change much between years. But – especially if test papers are returned (& why shouldn’t they be? Don’t we want students to be able to see where they went wrong?) – word probably gets around fairly quickly. Lang tells the somewhat alarming tale of a college fraternity with a filing cabinet full of previous tests & assignments, for its members’ use… Which is why I write new questions for that essay assignment, every year, & try hard to vary test & exam questions as much as possible. It can be a bit fiddly but hey – at least I’m not reading the same answers to the same questions, over & over & over!

Lang also comments that having multiple assessment items can also work against the tendency to cheat. This is because it reduces the proportion of the grade hanging on any one assessment item, and hence the pressure to do really really well in that item by any means possible. Having different forms of assessment items also helps, as it gives students more than one means of demonstrating their skills & knowledge. (Hence these days we’re using theory tests, lab mastery tests, the essay, on-line self-paced tutorials, plus an exam.)

I found this comment interesting because I often hear that we ‘over-assess’ our students, & indeed, that may be so if we are simply assessing for assessment’s sake. But if – as it should be – the focus of assessment is guiding student learning, and students understand what we’re doing & why, then perhaps the ‘over-assessment’ argument loses some of its force.

James M. Lang (2008) On Course: a week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02806-7



  1. Not sure where Lang got his data, but he reports a pretty honest group.

    Here at least, I think the overassessment complaints stem from the huge amount of standardized testing that has nothing to do with testing student knowledge and everything to do with testing school performance. Thus, we have not only the problem of students cheating, but administrators cheating to make sure that their school performs well enough that their budget does not get cut. My daughter is in elementary school and she spends almost a month out of the year taking tests which have little impact on her directly, but greatly affect school funding.

    I personally test my students on a very frequent basis. I give them quizzes, exams, writing assignments, individual and group assignments, lab reports, quite a variety of ways for them to demonstrate and practice their knowledge.

    The biggest problem I have is getting them to care. I have less than a third of the class that is interested and makes an effort, but most of the class can’t be bothered to even try. They will do work that I require them to do in front of me, but they don’t make the slightest effort to study and I can’t figure out what to do about it. Just last week I gave them a test in which a majority of it was having them come up with important events in the history of life for each major time period. Despite giving them a review in which I basically gave them the answers for the tests, I had one student unable to come up with a SINGLE thing. According to my class, most of them have no idea dinosaurs existed in the Mesozoic. If it wasn’t for two students who get near perfect on every assignment (it is a 14 person class), I might conclude I am far too harsh, except for the mindblowing lack of effort by most of the class and I have no idea how to get them to improve. I have tried everything I can think of to get them motivated, but nothing seems to help.

    Despite making a big deal about cheating, why plagiarism is not good and reinforcing that they should be careful to cite their sources (I even gave them real world examples from the news of people who lost their jobs because of it), I still caught several students trying to cheat in the first few weeks of the course. It seems as if they have said, well if I can’t cheat, I won’t even try. Course, I admit to being biased in my expectations because I teach the coolest and most interesting subject in school from my perspective:)

    This course is near its end, but I am hoping I can figure something out to help this by the next time I teach the course. If anyone has any suggestions, please chime in.

    Comment by jdmimic — May 9, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  2. I think your high-frequency/low stakes method is the way to go. I know of a few courses here where there are just a couple of assessment items (one being the exam) & each contributes 50% of the final grade. To me that is almost guaranteed to elicit all sorts of dodgy student practices.
    Out of interest – what proportion of the grade does each of your items give towards the final grade? I find that even a small % (eg a total of 5% over the year for correctly-answered tutorial questions) does seem quite a good motivator.
    I can feel your frustration & I honestly don’t have a lot of advice (apart from the grading bit, & I suspect you’re already doing that. I’m guessing it’s not just in your class that this is happening?

    Comment by alison — May 24, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

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