Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 6 – Which Students Are Contract Cheating And What Does This Mean For Assessment?

This is Part 6 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

As Tracey Bretag said at the opening conference keynote, it is just not possible to set an assessment for which cheating is impossible. Despite that, there is still much good practice to be considered when setting assessments to benefit the students who engage with it.

Highly unusually, I think that this is the first conference I’ve been to in a while where I didn’t once hear the term “authentic assessment”. With that said, several of the recommendations from conference speakers support the ideals of authentic assessment in all but name.

Which Students Are Contract Cheating?

Several studies presented at the conference showed progress towards answering the difficult question regarding how many students are contract cheating, or if certain groups of students engaging in the practice can be identified.

In her opening keynote, Tracey Bretag settled on the figure of between 6% and 10% of students having contract cheated at least once. That figure remained mainly consistent across the conference. Tracey did note that there was no significant difference in the cheating figures between the universities that Australia defines as elite and non-elite. I suspect that the same would be true in the UK, even though the figures that UK universities choose to report to the media can differ substantially.

Veronika Kralikova surveyed over 1000 students in the Czech Republic and found that over 8% of them had contract cheated. Veronika also observed a gender difference, with 5% of female students saying that they had contract cheated, but 15% of male students stating this. She also found that 34% of the students said that they knew someone else who had contract cheated, suggesting that this isn’t an activity that students keep quiet about.

Several other groups of students likely to be susceptible to the temptation of contract cheating were also identified in Tracey Bretag’s presentation, with numbers based on a survey of 14,086 students on courses at universities in Australia. 814 of these students said that they had carried out one or more behaviours classified as cheating on a wider scale.

15.8% of the overall survey responders were international students, but 33.0% of the cheating group were international students.

13.1% of the overall group were engineering students, but when looking at just the cheating group, this figure rose to 24.6%.
It does need to be stressed that the cheating behaviours do not just cover contract cheating and also include areas like hiring an exam impersonator or cheating in an examination, but the overall figures do suggest that there could be issues to overcome regarding contract cheating that are specific to the engineering discipline.

The identification of engineering is interesting, as many of the listings of the subjects where most contract cheating is found, including some of my own studies, identify the areas taught in a Business School as most at risk. Business was not singled out in Tracey’s presentation. However, there is still analysis to be done. It may be that Business has been a red herring, with the contract cheating numbers appearing high simply because there are a lot of students taking the subject. It may also be that engineering numbers are bolstered in this study due to examination cheating. The full analysis will be interesting.

There may also be an overlap between the international student group and the engineering student group.

Tracey also verbally noted that the highest cheating levels seemed to be related to groupwork, with a possible overlap to engineering. Contract cheating and groupwork is an important area to consider regarding assessment design. I’ve previously suggested that well-designed groupwork can make contract cheating difficult, since this can be structured to require group complacency with contract cheating. However, I’ve also observed outsourcing requests on agency websites where students are just sending their section of a piece of groupwork to a third party. To me, that isn’t groupwork at all, it’s just standard assignments which can be completed individually.

Further, I recall a presentation at the Western Australia Forum for Contract Cheating where the presenter talked about whole groups of students agreeing to outsource their tasks as a collective. And, in that case, groups largely consisted of international students. This means that just assigning groupwork, on its own, is not a solution for contract cheating. More research into how to develop successful and authentic groupwork assignments in the age of contract cheating is needed.

What Assessments Are Susceptible To Contract Cheating?

Why students cheat and plagiarise is a long-standing question, but the answers do support types of assessment that may work better than others.

Tracey Bretag presented the results of a survey of more than 14,000 students in Australia that was used to identify which types of assessments they were most likely to outsource. The top three were: (1) assignments with a short turnaround, (2) weighted assignments and (3) continuous assessment. Hannah Sketchley, representing the National Union of Students in the UK, gave supporting results from her investigations, where “high stakes assessment” was of concern. From a practical viewpoint, I can see that, but from a pragmatic viewpoint, I also know of students who complain about overassessment when there are too many assessment points in a module. That may also support the high ranking given for the likely outsourcing of continuous assessment.

Indeed, in my presentation I discussed the growth of sites designed to complete every assignment on a course or module for a student and such sites appear highly targeted at students with lots of small assessments. It will be interesting to see what the recommendations are that will rationalise two concerns that seem to be polar opposites.

The issue of assignments with a short turnaround continues to be of concern as there is no evidence suggesting any benefits to students here. I’ve shared many examples I’ve shown of student assignments being completed by third parties in a matter of hours and Phil Newton has analysed turnaround times by individual writers to show that they can deliver work quickly (and may even like the faster turnaround times as they can charge a premium price). Phil shared an interesting observation from an essay mill that now defaults to a three-day turnaround on the site. This suggests that essay mills have decided that fast turnaround this is the best way to market their offer.

The results from Tracey’s survey were not all doom and gloom. She also identified the three factors that students said would make them least likely to outsource an assignment. These were: (1) reflections of practice, (2) viva and (3) personalised and unique. I’ve long since advocated on the increased use of vivas within higher education assessment. They are not perfect, but can work well if used in a controlled manner. The other ideas are worth considering. Many essay mills offer reflective writing, although it may be that students choose not to order this.

Personalised assignments are another good way to increase student engagement, but like the other assignment types, they are not foolproof. I’ve observed many examples of students outsourcing project reports and dissertations, getting this back a chapter at a time and returning the comments of their supervisor to their hired writer. There are whole sites that market themselves solely as dissertation and capstone project suppliers. I’ve seen lots of examples of dissertation outsourcing at MBA level and have also observed requests at PhD level. Other safeguards still need to be in place here.

Teddi Fishman suggested a possible variant on the viva which may be worth trying. In this assessment, students give a presentation based on the topics they’ve learned about in the module. The twist is that they don’t know what will be on the presentation slides until they arrive in the assessment room. If anyone does test that one out, please let me know how well it goes.

Contract Cheating and Examinations

One suggestion that is often made when contract cheating is discussed is to simply use examinations again. That may be a partial solution in some cases, but it’s not a complete solution. I was pleased to see that I was not the only person presenting on the challenges posed by examinations. This topic found its way into several other presentations.

In the survey of over 14,000 Australian students reported by Tracey Bretag, she found that 0.2% of students had got someone else take an exam for them. Of the students getting someone else to take an exam for them, only 10% has paid money. By contrast, 0.5% of students said that they had taken an exam for someone else, of which 16.7% received money. I do think that some caution needs to be applied to those figures, as many seem to use exam as an interchangeable term for assessment. If correct, the difference between these figures has to be of interest.

Tracey’s team also surveyed over 1000 academics working at Australian university. They found that 5% of staff had observed impersonation in examination, a number that is much higher than I would have anticipated and has to be of alarm.

Bob Ives presented his work in progress regarding cheating in Moldova and Romania. Both countries were said to have substantial problems with examination cheating, including through impersonation and through the use of unauthorised materials in the exam.

I was also introduced to a site I haven’t seen before, http://ipaidabribe.com, where individuals in India post about bribes they’ve (had to) make. India has often been in the news regarding exam cheating and unsurprisingly the site contains several hundred examples of bribery relating to exams, including examples of bribe payments being required to pass driving tests, engineering certifications and even to qualify as a medical doctor. It’s a site I need to explore further.

My own presentation showed several examples where people attempted to outsource their examinations, including university students and people taking professional exams. Tests taken on a computer looked to be particularly susceptible here. Students were seen using several novel ways to communicate with people outside an examination hall, including instant messenger services like WhatsApp. If communication like this is successfully happening, some changes regarding examination security are necessary.

I also discussed the availability of other technology, particularly the hidden earpieces that were found to be prominent during our SEEPPAI research and allow someone outside an examination hall to whisper answers to a student inside it. A question was raised regarding how such exam cheating technology works, so cheating devices is also an area that I feel needs to receive more widespread communication with the academic audience.

Assessment Recommendations

The same principles regarding good assessments repeated themselves in several different ways during the conference. One of the main ones has to be to stop essay writing being a main part of the requirements for an academic qualification. These are assessments that are susceptible to contract cheating and are “bread and butter” to writers for contract cheating services. As several presenters expressed in different ways, if a writer can turn out multiple essays on multiple subjects a day, then these can’t be essays that are worth writing or reading. But yet, such essays still seem to be being purchased and they still seem to pass.

Hannah Sketchley said that there was a need to co-design assessments with students. It’s not the easiest thing to get right, particularly to also comply with quality processes, external expectations and professional body requirements, but this is certainly a direction to strive towards. A similar recommendation to redesign assessment to remove high stakes components also came from Wendy Sutherland-Smith. Wendy has been attempting this but she also noted that this approach had heavy resource implications which may not prove sustainable in the long term.

Teddi Fishman summed up the challenges posed by contract cheating and assessment well at the keynote that closed the conference. Teddi advocated that “we must require our students to be active participants in their own learning”.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 1 – Academic Integrity and Contract Cheating Terminology

This is Part 1 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

One of the main challenges to emerge from the Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference from an understanding point of view related to problems with the terminology used across the field. Therefore, I’ve selected a discussion of the issues as a slightly unusual place to launch this blog post series reviewing the conference findings.

The Lack of Terminology

There were several occasions during the conference when the lack of a consistent terminology caused problems. Contract cheating was noted to not be a common term in the Czech Republic and some presenters substituted ghostwriting. The panel discussion noted that the term ghostwriting was rather flawed in this context, since this automatically assumes that work produced through contract cheating is of the written form. Many disciplines do not use essays and reports, or rarely use them, but contract cheating is equally applicable to a student requesting a musical composition, a set of PowerPoint slides or the source code for a computer program.

One member of the audience thought that contract cheating had only recently become known about in Canada and was not aware of the volume of research and practical advice on the subject. The pre-conference programme had made it clear that there were multiple sessions on the topic at the conference, including two of the keynotes. This suggests that there is still much more work to do to spread the message about this form of academic misconduct.

One presentation used the term “contract cheaters” to refer to the writers providing assignments for students. To me, the “cheaters’ have always been the students receiving the work, so that terminology is difficult. I’ve tended to use “workers” to describe the writers, particularly as this term does not preclude non-written assessments. There are further complications when the person or company paid to complete an assignment is not the same person who completes it and I’ve identified many such examples during my research. The term “academic writer” was also noted to be used by people in the trade, although that rather lends the profession legitimacy.

The Use of the Term Exams

The term “exams” also proved to be difficult. I’d observed this causing problems during the SEEPPAI research I’ve been involved with and based on some discussions, it seemed that the same different interpretations were happening with some delegates at the conference. I interpret exams (or examinations) as being the tests taken by students, usually in a controlled environment. It seems that some countries say exams when they want to represent the entire set of assessment making up a module or course, even if this is solely graded through coursework. My talk also showed an example where a student said they were attempting to outsource the completion of an exam for them. They were actually asking for the production of a set of PowerPoint slides.

Further Developments

I may have inadvertently further added to the overall confusion. I presented a session that looked at contract cheating when applied to an examination setting. There are many such examples when this terminology is valid, for instance when a student hires a third party to complete an online examination for them.

I suspect that it’s getting to the point where a full taxonomy of terms relating to academic integrity and contract is needed. Older papers may even need to be reworked in light of a fresh annotated bibliography that has such an agreed taxonomy in place.

Do We Need To Worry About Smartwatches Disrupting Education?

I’ve spoken a lot recently about the challenges posed by the changes in technology used by students in education and in the wider world, particularly when lecturers aren’t poised to react to these changes.

Several student cheating commentators, myself included, have mentioned the Apple Watch as being a device that exam invigilators should look out. And this is only one of a number of smartwatch competitors on the market.

The smartwatch essentially moves several features of a mobile phone to the convenient location of being on a student’s wrist. A student looking at a watch, or even lightly touching it, wouldn’t usually be of concern to an invigilator (unless the student had forgotten to disable the annoying beep sound that some watches emit). A smartwatch is a different story.

Many university exam procedures and anti-cheating regulations do not yet specifically discuss smartwatches. This needs to be discussed during regular periodic reviews of teaching processes.

Likewise, not all invigilators are yet familiar with looking for smartwatches and I suspect that many would not know how to recognise them when confronted with a examination hall full of students. With such a variety of fashion watches available for students, even the slightly bulkier frame of a smartwatch may not stand out.

Along with the Apple Watch, there are many other brands and types of smartwatches available on the market and these really don’t need to be expensive. For instance, I imported a low-end smartwatch from China running the common Android operating system to test out and this cost under £10 – and that included shipping to the UK.

News stories in this field have found examples of students taking examinations having answers transmitted to them. These answers were displayed on the small smartwatch screen.

You can now also buy smartwatches that are advertised specifically as cheating watches. Functionalities vary, but all of them are designed to provide quick access to information that students might have ready for an exam, whilst also looking like a regular smartwatch. Particularly sophisticated versions of this use a screen that looks like a real watch face. It would be difficult to notice this without doing very close and careful checks of all student watches.

I have seen some movement towards addressing this problem with revised university examination processes. There are examples of universities where students are now only allowed to take a watch into an examination when placed in a clear plastic bag and positioned on their desk, presumably not to be touched during the examination.

The media has raised a wider question asking if schools, colleges and universities on the way towards airport style security for exams? To protect the integrity of exams, there do certainly need to be changes put into place.

Having been both a student and an invigilator in many examinations, I know that the methods used to communicate time remaining can be limited. Think, poorly positioned clocks Think also, inconsistent clocks in different parts of a large room and analogue devices where it’s really not obvious which minute the clock hand is pointing to. I’ve even seen clocks with failing batteries which lose time during the examination. That’s why, it’s currently almost a necessity for students to have a watch with them. I do think that simply disallowing watches should be possible, but to do that, much better ways of communicating exam timings are needed.

Something for the educators involved with examinations to think about.

Contract Cheating and Academic Misconduct in Examinations and Tests Video

Here is a video version of my contract cheating talk from the Higher Education Academy STEM Conference, which was recorded in advance of the conference for the benefit of people who could not attend. You can see the slides from the original HEA talk and a short discussion here.

I do have a full teaching and learning seminar available on examination cheating and what can be done about it, which can be presented alongside our contract cheating examples or independently. There is a lot of fascinating stuff available in this field, including much of the technology available to enable students to cheat. Please contact me if you’re interested in me speaking about this at your event or institution.

Contract Cheating and Academic Misconduct in Examinations and Tests

The format of the Higher Education Academy STEM Conference changed rather this year from previous years, with the submission of papers becoming the submission of an abstract and the presentation of a set of slides.

This change worked out well for me, as it allowed me to present an overview of an important area that Robert Clarke and I have been working on – the people who are paying money to cheat on exams. There is some scope to work this into a full paper, but it will be challenging to make it work in a traditional style. Many of the examples of contract cheating in exams aren’t easily found or available to the public, so although we can show it exists, our database of exam cheating examples is limited in number. The presentation format allowed me to work the exam cheating issue into an example filled talk.

The slides for the HEA STEM Conference talk are available for access online. These can be viewed on my SlideShare account, or you can also see the slides below.

In the talk, I looked at some of the challenges facing the examination assessment method, particularly where impersonators are hired to take exams on behalf of students, or online exams are taken by a third party. There were comments raised expressing surprise about how cheaply such cheating could be done, provided the right worker was hired to help with the job.

There was a lot of post talk discussion (as well as tweeting) about the role that technology now plays in student cheating. Wearable computing is becoming a particular issue, with students having access to minute mobile devices allowing them to communicate with the outside world through pictures or audio. Exactly what equipment students are allowed to take into the exam room with them needs to be carefully considered and the items brought in do now need to be checked.

There was also some interesting discussion about the sites available for students to sell their completed work to, forming a database of “model” answers available to other students to purchase. Although I’d hope that these would be detected by Turnitin, there was discussion about whether these sites should exist and whether students had the rights to sell their work in this way.

A good chat about regulations was included and some of the difficulties of putting cheating cases forward were discussed. I was reminded of the need to ensure that attempting to cheat and attempting to outsource work are both unacceptable in university regulations. I was also reminded of how some cases, particularly those of exam impersonation, can actually lead to criminal charges. Cheating in exams is most certainly not recommended!