In Steinbeck’s withering final novel The Winter of Our Discontent, published in 1961, the protagonist’s son, Allen Hawley, wins the “I Love America” essay contest. It turns out Allen constructed his masterpiece by cheating; copying from the household’s most uplifting books. He shrugs off the condemnations “Who cares? Everybody does it. It’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

Society rightly worries about cheating. If you ask any evolutionary biologist, you will also get the answer that cheating is one of many strategies that are used throughout the natural world. Harmless flies pose as dangerous wasps; edible butterflies copy the appearance of poisonous varieties. Moths and fish have fake eyes on their wings or tails to startle or divert the murderous mouths of predators. Some animals even give false alarm calls to scare away peers, so they can help themselves to food! But one of my favourite birds, the crested pigeon, has a special wing feather than only resonates when it takes flight. You can trust crested pigeons.

Cheating has always and will always exist but that doesn’t mean it is getting out of control. In university land there is a renewed focus on combatting cheating. There are some things that are designed so that they can be trusted and other things that cannot always be trusted, so they are policed. With the move to on-line assessment most institutions have detected a rise in collusion, contract cheating, and plagiarism in assessments. But the absolute levels detected remain relatively low – a few percent in many cohorts.

In the digital age universities are focussing on three ways to control cheating: improving student awareness and education about integrity and values, enhancing the design of assessment upstream, and ramping up prevention and detection methods. New legislation has gone through parliament that outlaws contract cheating, and our regulator, TEQSA, has swung into action asking that internet providers block access to the Assignmenthelp4you website.

The problem with prevention and detection measures, of course, is that this is an arms race. And it’s whack-a-mole. Resources, especially post COVID-19, where many institutions have face reduced enrolments (fees) and increased costs due to the requirement to enhance digital delivery, are scarce. So, everyone has to decide how much to invest in each of awareness, design, and monitoring.

Awareness raising is certainly worth investing in. There are reports of contract cheating sites moving on to a second business model involving blackmailing their former clients by threatening exposure. If this message goes viral, I think it would make students think twice about cheating. Electronic sleuthing is improving too. It’s a big business. Many will be aware that Turnitin is aiming to acquire Ouriginal, another plagiarism detection company.

But to me, design remains the big opportunity and we need to adjust as we go digital. People will tell you that design will never be perfect. Try what you like: make your course a marathon that students have to run in front of ranks of spectators – but remember that in 1980 Rosie Ruiz won the Boston Marathon by taking the subway. It’s impossible to make an assessment bullet proof but one can aim to make it harder to cheat than to do the actual work, and one can design courses so that cheating rather than genuinely acquiring the course skills eventually becomes evident to all (and Rosie was caught by the way!).

I think updating assessment design will help but it will require proper resourcing. Three challenges, that are ever increasing, have exacerbated the situation. All three relate to the scale of modern education.

* the sheer numbers of students at universities today mean that the most trusted assessment methods, such as viva voce examinations or subject-long portfolio assessments by staff who know all the students personally, are expensive to implement (especially in large first year units).

* the commitment to “choice and flexible pathways” has led to the “atomisation” of education into multiple little units of study that can be stacked in different ways. When twinned with a desire to assess and assure every unit and every learning outcome the workload keeps duplicating and becomes formidable.

* The third issue is not always talked about. The expansion of education is an absolute triumph, but it’s not been easy. In the “good old days”, which were actually the bad old days of exclusion and snobbery, only a small proportion of the population, often drawn from the wealthier classes, took any university study.

Sometimes actually completing a degree was seen as unnecessary so some students just discontinued when they’d had enough. These days the sunk costs, the societal and family pressures, and the burden of having to support oneself financially can weigh heavily on students. Students also now come from a broader range of educational backgrounds and from countries with different school or undergraduate curricula. This means that sometimes students are less prepared for their studies than anyone expected. Those of us who have considered student misconduct cases have all seen the unfortunate chains of circumstance that have, on occasion, driven otherwise honest students to cheat.

My suggestions won’t really surprise anyone. We have to work to avoid setting our students up to fail, or placing them in moral hazard. Part of this is realistic admission standards and genuine resources and pathways to success for all whom we do admit.

Another part is reducing the high stakes nature of assessment wherever possible and a refocus on helping students value their learning and the skills they develop rather than them being forced to focus on their performance in a constant barrage of high stakes assessments. We also have to continue with our work on awareness about integrity, assessment design, and detection.

Given limited resources we will have to prioritise. One possibility is that we might prioritise investing more in programmatic – senior year – assessments, and rely on “assumed knowledge” in the early years. It may be foolish to attempt to grade everything, and certify every learning outcome in each educational snack from cradle to grave.

What is at stake here is significant.  When students cheat they set out on a path which places fooling people above doing the right thing and above genuine personal learning and mastery.  This damages them, at scale it damages society.

Whatever we do, I hope that a wide canvassing for new ideas, from the combined intelligence across our community, both students and staff, may suggest new assessment and credentialising approaches that will free us all from a permanent police state involving the ever growing costs and impacts of repeated assessment surveillance, and let us instead emphasise the love of learning.


Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life




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