The who, why and how of student cheating at Australian unis

The growth of a market economy in education is repositioning academic work as a commodity, creating “a ‘perfect storm’ in which contract cheating can perhaps be seen as an unsurprising symptom of “an ecosystem under extreme stress.”

Except the symptom is not part of  pandemic. “Our data has demonstrated that a relatively small proportion of students are engaging in contract cheating,” Tracey Bretag, Rowena Harper (UniSA) and colleagues report in a major survey of contract cheating and course work sharing in Australian universities.

Last year the Bretag-Harper team reported findings  CMM June 16 ) and now they expand their analysis of 14 000 student responses at eight Australian universities in a major new paper.

Responding students reported sharing behaviour, with 15 per cent passing notes around and 27 per cent providing assignments to others. But outright cheating is not as common, ranging from exam substitution (0.5 per cent) through submitting assignments which are not their work (2.2 per cent) to providing exam assistance (3.1 per cent). Key findings include:

It’s not a big business: the survey finds students who “outsource” their work use people they know, rather than commercial providers.

But there is a sharing economy: “students more frequently provide others with completed assignments than they do with notes.”

The will to cheat: is “primarily influenced by dissatisfaction with the teaching and learning environment, and perceptions that there were lots of opportunities to cheat in subjects”

Where cheaters are: notably in engineering. “While the engineering discipline contains around one quarter of all the students in the cheating group, it is not engineering per se that influences cheating behaviour. It is rather that students who are languages other than English, and/or particularly dissatisfied with the teaching and learning environment, and perceive there to be ‘lots of opportunities to cheat’ are concentrated within the discipline of engineering.”

It happens all-over (even at the Group of Eight): The study found Group of Eight students were more likely to buy/sell/trade notes but they were no more/less likely to participate in other “outsourcing behaviours.” “This finding is at odds with a prevailing assumption that contract cheating is more likely to occur in higher education providers of ‘lower quality’,” the authors argue.

And no, they aren’t all internationals: While students’ “previous educational and learning experiences are relevant,” the survey results “contradict the simplistic view that international students cheat more due to culturally-based values and attitudes towards cheating. … Understanding what leads students to cheat requires the examination of a range of complex, and overlapping factors, but ‘culture’ alone does not explain the phenomenon.”

But keep an eye on students from LOTE backgrounds: “It is of particular concern that LOTE students continue to be over-represented in cheating surveys, and that despite two decades of research which has pointed to the need to direct resources toward more systematic approaches to students’ language and learning development, little progress appears to have been made.”

Who needs to act: “Outsourcing behaviours – including serious forms of cheating – are more commonly influenced by dissatisfaction with the teaching and learning environment, and a perception that there are lots of opportunities to cheat in subjects. This places responsibility squarely with universities, and should prompt serious considerations of approaches to curriculum and assessment design.”

The big takeout is that the way the world works is changed, and education has to adapt. “The ‘sharing economy’ is shaping students’ approaches to life and learning. Curriculum and pedagogy could better reflect the realities of working in a highly connected and networked world, in which sharing and collaboration are an increasing part of professional practice. Educators need to support students in learning to navigate this world, both as learners who must demonstrate their own individual capabilities through assessment, and as emerging professionals who need to learn to work ethically.”


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