How to Deal with Contract Cheating

As a blog editor and writer, I follow a number of other blogs on a range of topics, as a way to keep tabs on what similar blogs are posting, stay current with educational trends, follow current news and information, and add some variety to my online reading. It was in the latter category earlier this summer, that I came across an article that threw me for a loop.

Young man at laptop. Gray-scale background shows a silhouetted man and woman shaking hands, all on a field of dollar bills.I won’t identify the blog or the writer, other than to say that this particular blog posts on a wide array of subject matter. The article caught my eye because it was about college students writing essays. As I read the piece, I was horrified to discover that the author was supporting the idea that students, finding themselves in a bind over a tight deadline, should feel it perfectly acceptable to pay for someone to write an essay or term paper for them. Students have enough stress in their lives, the authored reasoned, why not avail themselves of an essay-writing service?

It turns out that there are numerous such services out there. I was aware of this fact in part because this blog gets a fair number of spam comments, and in a given week, at least a couple of these are from paper-writing companies offering their wares. These companies employ writers with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in a wide range of disciplines, who are skilled in research and writing, and who will, for fees varying from $20 a page to $80 a page and up—depending on the topic and assignment requirements, write any type of paper needed. This includes entire dissertations. If this concept is new to you, an article in The Atlantic, Write My Essay, Please!, by Richard Gunderman, October 24, 2012, will give you a good starting point on the issue. Note the date, 2012—this is not a brand new problem.

Gunderman outlines a typical scenario: An instructor receives a paper from a student that is excellent in all regards, but is suspicious because the writing is far superior to that of other work the student has submitted. The instructor puts the paper through the university’s plagiarism detection service, and is surprised to find it comes out clean. Confronting the student reveals that they have purchased the paper from an online service.  This is not plagiarism—the work was original. The ethical issue is that the student was planning to accept credit for the paper and the course based on someone else’s work.

Gunderson looks at the culture that perpetuates these services from both the standpoint of the consumers and those doing the real work. High-stakes assignments with no scaffolding and inflexible deadlines create an environment where students may feel desperate. Academics with PhDs who find themselves in low-paying adjunct jobs may discover that essay writing “can be quite a lucrative business.”  Gunderson notes that the real problem is that paying someone to do your work has become increasingly accepted in our culture and that “there is no law against it.” Of course these students are cheating their classmates and instructors, but most of all, themselves, by not taking the opportunity to learn. Gunderson called for “probing discussions in classrooms all over the country, encouraging students to reflect on the real purpose of education,” but as more recent articles attest, this has not yet happened.

Getting Smart—Cheating 2.0: How to Fight Back Against ‘Contract Cheating’, July 21, 2018 by Dennis Pierce examines contract cheating and looks at ways instructors can take action. Pierce suggests that instructors educate their students on the risks that using writing services brings to both themselves and the public at large. Graduates need to be properly qualified or they may ultimately endanger or harm people who depend on their work. The risks for students themselves start with getting caught. There have also been cases of paper-writing companies reporting to the college/university when students didn’t pay their bills for services, and there is an ongoing potential for blackmail. But just as important, instructors should examine their assignments and consider designs that will make it less likely that a student will use a paper-writing service. Scaffolding the work towards a final paper by creating smaller, lower-stakes assignments along the way will keep students from falling behind. It will also make it easier to detect a ghost-written assignment, because the instructor will have examples of the student’s work to compare. Pierce says, “Establishing a culture of integrity, communicating the risks of cheating to students, and designing more thoughtful writing assignments are important. … it’s equally important for educators to be able to recognize contract cheating when it happens.”

The International Center for Academic Integrity at Florida International University, offers academic integrity resources including  the Institutional Toolkit to Combat Contract Cheating [PDF]. This 15-page document offers high-level solutions—discussing what can be done by academic institutions to address the problem (e.g., creating a culture that counters cheating) but there is also practical advice for faculty designing assessments. These include:

  • Require multiple drafts of an assessment.
  • Use in-class writing to provide a baseline of student voice and writing style.
  • Create personalized and authentic assignments that are specific to the class.
  • Limit non-substantive requirements (e.g., page or word limits/requirements).
  • Allow for late submissions (flexible deadlines).
  • Give students more choice and control.
  • Provide at least one proctored assessment.

The toolkit also has suggestions for detecting contract cheating and advises making sure that your institution’s academic integrity policy is up-to-date and covers contract cheating. “Many policies don’t cover contract cheating adequately. For example, they cover students cheating, but not students cheating for other students. Many policies might also inaccurately treat this behavior as plagiarism or exam cheating, rather than Fraud.” There is also a short list of resources on contract cheating and academic integrity that may be useful.

Being aware of the problem and armed with solutions will put you in a good place to fight contract cheating.  A good thing, since at least for now, the problem is continuing to grow.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Things I learned when I designed and taught my first undergraduate course

Today we have a guest blogger. Adaeze Wosu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2017, she was one of two teaching assistants who received the Student Assembly’s Teaching Assistant Recognition Award at the School of Public Health. In 2018, she was again recognized with this honor. Ms. Wosu obtained a BA in Public Health Studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a Master of Public Health from Boston University.


Large light bulb surrounded by small-scale symbols of pursuits in the arts and sciences. Light blue images on dark blue background.Throughout graduate school (both as a Master’s and Doctoral student), I have worked as a Teaching Assistant for several graduate-level courses—leading lab sections, facilitating discussions, holding office hours, developing assessments, and grading. I have also served as a section instructor for an undergraduate epidemiology course. However, I had never taught my own course until January 2018, when I developed a one-credit undergraduate intersession course on the increasing burden of non-infectious diseases (e.g., heart disease, cancers, diabetes) in Africa.

Although my course is focused on the African continent, it is noteworthy that heart disease and cancers are the two leading causes of death in the United States. Until my sophomore year of college, I was largely unaware that there were preventive measures (e.g., exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep) that individuals can take to avert (or at least delay) the onset of these diseases. Learning about how to prevent these diseases was one of the epiphanies of my undergraduate education, and continues to inspire my research and teaching as a doctoral student.

The training I received in the annual three-day Teaching Institute organized by the Johns Hopkins University Teaching Academy helped prepare me for this experience. The Institute’s modules on backward-design helped me focus course lectures, discussions, and in-class activities on what students should gain from each session and the course as a whole, rather than simply filling time with content. Other modules on preparing for the first day of class, active learning, fostering an inclusive learning environment, and creating effective assessments were also valuable.

My course had an enrollment of eleven students—small but heterogeneous—with wide-ranging majors and interests, diverse cultural backgrounds, and at different levels of their college education. By the end of the course, I wanted students to have a general understanding of (1) the social, demographic, and economic factors driving the rise of these diseases on the African continent; (2) the biological mechanisms involved in these diseases; and (3) individual- and population-level approaches to prevention and control of these diseases.

I learned a lot from the process of developing this course as well as my interactions with students. Below, I have summarized, in eight points, some of what I learned and what was re-enforced for me through this process:

  1. Points of disagreement are great learning opportunities for both students and instructor. At the beginning of the course, I urged students to voice disagreements or objections that they had about course concepts, so we could discuss them as a group. The situations where students actively and strongly disagreed provided great teaching moments for clarifying and reinforcing important ideas. It made me appreciate the skill and tact required to factually and respectfully respond to misstatements or misconceptions without making students feel like they are being shut down. It was helpful to think through potential scenarios of disagreement beforehand, and how they could be handled. With practice, comfort with these scenarios grows.
  2. I learned to be comfortable with admitting when I did not know or was unsure about the answer to a student’s question. As a graduate teaching assistant, I had the luxury of referring students to an experienced faculty member if I encountered a particularly challenging question. In my course, this was not an option. I tried as much as possible to anticipate questions that would arise, but there were occasional questions to which I did not readily have answers. In such cases, I did not hesitate to tell the student that I did not have the answer at that moment. If I promised to look up the answer, then I did so, and got back to the student. For any questions that could potentially eat up class time or were beyond the scope of the course, my approach was to direct students to resources that could provide further insight. Admitting what you don’t know is all right.
  3. It is important to be as explicit as possible about expectations for assessments, and then be even more explicit. The writing-intensive courses I have assisted in teaching over the last seven years have for the most part involved public health instruction at the graduate level. It did not occur to me that undergraduate students would need substantial guidance regarding citations and what might count as credible sources for writing assignments. After I wrote what I thought were clear instructions for the final assignment, I found that students needed me to be even more explicit. With a diverse cohort of students in the class, from freshmen to seniors and from a range of disciplines, I could not make sweeping assumptions about familiarity with formatting requirements or with how to gather reputable sources for a research paper.
  4. Your enthusiasm and motivations for teaching are important and infectious. Your excitement shows through your body language and disposition from the moment you walk into the classroom until the final day. Your passion for the topic communicates to students why you care, and why they should care. As much as possible, I tried to make the content practical and applicable so that students could see how what they were learning extended beyond the classroom. I found that sharing my motivations for teaching the course helped me connect with students.
  5. Early opportunities for students to inform course direction will save you time and foster a more enjoyable student experience. Early in the course, I solicited feedback from students. This helped me identify what was working/not working, what aspects of the course the students enjoyed, and what they wanted to learn. Their comments led me to introduce one of the course units earlier than I had originally planned. Students also made me aware of additional helpful resources, which I incorporated (e.g., one student shared a YouTube video demonstration of what it feels like to breathe with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I plan to use these materials in future iterations of the course.
  6. Don’t be afraid to use media (e.g., short movies, documentaries) to make your point. I had to think creatively about using educational videos, documentaries, and even movie and television clips to illustrate points during the lectures. When I felt a video or cartoon conveyed some idea more clearly than didactic lecturing, I included that medium in the day’s lecture. At first, I worried that students would consider these as “faux lecturing” or just filling up time. Instead, students embraced these modalities and found them helpful for putting complex concepts into relatable terms. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
  7. Standing and walking around the class as you teach is a great way to get in a few hours of exercise! And if your class sessions are 3 hours long like mine, allow breaks so that students can stretch and get in some exercise as well.
  8. Finally, do not underestimate how much time is needed to prepare lectures, and activities for the different class sessions. For me, this was the hardest point of transition from a teaching assistant to an instructor. Even for a topic such as mine, where substantial resources exist, it took time to read and digest journal articles that I wanted to incorporate into lectures, to identify good media examples (e.g., videos, news articles and documentaries), to properly insert citations so that students could refer to them when needed), and to plan and design engaging in-class discussions and activities. While preparing for lectures, I sometimes longed for my teaching assistant days when material was already prepared and organized—all I had to do was review before each course section or office hour. Nevertheless, the opportunity to teach my own course gave me immense fulfillment. As an instructor, I was able to create the classroom experience I desired on a topic that I am extremely passionate about.

Adaeze Wosu, PhD Candidate
Department of Epidemiology, Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University

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