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

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Can We Discourage Violations of Academic Integrity?

It’s been some time since The Innovative Instructor looked at issues of academic integrity [see Discouraging Cheating in the Classroom, November 13, 2012], but a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, In a Fake Online Class With Students Paid to Cheat, Could Professors Catch the Culprits?, December 22, 2015, stimulated discussion among my colleagues. Although this study involved an online class, the implications are far-reaching. Even in face-to-face classes students can avail themselves of these for fee services that supply research papers that will pass through plagiarism detectors and provide answers to other types of assignments. In the face of such egregious practices, what can faculty do to encourage students to be honest?

StudentsCheatingIn smaller classes, where the instructor can to get to know the students as individuals, and course work is centered on in-class discussion, there may be fewer opportunities for violations of academic integrity. In these classes, however, writing often plays a big role and plagiarism, intentional or not, can be an issue. In Designing Activities and Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism, Alice Robison, Bonnie K. Smith suggest some strategies for instructors of writing intensive courses.

For mid-size classes, pedagogical interventions, such as flipping a class (see previous posts here, here, here, and here) can be productive if in-class problem solving, group work, and experiential activities are emphasized. These innovations can be time-consuming for an instructor to implement, however, and if the class size is large, it may not be possible to follow a flipped class or hybrid model.

Large classes can present greater challenges, particularly if testing is the focus for student assessment. There are a number of academic websites with resources for dealing with preventing cheating on tests, for example the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a tip sheet on Dealing with Cheating. Stanford’s Tomorrow’s Professor, offers a post on (Cheating) Prevention Techniques for Tests, based on three principles: “1) Affirm the importance of academic integrity; 20 Reduce opportunities to engage in academic dishonesty; and 3) Develop fair and relevant tests (and/or forms of assessment).”

In all cases, the best results come when colleges and universities establish a strong institutional culture of academic integrity.  This was the subject of the 2012 post. It’s worth repeating the citation of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Faculty Excellence’s blog, CFE 100+ Tips for Teaching Large Classes, article Tip #27: Discourage Cheating by Providing Moral Reminders and Logistical Obstacles.

Do you have suggestions for encouraging ethical behavior? As always, we welcome your comments.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art

Discouraging Cheating in the Classroom

Research has shown that colleges and universities with honor codes that are backed by an institutional culture of ethical behavior experience fewer incidents of student cheating than those with no codes or codes that are not reinforced with institutional expectations. (Donald L. McCabe, Linda Klebe Trevino & Kenneth D. Butterfield. 2001. Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research. Ethics & Behavior. 11(3):219–232). Even in the absence of an honor code, these researchers found that creating a culture of ethical behavior, even at the level of the classroom, could have a significant positive impact on the likelihood of student cheating.

StudentsCheatingAs to implementing such a culture, the University of North Carolina’s Center for Faculty Excellence’s blog, CFE 100+ Tips for Teaching Large Classes, offers practical and concrete examples in Tip #27: Discourage Cheating by Providing Moral Reminders and Logistical Obstacles. They suggest having a brief discussion about cheating before a test, and asking students to write out and sign the honor code. Even if there is no specific honor code at the institution, faculty can ask students to write a statement on their exams saying that they will not give or receive assistance.This is most effective if done before, rather than at the end of the test.

The UNC blog post also offers examples for making it logistically impossible to cheat. These tips will be particularly useful for faculty teaching large classes and using multiple choice questions on exams.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image source: Microsoft Clip Art