Let me explain to you why university students cheat.
There are many reasons. Believe me, it's not just because they all have full-time jobs and want to cut corners but let me get back to the students in a bit.
There are two serious culprits in the massive increase in student cheating. They work in concert to fuel the problem while pretending to care. Let's get the big one out of the way first - the federal government's significant cut to higher education has rattled the sector and forced it to cut corners. But the way that many universities have responded to those cuts makes it easier for students to cheat - or worse, forces them to cheat to complete.
In the short term, there's not much we can do about a recently-elected federal government, crammed with those who benefited from a free education, small classes and staff who had the time to provide individual attention, while denying those benefits to this generation.
But faced with massive cuts to the system, some universities are themselves cutting corners where it really matters.
I had a lengthy chat with Tracey Bretag, associate professor at the University of South Australia, a long-time and internationally recognised researcher into academic integrity, whose recent report revealed a massive spike. I have my own theories about what makes cheating hard and wanted to run them past her.
Bretag and I agree academics must know their students. Hard when classes are huge, or worse, short. The tendency to cram 25 plus students (and in some cases 40 students) into a tutorial to cut costs works to provide an environment where academics find it hard to remember all the Bellas, all the Nours. Combined with tutorials or labs only an hour in length, the impacts are multiplied. And some universities now have teaching periods of just 10 weeks. Imagine being in the same room as someone for just 10 hours and then being expected to know who those students are and what they understand. Not doable.
I have tenure, so I can make as much time as I like to sheepdog my students, to nag and tag, to provide extra support where needed. The majority of academics are casuals, pieceworkers. It is not possible to expect those academics to do what I do. Some do - but that work is provided free. Universities need to reflect on that exploitation (and not just by reducing the number of assessments - more on that later).
"Teachers need to know their students and students need to know their teachers," says Bretag.
Just a note: I'm employed at the University of Technology Sydney where a robust discussion took place over a couple of years, robust being an understatement. The folks in charge of learning and teaching at the top level here stuck to their guns - we have 12-week teaching periods and I personally feel like we need every minute of that time.
That knowledge of students makes it harder for students to cheat. The shortcut mechanism, the use of the voracious and unethical software Turnitin, goes someway towards checking on cheats. But in order to do that, it uses the unpaid labour of students to build its database. Those students have provided their work for free for Turnitin to make a profit from that work. I hate using it with a vengeance and despise the assessments (largely essays) which make Turnitin the crutch for modern academia. Bretag disagrees with my assessment of Turnitin and says it's a useful tool in the absence of anything else. Such as actually knowing your students.
Which brings me to assessments. In my first year as a student at NSWIT (which became UTS), students received a pass or a fail. We had room to experiment. That transcript, filled with passes (and two fails), never stopped me from doing anything, although it did raise a few eyebrows when I applied to do my PhD (submitted last week! Hallelujah).
The focus on marks is poisonous and encourages students to cheat. And the new move towards just two assessments in a truncated study period invites cheating. Bretag says her research found students report a higher likelihood of outsourcing in those circumstances.
Those tasks are just too big to fail. But too many assessments in a short study period has the same effect. As well, assessment drives learning - students don't just sit in class soaking up the wisdom of the person at the front.
Assessments must be much more than the same essay set over multiple teaching periods, where students will just google the answer and away they go. That stops cut and paste plagiarism but will not solve the problem of outsourcing. Instead, assessments which are authentic, such as vivas and interviews, are less likely to be outsourced than essays. Reflective tasks (how do I know what I do and how can I do better) are less likely to be outsourced than essays. Yet when we do this, we must also provide the support for those tasks.
Back to the students. They aren't perfect. Some are whingers. Some are bone-idle. Much like the rest of the population. Of course, make cheaters take individual responsibility for their lying cheating ways and punish the companies which provide these services. But recognise that in many cases, the system facilitates and enables those lying cheating ways.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.