Structuring and designing assessment for security - an afternoon with Phillip Dawson

The recent passing of legislation to outlaw contract cheating services, along with the challenges posed by assessing student learning during a global pandemic, have highlighted the serious outcome for those who encourage cheating and misconduct. Phillip Dawson, author of Defending assessment security in a digital world reminds us that these laws are about prevention of cheating, but academic integrity itself is about values. We must be able to separate the two and act accordingly.

Myth #1 - Students seek out cheating services

A quick look on social media, a google search for course notes or even popping into a university toilet stall will make it clear that cheating services seek students out to encourage cheating. While half of students claim they will not cheat if given the chance, the other half may be persuaded to purchase or outsource work (Bretag. et al, 2018; Bretag, Rigby et al. 2015) by the promising words, flashy sites and contract cheating masquerading as”‘help” that lays any misconduct squarely on students. Phill Dawson acknowledges that cheating is an issue for which there are no quick fixes. Rather, cheating is a symptom of broader issues, and we have a responsibility to fix those, as well as to prevent and detect cheating.

Myth #2 - Certain types of assessment are ‘cheat proof’

While certain types of assessment are viewed as ‘cheat proof’, such as invigilated examinations, it is likely that ‘third party cheating’ is more common in examinations than in assignments; it is simply not detected as often. There is no assessment type that is immune to being outsourced or plagiarised, not even ‘authentic’ assessment. However, certain tasks are perceived by students to be far less likely to be outsourced, such as reflections, personalised tasks, in-class tasks and nested tasks. In addition, reflective tasks are often poorly written when contracted out and so they make detection easier.

Myth #3 - Academic Integrity and Assessment Security are the same thing

Academic Integrity focuses on a positive, educative and values-based model that develops students to understand ethical and moral obligations and equips them to navigate integrity in study and research. Modelling of integrity and a shared understanding of values between students and staff is essential (Universities Australia, 2017). Integrity follows students and staff through and beyond the institution into professional and academic life.

Assessment security is “adversarial, punitive and evidence-based” and describes “measures taken to harden assessment against attempts to cheat. This includes approaches to detect and evidence attempts to cheat, as well as measures to make cheating more difficult” (Dawson, 2021, p. 19).

Myth #4 - All assessment must be secured

It is impossible to ‘cheat proof’ every assessment, and inadvisable. Phill recommends identifying those assessments that might ‘really matter’ at a course level and securing those. He refers to this as programmatic assessment. Other assessments that may not underpin the ‘final qualifying point of the degree’ can be used to develop academic integrity.

Myth #5 - We can’t do anything about cheating

There are number of approaches that may work to minimise contract cheating:

  • Talk to students about the risks and consequences in class, highlighting that contract cheating services do not always provide what you pay for, and have blackmailed students in the past
  • Detect cheating - when we appear to care about misconduct and there are clear consequences, students are less likely to cheat (Husain et al,. 2017, Kremmer et al., 2007)
  • Design tasks that students are less likely to cheat in, such as reflections, personalised tasks (using unit materials) and nested tasks (where tasks are linked and students are given the opportunity to improve in the following task).
  • Adopt programmatic assessment
  • Be transparent about authentic restrictions that you may allow for tasks such as notes, technologies or collaboration

In summary, let’s ensure that we distinguish assessment security and academic integrity and focus on each in different ways. Let’s model and discuss integrity with our students in our teaching and empower them to understand and uphold these values in the Monash community and beyond.

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References and Further Reading

  • Bretag, T., Curtis, G., McNeill, M. & Slade, C. (2018) Academic Integrity in Australian higher education: A national priority (infographic) (workshop video) (workshop slides)
  • Bretag, T., Harper, R., Burton, M., Ellis, C., Newton, P., van Haeringen, K., Saddiqui, S. & Rozenberg, P. (2019) Contract cheating and assessment design: exploring the relationship, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:5, 676-691, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1527893
  • Husain, F.M., Al-Shaibani, G.K.S. and Mahfoodh, O.H.A., (2017). Perceptions of and attitudes toward plagiarism and factors contributing to plagiarism: A review of studies. Journal of Academic Ethics 15(2), pp.167-195.
  • Kremmer, M. L., Brimble, M. A., & Stevenson-Clarke, P. (2007). Investigating the Probability of Student Cheating: The Relevance of Student Characteristics, Assessment Items, Perceptions of Prevalence and History of Engagement. International Journal for Educational Integrity 3(2), pp. 3–17.

About the author

Rosie Mackay has worked in education for the past 15 years, leading teams and learning in schools as well as educational change to improve teaching and learning in the domestic and transnational education sectors. She is currently Senior Specialist, Learning and Teaching at Monash Education Academy in the Portfolio of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education where she works across institutional projects relating to teaching and learning quality, academic integrity and assessment security.