September 14, 2021

Best ways to promote originality with every assignment

Author: Dr. Mark Glynn, Head of Teaching Enhancement, Dublin City University

Fraud – wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain

Let’s start with a simple question: How do we know that our students’ thinking is original?

If a student submits someone else’s thinking or work as their own in an assignment – that’s fraud. It is deception that results in personal gain. To stop it from happening we need to know the cause. According to Cressey (1953): Fraud happens due to three factors – Opportunity, Pressure and Rationalisation.

Cressey presented the three factors as a triangle claiming that the bigger the size of the triangle, the bigger the potential for fraud. If you reduce any of these three factors, the triangle will reduce in size, i.e. the chances of fraud are reduced. Admittedly his context is the world of banking as opposed to mine which is higher education but I believe there are a lot of similarities in this case. 

The Fraud triangle

So let’s break down each of the factors in the Cressey Fraud triangle and apply them to education:

Rationalization

One of the biggest ways to reduce the rationalization that it is ok to cheat is to increase their chances of getting caught. A student can rationalize in their own head that if they chose an obscure website or article, the chances of their lecturer knowing about it are smaller – introducing the “sure I won’t get caught” rationale. But if the lecturer uses text-matching software for every assignment submission, the student’s chances of getting caught are significantly increased.

But rationalization is more than that – students can say they have too many assignment deadlines close together so they have to cut corners and cheat. Students can further rationalize by saying: “I didn’t know what I had to do so I used submissions from previous students to know what to do”.  As educators, we could and should provide clear criteria for each assignment – ideally accompanied by examples and/or provide discussion time (virtual or in-person), to answer questions about the assignment.

They can rationalize it to their friends by saying: “If you help me with this assignment, I can help you with the next one”. When we provide training to students on how to cite and reference properly, we also need to include training to help students distinguish between collaboration and collusion, outlining the consequences of giving too much help to colleagues and also highlighting the dangers of services like essay mills.

Opportunity

How can we reduce the opportunity to cheat? Similar to tackling rationalization, there are many ways to address opportunity. There is a surprising amount of educators that still use the same exam year after year – simply varying the topic can work quite well to reduce the opportunity to cheat. Also in my experience people are less likely to cheat when they work in groups as they need to rationalize and convince other team members. They also know that if they are caught, the other group members may suffer as well.

Personalizing the assessment is also a very effective approach, rather than just using generic topics as students will need to relate the topic to themselves and/or to their surroundings, making it is harder to enlist the help of third parties such as ghostwriting services. This also goes towards improving the authenticity of the assessment, which is always desirable as authentic assessment improves learning.  

Pressure

Over assessment is a term that is used quite a lot in recent times but in most cases, it is not over assessment but more a case of badly coordinated assessment – with assessment deadlines happening at the same time. This can put students under pressure which can lead to fraud. A simple programmatic view of assessments for lecturers can easily identify deadline “hotspots” in advance and adjusting their deadlines accordingly can help reduce pressure on students.

Another way to reduce pressure on students is to provide them with clear marking criteria, examples of previous submissions and a typical timeline plan for the assignment. These short simple solutions can potentially have a large impact on students with respect to reducing pressure.

The final suggestion with regards to reducing pressure is connected to universal design for learning (UDL). Some students may struggle with particular assignment types e.g. presenting in front of their classmates or writing long essays. Giving students the choice in how they represent their learning to you can be really impactful as well. The key point here is students need to prove that they have met the learning outcome. How they meet it is not the question; their work and their thinking are.

Conclusion

So the opening question was how do we know that our students’ thinking is original? The answer is – it’s not that easy to know but we can take a multi-faceted approach to support and encourage our students to be original by reducing the potential for fraud.

As part of an Erasmus plus funded project “Integrity” we’ve collated ways by which academic integrity can be improved through assessment design – 12 Principles of Assessment Design – along with a suite of resources to support academics in designing assessments to improve academic integrity.

References & Useful websites

Assessment Design, Dublin City University – Accessed 28th August 2021

Cressey, D.R. (1953) Other People’s Money A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement, The Free Press, Glencoe,IL

European Network for Academic Integrity – Accessed 28th of August 2021

“Fraud” Oxford Languages & Google – Accessed 28th of August 2021

National Academic Integrity Network, Quality & Qualifications Ireland – Accessed 28th of August 2021

More blogs on Originality:

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