Webinar: Reducing Plagiarism through Assessment Design

Webinar by Dr Mike Reddy, University of South Wales.  Available to view online (presentation starts at 0:06:25 after the introductions)

Dr Mike Reddy delivered the latest in a series of webinars offered by plagiarismadvice.org, this time on the theme of designing assessments to reduce the opportunities for plagiarism.  His talk was based around a plagiarismadvice.org tip sheet which is available online

The webinar began by offering some basic advice around the importance of being creative rather than simply using the same forms of assessment that are familiar.  In particular he highlighted the importance of updating assignments each year by changing some elements to reduce the possibility of students submitting work downloaded from an essay bank or acquired from a previous student. 

Reddy explained that one of the reasons why assessments need to be changed is the easy availability of knowledge.  He used the example that most academics grew up in a world where it took two weeks to get a paper through inter-library loans, and many assessments still belong in that era.  In the modern knowledge economy, information is everywhere so academic skills and ensuring that students understand the importance of the provenance of information is critical.  Assessments need to be designed around the fact that information is everywhere and assess how students use that information.  He illustrated these points with a couple of quotes:

“Imagine a school with kids who can read and write but where there are many teachers who can’t, and you have a metaphor for the Info Age we live in”  Ian Jukes (@ijukes on Twitter)

“Simply put, we can’t keep preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist. We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own. And above all, we must stop disparaging digital prowess just because some of us over 40 don’t happen to possess it. An institutional grudge match with the young can sabotage an entire culture.”  Virginia Hefferman   

Paraphrasing Voltaire (“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter”), Reddy suggested that short word limits can be a good way to ellicit original work because students have to distill information into as few words as possible rather than using copy and paste.  He likened this to the skill of writing 140 character tweets which many students have independently developed.

A key concept throughout the webinar was that assessment is part of the learning process rather than simply a deliverable used as measure of what has been learned.  As such it’s important that the assessment measures the process rather than the end product.

Asking students to periodically submit work in progress reports, review notes, drafts, etc provides evidence that the student has engaged with the work on an ongoing basis rather, and shows a development process of their ideas that cannot be bought from an essay bank.  It also helps students to manage their time and avoids the last minute panics that may lead to plagiarism.  Reddy stressed the importance of changing the assessment to reduce the value of the end product, and give more credit for the process.

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see” – Alexandra K Trenfor.  Reddy advocated assessments that give students the opportunity to explore and learn independently rather than being too prescriptive, a theme he would return to later.

Vote results: Plagiarism is a huge epidemic (11.5%)  merely caused by outdated assessment (57.6%) cheating and should be punished (50%)  isn't at all important in the real world (3.85%)In a poll of the webinar’s live participants (n=47 including the presenter and other facilitators) 58% agreed that plagiarism “is merely a problem caused by outdated assessment”.  This is likely skewed by the kind of audience that this kind of webinar attracts which means that Reddy tended to be preaching to the converted (or at least the convertable), but is nonetheless an thought provoking result.

Reddy went on to advocate that the process of periodically submitting drafts needs to be accompanied by constructive feedback.  He acknowledged that this has implications for workloads but felt that the results justified it.  The ongoing dialogue between learner and tutor helped to personalise the assessment process and that could be enhanced by setting assessments where students have some flexibility to personalise the topic.  This is more likely to generate unique work from the students because it gains buy-in and motivation because the topic is something which interests the student.

The use of Peer Review was was suggested as a method of reducing plagiarism.  Reddy cited Quinton and Smallbone (2009) who found that students were more likely to produce well-researched, original work if they knew it would be commented upon by their peers.

Finally, Reddy returned to the theme of using assessment to get students to think for themselves.  With assessment being part of the learning process rather than the end point, tasks should be doing more than requiring students to “list” or “describe” but using analytical and synthesis skills that he related to the higher orders of Bloom’s Taxonomy, although such tasks can take students out of their comfort zone and lead to stress which needs to be managed.  He observed that by de-emphasising the end product in favour of the process, it allowed assessments to be set where the student was “allowed” to fail, and learn from their mistakes.

Overall a very useful webinar which made some good recommendations for assessment practice in general rather than simply for plagiarism deterrence.