It’s not about criminalising students who cheat, but crime theory can help identify the problem

A new article published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity examines the academic integrity issue of contract cheating through the lens of criminological theory. Crime can be observed with non-random distribution across time, space, offenders, and targets: likewise, academic misconduct follows unusual patterns that are indicative of a problem.

Think about this… You’re an academic running a course and you notice there is a student who has done exceptionally well on the essay you set and has then done terribly on exams. Although some reduction in performance is to be expected – timed assessments, stress of exam conditions, fatigue from the end of semester – but this difference is huge.

Curious, you decide to track this student across multiple courses they complete and see if this pattern recurs; only to find that it does. Is this difference a consequence of individual difficulties associated with exams and supervised assessments, or could this be reflective of an academic integrity issue? Perhaps the student isn’t the one doing the unsupervised assessments that you scored so high. Maybe they’re engaging in ‘contract cheating’?

This exact pattern of results is what sparked us to explore the patterns differences between supervised and unsupervised assessment items across students and courses. This investigation, recently published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, examines this academic integrity issue through the lens of criminological theory that explains the non-randomness of crime problems across time, space, offenders, and targets.

The academic integrity literature has found strong similarities between crime problem patterns and what is known about contract cheating. Surprisingly few students seem motivated to engage in this behaviour, and those who do are often repeat “offenders”

Within a crime context, commonly observed patterns include repeat victimisation and repeat offending, with the decision to offend moderated by offender motivation, rational decision-making, and opportunity.

The academic integrity literature has found already that there are strong similarities between these crime problem patterns and what is known about contract cheating. Surprisingly few students seem motivated to engage in this behaviour (with estimates around 3%) and those who do are often repeat offenders. There is also a clear non-randomness with respect to contract cheating ‘targets’, with variations across subject type, level of study, and the country of origin for contract cheating clients.

Unusual patterns in students’ performance may be indicative of a problem, which in turn could indicate that an opportunity for contract cheating exists and it could be prevented. Opportunity reduction is one of the most used strategies for crime prevention

Our work extends this analysis and looks for repeat ‘unusual’ patterns of difference across multiple students and multiple courses of study. The findings are consistent with the types of patterns that would be observed as a result of contract cheating – and they are definitely consistent with identifying a problem.

This methodology potentially allows academics to use existing administrative data to identify assessment items that are ‘targets’ for contract cheating and also identify problematic differences in performance at an individual student level.

The foundation of this approach is based on opportunity, and opportunity reduction has been demonstrated to underpin successful crime and policing problem prevention since the early 1980’s. Importantly, this approach is not about “criminalizing” students.

Unusual patterns are indicative of a problem. The problem could indicate an opportunity for contract cheating exists and it could be prevented. In addition, individuals identified through this process could be eligible for additional support. The subset who are engaging in unethical behaviour can be addressed through standard academic integrity processes.

 

Read the research paper here.

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