Academic Conductivity

This article bothered me when I read it*. I didn’t catch the TV show that it was based on but the allegation that 40,000 UK university students were disciplined for academic misconduct (source appears to be FOI requests to universities by the programme).  Of the 58,000 students who were investigated, 40,000 were disciplined and 400 were expelled or excluded from HE and 12,000 had marks deducted. The headline of the article ‘Cheating found to be rife in UK education system’ says it all really. Academic conduct is an issue that occupies more of my time than it should do but I still found the notion 40,000 students disciplined for academic misconduct were in fact cheating.

It is my experience that genuine, intentional cheating in assessments is comparatively rare. When found, it brings a range of punishments up to and including exclusion. And rightfully so. There is no place in academia for cheating, fraud or anything else at any level. Comparatively rare compared to what I hear you say? The number of students who simply get on with it and do their assessment? Or the number of students who face academic conduct hearings over their work each year?

I’d argue that the majority of students who face disciplinary action under academic conduct procedures do not actually cheat.  There is a range of issues that are covered by the broad umbrella of academic conduct and these include failure (or simply forgetting) to cite a source, failing to put quotation marks around a quote, and then progress through collusion through to passing off others work as your own. Many of the cases dealt with are simply part of the learning process, where a student has failed to grasp the instructions fully and act on them in their work. Many others are due to the blurred lines between collusion and working collaboratively. Studying is a more social endeavour than ever before so it is hardly surprising that students are helping each other out with work. I’m sure that the vast majority of people would like academics to deal with these cases compassionately, consistently and fairly, and view them as part of the learning process that is academic development rather than simply branding them as cheaters. Yes I find it incredibly annoying to deal with students who have discussed their work then written down identically wrong answers (and no we wouldn’t catch them if they both had the right answer).

Of course, there is a line somewhere that distinguishes the inadvertent misadventures into academic conduct from the intentional and knowing attempt to obtain marks by deception, theft or other unfair means.  Before I look at the far extreme of what cheating is to me, I’ll consider the middle ground. One of the most frustrating aspects is dealing with students writing where copy pasting from various sources has been liberally used. Sometimes a token attempt to reword the source has been made and perhaps the source is properly referenced, but I always want to yell at my screen and demand to know what they were thinking. Well they probably weren’t thinking much beyond the panic to turn out a passable piece of work, or struggling to grapple with an unfamiliar topic and lacking the confidence to rephrase or synthesise the ideas into their own words.  In the majority of cases, the students are not ‘bad people’, they would be deeply upset to be branded cheats and they generally learn their lesson very quickly. There is seldom a genuine intention to cheat and deceive. And yes, they do face a penalty for their actions, often a loss of marks or having to redo the work properly. And yes, when done properly, an academic conduct case is an opportunity for learning and improvement.

Then there is the extreme. The case where a student for some reason decides to take an action to obtain marks by a means other than simply doing a half decent job of the work. This might be purchasing an essay from a company claiming to provide ‘sample’ coursework, or it might be theft of an idea or physically of someone’s work. Or it might be a group of students deciding to split the work between them and share the answers. It may also include attempts to cheat in examinations which generally requires sufficient pre-planning to leave little doubt that there was an intention to cheat.  Some mistakes are more costly than others and a high ranking sin is fabricating results or buying an essay.

Instead of noting that cheating is rife in the academic system (and the comments in the article about schools gaming the system to meet targets are deeply troubling), how about celebrating the fact that we actually have a system that works. Universities have policies and procedures in place to deal with academic conduct issues and ‘cheating’ in a context that is appropriate to the assignment, the students and the issue at hand.  Of course our systems have to be pretty dynamic to keep up with ‘state of the art’. Smart watches are the latest thing, previously it was calculators with substantial data storage capacity. We have penalties that escalate if people don’t learn from their mistakes. We have severe penalties for the extreme cases. And clearly, we catch people out and deal with them.

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