This project brings together an internationally recognised team of scholars in academic integrity, in teaching and learning, and in language and academic skills development to determine how authentic, programmatic assessment may be harnessed in order to minimise students’ usage of contract cheating services. To this end, the project team aims to develop an evidence-based assessment design framework to assist institutions and educators in creating programs that reduce the likelihood that students will outsource their assessment work.

The Rise of Contract Cheating

In Australia, recent university cheating scandals have provided the impetus to examine the recently flourishing phenomena of online cheating sites and ghost-writing. The MyMaster case (Visentin 2015a; 2015b) and other newsworthy cheating scandals in 2015 (see, for example, ABC Radio National 2015; Chung 2015) has underscored a potentially large and unaddressed problem regarding Australian students’ usage of online essay mills, cheat sites, file-sharing sites and ghost-writers to complete their assessments.

Lancaster and Clarke (2006, p.1) first defined this problem as ‘contract cheating’, and described it as “the submission of work by students for academic credit which the students have paid contractors to write for them”. The term ‘contract cheating’ has now evolved to encompass a cluster of related practices relating to the outsourcing of students’ assessment items to third parties, whether or not these entities are commercial providers (Walker & Townley, 2012). Research conducted by Wallace and Newton (2014) into assignments procured through the contract cheating sites, ‘Freelancer’ and ‘Transtutors’, point to evidence of a thriving global industry in contracted assessment.

Contract cheating presents an additionally challenging form of academic integrity breach activity to address given that it so difficult to detect (Walker & Townley, 2012). Institutional responses that have been established to address longstanding issues of plagiarism and poor academic preparation, such as stronger education and learning support, are not sufficient to address these forms of deliberate cheating.

Of additional concern are students’ attitudes regarding contract cheating. While comprehensive surveys of students’ attitudes towards, and experiences with, contract cheating have been undertaken in the UK, few studies of this type have been conducted in Australia. It is therefore difficult for the higher education sector to develop informed, evidence-based responses. Recent studies have revealed a fairly relaxed attitude regarding the seriousness of contract cheating. Ninety percent of the UK undergraduate students surveyed by Newton (2015) felt that thought that expulsion was too harsh a penalty for for purchasing an essay, with 42% stating that failure the assignment would be a sufficient penalty (Newton, 2015). Still in the UK, Rigby et al. (2015) found that 50% of surveyed students were willing to purchase an assignment.

The Potential of Authentic Assessment

The international academic integrity literature has long argued for original, sequential and personalised assessment design, coupled with clearly articulated academic integrity policy to foster a culture of integrity (Bertram Gallant, 2008; Bretag et al., 2013; Carroll & Appleton 2001). For addressing contract cheating, however, this does not go far enough. Given the findings cited above from Newton and Lang (2015) that even highly personalised tasks such as portfolios or reflective journals are being outsourced, a more innovative approach to design is clearly needed.

While ‘authentic assessment’ has long been recognised as a core feature of good assessment design (Herrington & Herrington 2006; 2007; Gulikers, Bastiaens & Kirschner 2004; Newmann & Archbald 1992; Wiggins, 1989), its role in nurturing academic integrity has not been adequately explored. The term ‘authentic assessment’ is most commonly used to refer to assessment that engages students in real world scenarios or problems.  It has developed as an alternative to traditional standardised tests, such as multiple choice or short answer exams, which typically comprise discrete, de-contextualised items that prompt memorisation and recall.

When it comes to academic integrity, however, there seems to be an assumption that authenticity equates to engagement, which equates to a disincentive to cheat. We could find no data in the literature that supports this series of inferences. In Australia and internationally, programmatic approaches to assessment (Schuwirth & Van der Vleuten, 2007; Stupans & McAllister, 2015; Van der Vleuten et al., 2012) are emerging as an innovative response to these and other assessment design challenges. A number of recent OLT funded projects on assessment policy and practice propose programmatic approaches to assessment design as part of their broader recommendations (Dawson & Bearman, 2014; Davies, 2008; Duck, Hamilton & Robb, 2011; Oliver, 2011).

Characteristics of Programmatic Assessment:

  • Emphasises the importance of authenticity, but advocates assessment tasks that are based on program, rather than course or unit, learning outcomes.
  • Reflect more holistic conceptions of competency than are typically found at the course or task level, and aim to assess knowledge, skills, and attitudes in applied and integrated ways.
  • Places greater emphasis on assessment for learning, rather than assessment of learning, incorporating formative, low-stakes tasks as important mechanisms for providing feedback and development.
  • At present, it is most commonly utilised in medical education (and to a lesser extent Accounting education), and has been applied in Australia to the development of communication in Nursing (Moni, 2011).

Van der Vleuten et al. (2012, p.212) presume a link between contract cheating and traditional, psychometric assessment, suggesting that “the exchange of test materials on the black market or new internet resources peddling rafts of ready-made reflections” is a sign that students experience dominant approaches to assessment as ‘trivial’.

Benefits of Programmatic Assessment

  • Formative, low-stakes tasks are incorporated as part of the program and course design, ensuring students feel better equipped to handle high-stakes, summative tasks;
  • Assessment tasks integrate knowledge, skills and attitudes developed across multiple units and courses, making them difficult to outsource; and
  • Fewer high-stakes assessments allow universities to invest in more robust, targeted invigilation processes.

While the relationship between authentic, programmatic approaches to assessment design and the problem of contract cheating is yet to be fully explored, this approach provides abundant potential to create learning environments where there is little reason or opportunity for students to cheat.

To learn more about how the project team conducted the present study, please click here


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