Designing online assessment to prevent academic misconduct

By miranda.prynne, 3 February, 2021
Traditional proctored exams rarely work when teaching online so instructors must rely on careful assessment design to minimise the risk of cheating, explain Patrick Harte and Fawad Khaleel
Article type
Main text

When it comes to academic misconduct, higher education institutions generally take a reactive approach, with retributory measures for those caught. But with plagiarism sharply on the rise as more learning moves online, this clearly is not working. 

However, there are positive steps that we can take to minimise it. 

A substantial cause-and-effect relationship links the form of assessment and the probability of lapse in students' academic integrity. Therefore, we should look at assessment design proactively through the lens of potential academic misconduct to try to prevent it.   

The quality framework followed by higher education institutions focuses solely on designing assessments to evaluate the intended learning goals at the end of the modules, with all teaching leading towards assessment as the “grand finale” upon which the student’s final grade is reliant. However, by bringing considerations of academic misconduct into both the learning and teaching framework and the assessment design, we can tackle the pandemic of academic misconduct. 

Here, we focus on essay-style assignments and make suggestions to develop greater academic integrity within our cohorts.  

Assessment design  

Focusing on assessment design, we now have far more alternatives available to us online than we have traditionally used within our programmes and modules. Instead of essay plus exam, we could use a periodic blog-style post submitted by students throughout the modules which at the end could constitute a final essay assessment. This will reduce access to the services offered by essay mills and reduce misconduct.  

We could also incorporate “evidencing the thinking” process within the assessment by using online tools such as Padlet. We can ask students to post the literature they aim to use for the essay assessment as digital artefacts. This will also add an aspect of collaborative learning, where students can share the literature with the instructor and their peers. The sharing of literature within an instructor-controlled environment will direct students towards cooperation rather than cheating and collusion. 

The assessment design should include reflection, where the students are asked to reflect as a learner and as a practitioner on the topic and its applications and demonstrate self-learning. The inclusion of a reflective element also creates the innate construction of knowledge and deeper understanding of the topic. Our assessments should examine what students think rather than what students know. If we design an assessment that does that, then we may also be able to control the pandemic of plagiarism.   

Assessment scope  

The scope and construct of essay assignments play a pivotal role in the potential to stray.  

The persuasive or argumentative essay and the cause-and-effect-style essay work best when based on contemporary applied scenarios. However, when such assessments use a dated, documented scenario, both journalistic and academic, then it increases opportunity for academic misconduct. The question “Was Margaret Thatcher a good leader?” has much greater potential to result in essay submissions with high similarity than “Compare the transformational vs transactional leadership traits displayed by Boris Johnson during the pandemic”. 

The compare-and-contrast essay and descriptive essay assignments work best with fictitious, albeit applied, case studies and reduce the potential for plagiarising. We strongly advise against the use of compare-and-contrast essays and descriptive essays based on dated events that are already exhaustively covered within existing literature.  

The scope of the assessment question should not be generalised, broad and open; instead, it should be specific and narrow, and that requires some methodical thinking. If the assessment can be answered by merely reorganising literature and without the need for critical thinking, then students are likely to resort to plagiarism. So we must minimise such opportunities by presenting students with questions that require them to apply their knowledge to new scenarios.  

Students come to university to acquire knowledge; however, the time constraints along with socioeconomic pressure to get good grades can make cheating a tempting prospect, especially where assessment design lends them towards plagiarism. Therefore the onus is surely on educators to remove this temptation by designing better assessments. 

Patrick Harte is academic lead for student experience, and Fawad Khaleel is academic lead for online learning, both in the Business School at Edinburgh Napier University

Traditional proctored exams rarely work when teaching online so instructors must rely on careful assessment design to minimise the opportunity and temptation to cheat, explain Patrick Harte and Fawad Khaleel