Re-evaluating assessment for academic integrity

In light of the QAA’s recent report on contract cheating in higher education, how are universities putting academic integrity at the heart of their assessment design?

Unpacking academic integrity

Academic integrity is important in addressing issues of unacceptable academic practice in students, such as plagiarism or collusion highlighted in QAA’s report. It can also help us to re-evaluate how we use and design assessment to promote student understanding and skills.

In 1999, the International Centre for Academic Integrity in the USA explored the idea of academic integrity, later leading to the Australian Exemplary Academic Integrity Project in 2013 to promote how ‘[a]cademic integrity means acting with the values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility in learning, teaching and research’.

In light of the QAA report, it is worth revisiting this project and the HEA’s Academic Integrity Service  (a UK-wide initiative supported by the HEA and JISC, 2009-11). Both looked at the ways in which universities could develop and implement an institutional policy to foster these values and ensure, through an educational focus, that students have opportunities to gain the wide-ranging skills needed for good academic practice (e.g. information literacy, academic writing, critical thinking).

Research and educational work in the interdisciplinary field of academic integrity has explored the reasons for such student academic misconduct. A particularly useful review by Mark Brimble in the International Handbook of Academic Integrity looks closely at the complex range of factors that are linked to academic misconduct, including student motivations and experiences as well as contextual factors. To address academic integrity issues, universities need to consider this range of factors, from the pressures of success on students through to overall curriculum design.

Explorations such as Brimble’s have underpinned the well-established proposal that academic integrity and good academic practice in students should ultimately be promoted through an institutional strategy with four key aspects: enhancing assessment practices; supporting students in their learning development; implementing policy and guidelines for staff and students that are aligned to an educational emphasis; and advancing strategies for staff engagement, and professional development. Work and recommendations by Bertram Gallant, HEA and Morris support these four aspects.

Over the last decade or so, we have seen recurring interest in how assessment design in particular has implications for academic integrity issues.

Enhancing assessment practices

The Academic Integrity Service brought together perspectives and case studies on how assessment strategies, methods and design might be used to address the issue of student plagiarism, collusion or ‘cheating’. Strategies included:

  • using individualised assignments (e.g. students drawing on personal or local experience)
  • evaluating student work generated in-class
  • assessing the process of developing an assignment, along with assessing the final output or ‘product’

An emphasis on assessment mirrored the focus on improving assessment practices in universities and colleges over the last 10 years. National initiatives have already led to evidence-informed frameworks, principles and guidance, enabling higher education providers to improve assessment strategy and practices in line with assessment for learning approaches. Examples range from ASKe at Oxford Brookes University, an assessment review tool as part of the HEA’s A Marked Improvement resource, JISC’s advice on using technology to approach large-scale change in assessment practice and a guide on transforming assessment and feedback with technology, as well as the TESTA project involving the universities of Bath Spa, Chichester, Winchester and Worcester (the TESTA methodology has now been used with over 40 universities).

Re-evaluating assessment strategies

Building on these insights for improving assessment practice, the field of academic integrity brings insight to the use of third parties by students to produce assignments (i.e. academic custom writing services, essay banks or essay mills, private tutors or freelance workers).

Phil Newton and Christopher Lang have emphasised that different forms of assessments, in addition to essays and reports, could be completed by a third party. So, strategies that ask a student to draw on a unique experience, such as individualised reports, are not necessarily ‘resistant’ to the possibility of this form of dishonesty.

This has entailed the re-evaluation of assessment strategies and methods as a way to help ensure academic integrity, with an international project led by the University of South Australia investigating the links between assessment design and contract cheating.

Recent reviews by Newton and Lang and by Lancaster and Clarke have also drawn attention to how effective use can be made of oral assessment tasks and in-class assessments. In a guide to oral assessment, Gordon Joughin illustrates the range of tasks that can be used: in-class or recorded presentations (by an individual or a student group); interrogations, such as interviews or vivas; and seminar debates.

Assessment for learning principles are recognised as vital for higher education assessment strategies, including the use of authentic and diverse forms of assessment. For example, projects at Anglia Ruskin University and Plymouth University have involved developing inclusive assessment practices, aligned with assessment for learning approaches. Case study analysis, group posters, information leaflets or learning packages, projects, reports and student-led seminars are all possibilities and can offer an appropriate balancing of formative and summative assessments.

Dr Erica Morris

Academic Lead for Degree Standards and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA)

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