Cheating or Coaching?

There’s a defence used by ‘Essay Mill’ companies that they are providing ‘model answers’ to aid students, and therefore they are part of a continuum of ‘coaching’ activities that might support students in their learning.  The welcome attempt encourage to the Government to legislate needs to tackle this defence.  It is clear that the activities described to students fall outside the common definition of ‘coaching’ and most universities would prohibit such activities but they can only bring action against students, not those who sell these services.

Assessment is integral to learning.  Students are not prohibited from supporting their learning outside the classroom, indeed the model of higher education is predicated upon that.  Students can therefore support themselves in their assessments; there are resources to help students prepare for assessments all of sorts – there are a huge array of books, guides, websites, podcasts, support services of all sorts.  Most importantly students will be provided with support in the module and course for the assessment. This is all support for learning.

Understanding the assessment task is integral to learning.  It is clearly the case that we provide far better information about the assessment in degrees, and many more students grasp what the far greater variety of assessment tasks are about.  I agree with Liz Morrish that this must play some key part in why more students are succeeding in their assessments.  Not only are they briefed, they get feedback on assessment.  No university has seen the last decade of NSS outcomes and ignored assessment and feedback.  This is all support for learning.

Using a generic model answer or plan can be integral to learning.  Understanding how the task demonstrates the learning outcomes, whether that’s knowing how an argument is constructed, information is presented, or a performance undertaken supports learning.  These models are designed to highlight strengths and weaknesses, normally they are annotated and they won’t provide an answer for students to replicate.  They probably won’t be ‘closed’ – a complete work, but showing how the plan is turned into the finished work. Working through a student’s plan alongside a model helps clarify what they are trying to do. This is all support for learning.

Using a pre-prepared answer from someone else is not integral to learning.   Preparing an assessment is not just about replicating the answer.  Looking at someone else’s answer to the same task takes away the learning – the student is supposedly just trying to mould the already shaped response into their own.  If the student is doing their own work, then everything in the ‘model answer’ needs to be rejected; rendering it a waste.  What the student needs is questions not answers to drive them to complete their own work.  This is not support for learning.

Then we come to some unanswered questions that have been posed by many and which undermine the notion of this being a ‘model answer’:

Why is it guaranteed plagiarism proof?

Plagiarism is bad, no university wants it to be around, but why in these ‘model answers’ is so much emphasis put on the purchased product passing through tools such as Turnitin unscathed?  It’s not going to be handed in…

Why are the essays unique to the student?

Linked to the plagiarism question, why would it matter if two students on the same module had the same ‘model answer’? Essay mills will assure you the work is unique. It’s not going to be handed in…

Why are the essays sold by grade?

If the student is using this to stimulate their own work, why do they want to get a 2:2 essay?  Surely everyone would want to try and do their best?     Why would you want to know how to only partially meet the criteria? It’s not going to be handed in…

Why do the essay banks offer a revision service?

Some of them offer ‘free revisions’ until the student is satisfied.  Why does a student need a ‘model answer’ to be revised? It’s not going to be handed in…

Why is this a confidential service?

The companies say that they will respect student’s confidentiality – why would a student be so concerned that their identity needs to be kept secret. After all, the essay’s not going to be handed in…

I think the notion that ‘essay mills’ are providing ‘model answers’ as part of coaching is a convenient fiction, which they think absolves them of any blame. After all, if a student does hand in the essay, they can say that they said it shouldn’t have been handed in.  The student has no redress, the university cannot go after the company.   I agree with the QAA that there are a range of measures that should be taken to make this a less easy option, but I am also firmly of the view that the UK should take the path of preparing legislation that makes this industry illegal.  We can do it properly, with a decent pre-legislative consultation.  Perhaps Parliament can set the ‘essay mills’ an assessment question – why shouldn’t the UK ban essay mills?

There are few earthly things more splendid than a university: Masefield

Graduation ceremony speeches are particular things.  There are the corporate welcomes, with a flavour of the successes of the university, perhaps a heartfelt vote of thanks from a student and in some ceremonies a citation for an honorary degree.  Over these the university has some control and perhaps these aren’t that original in form.  More ‘fun’ is a response from the honoured guest; they bring their own particular style to this.

Often these are insightful, powerful speeches.  Often providing good advice for the graduates, calls to action or wistful memorials.  Sadly, few endure.  One has, however, the response from John Masefield to his award of DLitt at the ceremony which installed the Earl of Harewood as chancellor of the University of Sheffield.  You may have heard parts of it in graduation speeches or read it in the Chairman’s foreword in the Dearing Report.

There are few earthly things more splendid than a university.  In these days of broken frontiers and collapsing values, when every future looks somewhat grim and the dams are down and the floods are making misery, when every ancient foothold has become something of a quagmire, wherever a university stands, it stands and shines; wherever it exists, the free minds of men, urged on to full and fair enquiry, may still bring wisdom into human affairs.

There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university.  It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning, and will exact standards in these things.

They give to the young in their impressionable years, the bond of a lofty purpose shared, of a great corporate life whose links will not be loosed until they die.

They give young people that close companionship for which youth longs, and that chance of the endless discussion of the themes which are endless, without which youth would seem a waste of time.

There are few things more enduring than a university. Religions may split into sect or heresy; dynasties may perish or be supplanted, but for century after century the university will continue, and the stream of life will pass through it, and the thinker and the seeker will be bound together in the undying cause of bringing thought into the world.  To be a member of these great societies must ever be a glad distinction.

John Masefield, Poet Laureate, at the installation of the 6th Earl of Harewood as Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, 25th June 1946.

Those collapsed values were all too evident in 1946, but it is Masefield’s optimism for the purpose of the university that shines through, and speaks to us now.   Our future might  look somewhat grim too, but we should remember that universities will endure.