Designing out plagiarism for online assessment

Many of us are turning our attention to strategies to ensure student online assessment sit confidently beside academic integrity. This brief blog post outlines how this can be achieved when working at pace.

We, the HE learning community have surprised ourselves with how swift we have moved to online teaching, learning and assessment. A compassionate response to the current crisis, where academic rigour compliments (rather than competes with) understanding of the students’ unusual context and wellbeing is the most effective in terms of academic integrity and pastoral support.

Many HEIs are substituting exams with online assessment, taking an open book approach where work is submitted within a given time frame. The most progressive institutions are moving away from time-bound exams entirely, recognising synchronous working in the current circumstances is challenging if not, in some instances, impossible. Many have also created some flex for time-limited assignments and deadlines, to ensure students have possible chance of achieving to the best of their ability in these times. I am proud that these are the approaches our VC, Professor Susan Lea and PVC Education, Professor Becky-Huxley Bins, have led at the University of Hull.

Although programmes where timed-recall/application of knowledge is a learning outcome or PSRB stipulation are advised to ‘consider… completing more coursework or project work up-front and moving the examination elements to later in the academic session, or even into subsequent years’ (QAA, 2020, pg 9) open-book, time-bound online exams seem to pervade. This is raising concerns about contract-cheating. So much so QAA guidance on Covid 19 tells us we must ‘bear in mind potential vulnerability to misconduct when changing assessment methods’ (QAA, 2020, pg8) and advises essay mills are ‘seeking to exploit the current situation.’ (QAA, 2020, pg 8) and are increasingly active on social media, preying on students made vulnerable by a desire to complete or continue their studies in seemingly impossible circumstance.

Universities have retained the usual safeguards, such as unique student ID, log-ons and the use of plagiarism checkers. We must also ensure students are aware of both institutional policies & practices and the ‘dangers’ of contract-cheating ‘including potential exposure to fraud and extortion’ (QAA 2020, pg 8).

More important, and effective, is to design assessment FOR (rather than OF) learning and ensure students understand assessment, including quickly reconfigured online assessment, is integral to academic success.

Designing assessment with the following in mind make work harder to plagiarise, with the added value of being more engaging and so motivating for students.

  1. Assessment that reflects how students can or will use disciplinary knowledge, or ‘authentic assessment’
  2. Tasks that ask students to ‘evaluate’, ‘create’ and ‘analyse’ the application of a given theory to a local or personal interest/context/problem
  3. Assessment with a reflective component. This could be a short (say 400 word) learning statement outlining what elements the student found challenging/rewarding in the assignment or how the work will support graduate ambition, be that work, study, enterprise or volunteering.

The following online assessments ‘design-out’ plagiarism and at the same time ensure assessment for learning, can be considered to have a flavour of authenticity and can be adopted when working at pace using the most standard of digital teaching and learning tools/platforms. Although they should be read against the specific discipline and cohort size:

  1. A-synchronous-presentations (pre-recorded) and recorded, a-synchronous discussion hosted through the VLE
  2. A recorded, assessed dialogue, similar to a viva-voce, to include reflection on the topic and how it relates to the students’ specific programme of study/other modules;
  3. Recordings (video or photographic) of practical-work;
  4. A portfolio of work where disciplinary knowledge is applied to a specific task or problem, to include a reflective commentary;
  5. Novel and creative models of presenting work, for example info-graphics, videos or posters.
  6. Group or team-based – assessment hosted possible online, and can be facilitated through the VLE

In the longer-term assignments where the learning journey is recorded can be added to this arsenal. Sally Brown and Kate Sambell offer more detailed exploration of these and more alternative assessments, now available from Sally’s blog, I would also recommend looking at guidance written by Graham Hendry for the University of Sydney.

Designing out plagiarism is sensible, however a more meaningful approach is to deploy supportive strategies that minimise duress for students and so reduce potential temptation to submit assignments using any means possible – and consider contract-cheating. Even more crucially, we must ensure assessment is integral to learning and academic success, not just a measure of it.

Hendry, G (online) Practical assessment strategies to prevent students from plagiarising.

Sambell, J and Brown, S (2020) Coronavirus contingency suggestions for replacing on site exams. 

QAA (2017) Contracting to Cheat in HE: How to address contract cheating, the use of third party services and essay mills. 

QAA (2020) Covid 19: Initial Guidance for HE providers in Standards and Quality


Dr Jenny Lawrence, PFHEA. Head of the Teaching Excellence Academy, University of Hull.

2 thoughts on “Designing out plagiarism for online assessment

  1. Pingback: Can we use multiple-choice questions for assessment in any subject? | thesedablog

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