Why do Students Plagiarise & Purchase Essays?

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Each year UWE Bristol funds Pedagogic Projects across the University on a variety of themes. In this blog, Jackie Chelin discusses her 2020/21 project on academic integrity.

Why this project?

Long standing issues with plagiarism are being compounded by students’ use of essay mills. There is a real need to help students to understand and embrace the value of academic integrity in their studies. This includes helping them to understand what is and what is not academic misconduct, what is collaboration and what is collusion, as well as how plagiarism might impact their academic progress and future employment.

Crucially, we wanted to hear from the students themselves about the terminology and the activities that would engage them in raising their awareness and understanding, particularly in relation to the merits of good academic, and professional, practice.

What were we trying to do?

  • Understand better student attitudes to plagiarism and cheating and then to work in partnership with them to develop more comprehensive and meaningful guidance and resources.
  • Address the increasing number of assessment offences by taking a student-centred approach and tackling the causes of the problem, e.g., by developing approaches / co-creating resources with students that will help to prevent plagiarism.
  • Complement, extend, and feed into the work of other projects and initiatives across the university.

What actions did we take?

We administered a Qualtrics survey which attracted 323 (anonymous) responses over a three-month period, followed by a focus group with students from all four faculties in which we used case studies to discuss scenarios relating to different types of assessment offence.

We are now working with a group of level 2 film-making students to create an interactive “branched scenario” online resource using H5P technology. Students will be able to travel through this, making decisions at various points that lead them to a better understanding about the consequences of the interactive choices they made, and which they can go back and rectify.

What did we discover?

Students have a wide range of opinions and these are not that different from ours! They are fairly au fait with notions of plagiarism but much less clear on collusion and contract cheating – which might well reflect the relative emphasis we place on these aspects in our guidance and web-based information. Indeed, they want more discussion of essay mills.

Students know quite a lot about the assessment offences process, although not all this knowledge is accurate. They want more training, guidance, and information because they want to do the “right thing”.

Lack of time is a key factor in plagiarism – both in blatant and inadvertent plagiarism. The nature of the assessments that students are asked to undertake also has a bearing, i.e., many students would like assignments that are more meaningful, personal, and interesting to them (which arguably reflects current discussions around inclusivity and decolonisation of the curriculum).

What are we recommending from this project?

There are three categories of recommendations, as outlined below, which could fit into a wider, collaboratively created, university assessment strategy.

In relation to education and guidance, we recommend that:

  • the online interactive resource being created with the film-making students be used, as appropriate, in inductions, embedded into programmes, modules and workshops. This would take the best aspects reported elsewhere and combine this with a more integrated, attractive, and flexible approach (Sefcik, 2020)
  • More support for reading, note taking, paraphrasing, group work, citation and referencing is produced in a range of formats, e.g., online bite-sized resources, for integration into the virtual learning environment, and face to face bookable workshops (both online and on campus)
  • the university develops a repository of sample students’ work to help them to understand what is expected in terms of academic writing and referencing
  • links are included in assessment briefs to relevant guidance and support, particularly to provide clarity about exactly which aspects of referencing and citation (for example) are being assessed, and how.

In relation to assessment, we recommend that:

  • formative assessments be included in the first six weeks of term to provide students with more confidence about incorporating published sources in their work
  • consideration be given not just to the timing but also to the number of assessments students are asked to undertake
  • alternatives, or a choice of assessments, are developed for each module (Bretag, 2019)
  • more advice on assessment design is developed, combined with a review of the coding mechanisms for assessment offences, to be able to trace assessment types that are susceptible to assessment offences.

In relation to communications, we recommend:

  • developing a stronger values-led rather than sanctions-led approach to assessment offences, e.g.
    • the co-creation of an academic integrity policy along with students,
    • the use of relevant social media and student-facing communications to promote the benefits of good academic practice, e.g., deeper learning, personal satisfaction and to support future career (Amigud, 2020).

In making the recommendations we applied an “inclusivity lens” to try to ensure that the outcomes would positively impact all students, allowing them to have access equally, and in an integrated way, to the learning, skills, and knowledge they require, irrespective of previous experience, background, culture, or nationality.

For further information please contact the author of this blog: Jacqueline Chelin, Deputy Director of Library Careers and Inclusivity, UWE Bristol

Visual Pedagogies Project

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Each year UWE Bristol funds Pedagogic Projects across the University on a variety of themes. In this blog, John Bird and Dave Green discuss their 2020 project on Visual Pedagogies.

Cartoon of an eye

Re-enchant your teaching by using visual materials – photos, film, YouTube, Instagram – in teaching and in assessment…………….make your own visual materials……use found materials……help students to develop their own visual materials

Dave Green and I had been interested in the use of visuals – still and moving images – in teaching and learning for several years before we did the APD project on visual assessment.  We had tried using visuals in a number of sociology and criminology modules, starting with the teaching and moving on to visual assessment. The students seemed to like using the use of visuals and, when we moved on to assessment, were keen to use visuals in traditional assessments – images in essays, for example – but also in some more radical forms of assessment – mindmaps, photo essays. This led to a Faculty of Health & Applied Sciences-funded project on the use of visuals in teaching and learning which culminated in a university-wide Pedagogic Project on visual assessment. This project included a university-wide questionnaire looking at the uses of visual pedagogies; student focus groups across a range of programmes; and a small number of interviews with staff covering undergraduate and postgraduate provision.

Why visuals?  It is increasingly, for students, a visual world and a world in which the majority have  ways of engaging with visual materials and producing their own materials.  We found that students have the basics of what might be called visual literacy which just needs refining.

The use of visuals?  A large proportion of staff use visuals – photos, videos, you tube and so on – in teaching and learning.  Of that proportion, most use visuals to make their teaching resources more engaging; in a sense, the visuals are not integrated and are just forms of illustration.  A smaller proportion integrate the visual and the textual and, in some cases, the visuals become more important than the text; visuals stand on their own as a resource.  The majority of staff do not use visuals in assessment so that even where visuals are fully integrated into teaching and learning, they don’t form a component of assessment regimes. There a philosophical point to this – can we move beyond a point where the visuals we use require a textual explanation! To quote the jazz pianist and composer Thelonius Monk, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. In this visual age – that which Otto Neurath termed “The Era of the Eye” – the visual stands on its own and is not reducible to text. The effects of visual pedagogy?  Student focus groups emphasised the positive effects of visual pedagogy on their attendance and engagement and some staff said these pedagogies enhance performance;  students found visual assessment enjoyable and creative; the technologies students use allowing them to become prosumers, that is, producers  and consumers of visual materials which gives them the potential to be co-creators of curricula.

The range of opportunities for visual pedagogy – some things you could try:

  • PowerPoints
  • Pecha Kucha presentations
  • Photos as part of an assessment (what do these photos tell us about ‘X’)
  • Students taking photos to illustrate a topic/theme           
  • Infographics
  • Videoscribe lectures
  • Podcasts          
  • Box of Broadcasts
  • Instagram storyboard/comic strip/graphic novella
  • Selfie – get students to discuss self identity/self concept
  • Street photography project
  • Vlogging/video/photo diary             
  • Visual ethnography of a group
  • Pinterest page or wiki/wordpress                            
  • Cartoons, posters
  • Drama (e.g., group work writing and acting out a case study – social realism)
  • Image analysis: use a methodology, e.g., semiotics/discourse/content analysis to interrogate an image or series of images

Many of these – and there is a lot more things you could try – can be used as basis for teaching/learning and assessment.

It is difficult to sum up what we think we have achieved. What is clear is that a lot of people in UWE are using visual pedagogies – many more than we thought; that students see the visual as an essential element in their learning; that they take very quickly to visual forms of assessment. There are problems: access to technologies; making sure that visual pedagogies are appropriate for a world where there are neuro-diverse students; ethical issues in the making and using of visual images; for staff the time it takes to turn a non-visual form of delivery to one which uses the visual.


These links include a long film we used as a background during open days; some students’ views on visual pedagogy and some examples of visual work we do in sociology.

You can access our Twitter using #social_visual
Engagement with the Twitter account and the variety of Facebook posts, indicates an international interest in visual pedagogies; in addition, we have begun to use visual pedagogies in research, both in the carrying out of research and in its dissemination.  Our hope is that this will widen the public interest in and engagement with research

Contact us:
John Bird (john.bird@uwe.ac.uk) and Dave Green (david2.green@uwe.ac.uk)

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