What is contract cheating and methods to reduce it

What is contract cheating?

Contract cheating includes different types of behaviours in which a student outsources their work, or contracts it out, to a third party.

TEQSA defines contract cheating as: ‘…when students outsource their assessments to a third party, whether that is a commercial provider, current or former student, family member or acquaintance. It includes the unauthorised use of file-sharing sites, as well as organising another person to take an examination’ (see Good Practice Note: Addressing Contract Cheating, p.2).

Many behaviours which might fit within the definition of contract cheating are not as obvious as the more traditional methods of these behaviours, often referred to as essay mills or using ‘ghostwriters’. 

There may not always be an exchange of money, the assignment may have been obtained for free, sometimes from credits built up with commercial providers. Work might have been given to students from those known to them (such as friends, family or other students), as well as in exchange for something else. 

There may not always be an exchange of money

Researchers globally have studied the different types of outsourcing behaviours and sites, such as peer-sharing sites, using friends and family to do assignments, engaging with bidding sites, and employing other types of commercial contract cheating for assignment or online exam completion. 

Some examples of relevant research includes:

What is the prevalence of student engagement with contract cheating?

Varying rates have been reported in global research of the proportion of students who may be engaging in these behaviours.

The largest two studies undertaken in Australia have reported prevalence rates of 5.78 per cent (Bretag, 2018, based on contract cheating and sharing behaviours) and 7.53 per cent (Awdry, 2020, based on informal and formal outsourcing types). 

Up to about 8 per cent of students may be engaged in contract cheating

Other large-scale studies include:

How to define the problem locally

Do you have a strategy?

If your institution doesn’t have a strategy or framework for approaching and addressing academic integrity, it is possible that the practices you may have in place for education, training, policy definitions, detection and processing of suspected breaches are not aligned and their impact may be lessened.

Determine the approach you want to take and then assess if your policies and education match the strategy you are promoting. What is the focus? Education and training; communication; detection and procedural fairness in case management?

Substantial research exists on the promotion of academic integrity frameworks and the key considerations for addressing breaches, whether for plagiarism generally, or contract cheating specifically.

Clear policy and procedures are critical!

Providers must ensure that their policies and procedures clearly define behaviours which incorporate contract cheating.

This should be explained in clear, plain English, with no ambiguity. Having clear definitions will guide students, and also support any action which providers may take following a reported suspicion or allegation of any academic integrity breaches. For further information, see the Evidence and Processes section.

Producing student and staff facing guides will also help providers ensure that the entire institutional community has an understanding of what behaviours may be included in the definition of contract cheating. Whether, for example, this is as a separate breach of any academic integrity behaviours, or as a sub-section of plagiarism. Providing clear examples of breaches can also help to promote understanding of what is not acceptable. Connecting any breach definitions back to any other relevant documents (such as a Student Code of Conduct, or Student Responsibilities) is important. Providers should also make sure that all definitions or descriptions in different documents are consistent. 

Providing clear examples of breaches can help to promote understanding of what is unacceptable

If, due to specialisations in certain delivered courses, there are very specific examples which could arise, detail those in course or school/faculty materials. Framing the ethics required and what breaches may occur in a local context educates students studying in those fields, as well as those staff teaching them.

It is also important that terminology does not exclude certain areas, for example that definitions are not focussed on ‘written work’ or types of file submissions which might exclude other types of student assessment that involves physical objects, design, music and other non-text based work. The vast majority of assessment types can be outsourced.

For advice and information on assessment design, refer to the Academic Integrity Toolkit.

Incorporate institution definitions and links to training or relevant resources

In addition to having clear policies, the methods of support for students and staff need to be well articulated and signposted. Policies should promote expected behaviours of ethics and honesty, as well as what breaches might look like. Giving exemplars of good practice is useful for student’s education in these areas.

If your institution has peer support networks, study skills areas, library and learning support or local faculty/school support, detail those and provide live links in any guides or webpages about the topic. This ensures that people are not clicking around pages trying to find help either during the assessment process or after having received an allegation.

Advocacy or support services should be involved in any policy, definition, or guidance updates so that all staff have the same understanding and knowledge of documentation and processes, and no conflicting advice is given to students.

What motivates students to engage in this behaviour?

There are multiple different factors which can lead students to engage in contract cheating and associated behaviours. The reasons outlined below are not exhaustive, but are some of the more common reasons observed.

Peer effects, normalisation, and neutralisation

Studies have shown that students' beliefs of the rate at which others are cheating or that cheating is normalised amongst their peer groups can influence their decision to cheat. Often their beliefs are not founded in fact, but assumptions. However, some research has shown that students have directly reported knowing students who have cheated. Encouraging students to have open conversations about honest behaviours or reporting those known to be cheating, can help to minimise some of these peer effects. 

Reporting those known to be cheating can help minimise peer effects

Additionally, some research has shown that students might ‘neutralise’ their behaviour (derived from Techniques of neutralisation, Sykes and Matza 1957). Blaming others for the reasons that led them to cheat (Everyone does it, so why shouldn’t I? Tutors don’t give us enough time or support. I have too many assignments due at the same time).

Situational variables

Disengagement/disinterest with courses, units, learning components or assignments themselves (for example, not understanding the purpose of why they are being asked to do the assignment), have all been seen as reasons which have led students to outsource their assignments. Students not having confidence or belief in their own skills has been shown in some studies to be contributors to students seeking external help.

There are different ways to mitigate these issues, through carefully considering the assessment design and process, connecting courses and learning materials to real world examples or employment/professions, as well as encouraging students to work to their strengths and seek help through official institutional services when they need more support.

For further information on assessment design, refer to the Good Practice Note and Academic Integrity Toolkit.

Disengagement can lead students to outsource their assignments

Other situational variables which have been connected to cheating behaviours relate to other external pressures. For example, time pressures from having to work or care-giving; pressure for grades by others; lack of understanding of assignment criteria or academic integrity requirements.

Some assessment types and disciplines have also been associated with higher reports of contract cheating, as well as the mode of delivery. 

Personal/individual variables

Some common factors associated with students engagement with contract cheating or other forms have cheating have been gender (that males engage in this more often than other genders); age (younger students are more likely to cheat); and level of study (lower levels of study have higher self-reported rates of use of contract cheating services than higher levels).

Some common factors associated with students engaging with contract cheating are gender, age and level of study

Some research has pointed to students studying in a second language as being a predictor of contract cheating, or at least a contributing factor. However, other research has not found this to be the case. Institutions should consider this variable within their own contexts.

Other studies have found personality traits to be associated with higher engagement in cheating. For example, those who display less morals or more dishonest behaviours; students who lack intrinsic learning motivations; students who display lower self-control than others have shown higher propensities towards cheating. Students higher in adjustment traits who could respond to stress have also been found to have lower rates of cheating.

In addition to this, some studies have considered the behaviours in conjunction with deviancy and criminological theories, arguing that students weigh up the costs and benefits of their behaviours and make a rational choice over what the best outcome for them will be (related to Rational choice theory, Clarke and Cornish 1986). This might include the severity of the penalty given at their institution for cheating, compared to time it might take to complete the assignment, cost to purchase, and fear of failure.

Some of the below research relates to general cheating or plagiarism. The starred items refer specifically to contract cheating. 

How to raise student awareness

Involve students

It is a great idea to get your student representatives, groups and societies involved in any awareness campaigns. This enables students to talk about the pitfalls and risks of cheating and also influence each other in the promotion of positive behaviours. Student peer mentors and networks can also be a positive contributor, by sharing ideas and experiences about challenges they faced meeting deadlines or requirements and directing others where to seek help.

Get your student representatives, groups and societies involved in any awareness campaigns

If you are organising campaigns such as the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating (October each year), ask students to be involved. Not only is it important to involve your students in policy/procedure reviews so that they speak to the student body, but having students co-design education and awareness drives will also provide the sort of messaging that students may be more likely to relate and respond to.

Encourage proactive conversations

Encourage proactive conversations and highlight relevance of honest behaviours to students. This doesn’t have to only be done in academic integrity modules (which some research has found to be ineffective). Framing the importance of ethics, integrity and honesty for student’s personal and professional lives helps to situate the topic within a wider setting and not just as something that ‘must be done’, such as making sure correct citations and references are used.

Pointing out the benefits of academic integrity skills doesn’t need to be limited to learning in core modules or requirements. Where possible this can be communicated across their learning journey. Keeping students engaged in their learning through talking about issues they may face in completing their work can help to mitigate risks of them considering taking shortcuts.

Highlight the pitfalls that any outsourcing can have on your students' knowledge of their field

Encourage students to engage in their learning and highlight the pitfalls that any outsourcing can have on their knowledge of their field. Without completing the work themselves, they will not be able to demonstrate the requisite and expected skills to future employers.

Educate students about the risks

Aside from the risks associated with the outsourcing being detected by their institution, which at the extreme end may have consequences such as exclusion/expulsion (which could result in visa cancellations, job losses etc.), suspension or the requirement to pay unit/course fees again; there are many other risks associated with using commercial sites. 

It is important to educate students on these drawbacks, not least to highlight to them the risks associated with choosing to effectively pay for their education twice, first to enrol in something they should be learning in, and secondly for someone to complete their work for them. Indeed, in some cases students pay for their education a third time if they are required to retake a unit/course at cost. Make sure that outcomes which might be applied at the institutional level and transparent and discussed so that students are aware of the ramifications a substantiated allegation of contract cheating may have for them.

Unfortunately, students can be blackmailed by contract cheating companies, sometimes long after they purchased the assignment. Blackmail may relate to companies threatening to inform the student’s educational institution or their employer unless they pay further sums of money. 

Sites themselves may take payment for a product in advance and students never receive the assessment, or it is of very poor quality, which the student has to alter or completely redo, or they receive a poor/fail grade for.

Alert students to the risks of being preyed upon and their details shared, as highlighted in ‘Site type awareness section’; alert them to the ruthless marketing campaigns; alert them to the poor quality of many of these sites.

Alert your students to the risks of being preyed upon by contract cheating companies

YouTube and other platforms contain numerous ‘cheating help’, or ‘how to get away with cheating’ advice videos. Don’t advertise them to students but make your staff aware of them. If you have the same information that students may have, you’re in a far better position to detect one of the ‘tricks’ given by these cheat videos.

None of these are issues that are not happening to your students, everyone is at risk of these behaviours and marketing campaigns. What you need to do as a tertiary/higher education provider is educate yourselves on these matters, and educate your students to try to mitigate the risks.

How to design assessments to prevent contract cheating

There are numerous resources available to assist with designing assessments to prevent contract cheating:

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