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Between August 2011 and July 2019, I was the Lead Academic Conduct Officer for the Arts and Humanities at The Open University. My role during this time primarily involved investigating cases of poor academic practice (aka plagiarism) which had been referred for disciplinary treatment. As such, these cases required a formal approach, including sending students evidence of our concerns in the form of marked-up copies of their essays and asking students to explain in writing the reasons behind the lack of appropriate referencing in their assignments. Students’ responses almost invariably brought up one or more of these issues:
- Lack of appreciation of when and why to acknowledge other people’s work,
- Panic and confusion around how to reference,
- Lack of confidence in their ability to write in their own words, or to paraphrase effectively,
- Special circumstances leading to difficulties finding time for or being able to concentrate on their studies.
The overwhelming reoccurrence of such responses soon led me to realise that plagiarism at The Open University truly was ‘the surface manifestation of complex learning difficulties’ (Angelil-Carter, 2000, p. 2). Our open entry policy means that many of our students have limited prior educational experience and will often lack basic awareness of good academic practices. I knew from this point that I needed to use whatever influence I had as an Academic Conduct Officer to move beyond ‘robust and transparent procedures for detecting and punishing plagiarism’ (Park, 2004, p. 294).
My early and relatively modest attempts to make a difference to students’ chances and experiences focused on ensuring that the disciplinary process was not just about issuing warnings or penalties but, also and crucially, more of ‘a place where learning can occur’ than had hitherto been the case (Carroll and Appleton, 2001, p. 30). I complemented these reactive efforts with ongoing support and guidance to colleagues via regular staff development interventions as well as the production of a toolkit to assist tutors who are asked to deliver a study skills session. Ultimately, my aspiration was to help introduce proactive ways of supporting students that were suitable to our part-time, distance learning model with relatively limited formal opportunities for students to meet tutors and fellow students and with formal teaching content delivered via our high-quality module materials. And so, mindful also of the importance of relatable examples in helping students learn, I lobbied for study skills to become embedded into the teaching and assessment strategy of our modules (Lampert, 2008, p. 11)
From aspiration to reality: early indicators
The obvious place to introduce a new approach was our foundation Arts and Humanities module, which had an intake each academic year of around 4000 students, and an opportunity arose in 2015 as plans to revise our Level 1 teaching commenced. Our new foundation module, Discovering the Arts and Humanities eventually launched in October 2019 and includes a number of innovations. Amongst these is a unit on Academic Integrity, written by myself, which: contains practical advice and activities based on my experience of students’ struggles with good academic practices, draws directly from the module materials for examples, and is assessed via a short compulsory quiz. The unit, whose primary concerns are with the when and why of referencing, with encouraging students to reflect on the impact of quotations, paraphrases, and summaries, and with providing some strategies to encourage them to use sources effectively, is supplemented by a larger suite of strategically placed Study Skills sessions with practical exercises on topics such as time management, note-taking, planning, and writing assignments, reading, and creating references.
Given that teaching good academic practices actively, extensively, and as part of a structured and integrated approach was new in the Arts and Humanities, I was keen to assess the impact of this innovative approach. To this end, as part of a larger academic-conduct project I am currently undertaking, I am seeking to ascertain whether Discovering the Arts and Humanities is more effective in developing students’ skills than its predecessor module – The Arts Past and Present – was. I am doing this by considering trends in poor academic practice referrals for the two modules as well as responses to a short questionnaire sent to students who have completed either module between October 2018 and September 2020 (so students from two presentations of each module).
It is admittedly difficult to link any change strictly to the modules’ handling of good academic practices. For instance, although on average the profile of students undertaking the Arts and Humanities foundation modules since February 2018 is similar in terms of gender, age, disability, and ethnicity, it has been more likely for Discovering the Arts and Humanities students to be registered on more than 60 credits at any given time in the presentation than was the case with The Arts Past and Present (AA100) students (29.7% v. 19.54%). With regards to the questionnaires, also, the responses from AA100 students could well be influenced by these students’ experiences since completing the module, or by the time passed between finishing the module and responding to the questionnaire (about a year). There is, additionally, the wider complicating factor of the Covid-19 pandemic, which will have affected all students who have enrolled on the current foundation module so far in different ways.
All of the above notwithstanding, preliminary analysis of both the quantitative and qualitative sets of data suggests that the new model is working. On the one hand, academic conduct referral levels in the first three presentations of Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111) are on average lower than those in the final three presentations of the previous foundation module (1.08% of all submissions were referred for poor academic practice v. 1.34%). What is particularly noticeable, in fact, is the sharp decline in disciplinary referrals: these accounted for 16.9% of all A111 cases of concern between October 2019 and May 2021, whereas 32.3% of all referrals on The Arts Past and Present between February 2018 and September 2019 were for disciplinary treatment. On the other hand, survey responses seem to indicate that the current module is providing students with more of what they need – at least judging by the number of comments (30 v. 8) picking up on the modules’ general effectiveness in developing students’ academic skills. Appreciation for the new module’s focus on skills is repeatedly expressed in responses, often in connection to the advantage of study skills sessions being short, embedded in the module materials, and gradually released. The Academic Integrity unit is also generally reviewed as a useful and insightful resource, helping build students’ confidence in when and why to reference.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the most common response across both questionnaires when students were asked about areas their modules could have helped them more with is that referencing presents a real struggle and is something students identify as hard work. There are some signs that this seems less acute for The Arts Past and Present students since they have had more practice in the area since completing this module. Nonetheless, it is telling that referencing remains a source of concern after the foundation year, and that there are significant overlaps between the responses mentioning referencing across both questionnaires. They highlight, for instance, that students particularly value referencing examples explicitly identified as such within the module materials (i.e., the Assessment Booklet for The Arts Past and Present or the ‘How to cite this unit’ pages within Discovering the Arts and Humanities). Yet some students interestingly reflect that this promotes overreliance on these models rather than equipping students to understand how to reference, while some others in fact admit that they are still referring to the Assessment Booklet when referencing or that they felt lost once ‘How to cite this unit’ pages were no longer available towards the end of the presentation. Respondents across both questionnaires also express their preference for more, more regular, or more structured guidance, and it is also apparent that at least some students would welcome an open discussion on referencing, tutor support being identified in various parts of the surveys as pivotal to students’ development of academic skills and, in particular, their understanding of referencing.
Shortly after I finished writing the Academic Integrity unit for Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111), I became the Deputy Chair for a module that in many ways follows on from it – Cultures – and was asked to take the lead developing its Study Skills strategy. Eventually, this materialised as a suite of 8 sessions which appear at regular intervals throughout the presentation, use examples from the adjacent module materials, and build on the skills introduced on A111, with particular focus on working effectively with sources and academic writing development. Responses to the questionnaires outlined above happily seem to confirm that these are two areas students would generally like more support with, and now that Cultures (A112) has presented twice (it launched in October 2020), we are now conducting a survey with current students as a way to test whether the study skills suite has worked in the way we anticipated.
I am also involved in Level 1-wide conversations about a number of follow-on initiatives, not least one which seeks to address two key findings from the questionnaires (the evident anxiety referencing still causes and the value students place on tutor advice and guidance) at the same time as upholding our firm belief that, at Level 1, the emphasis should be on the when and why and not so much on the how of referencing.
For further details please contact: Encarna Trinidad, Lecturer and Staff Tutor in English
Angelil-Carter, S. (2000) Stolen Language?: Plagiarism in Writing. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Carroll, J. and Appleton, J. (2001) Plagiarism: A Good Practice Guide [Online]. Oxford: Oxford Brookes, Joint Information Systems Committee. Available at https://i.unisa.edu.au/siteassets/staff/tiu/documents/plagiarism—a-good-practice-guide-by-oxford-brookes-university.pdf (Accessed 9 June 2021).
Lampert, L. D. (2008) Combating student plagiarism: an academic librarian’s guide. Oxford: Chandos.
Park, C. (2004) ‘Rebels without a clause: towards an institutional framework for dealing with plagiarism by students,’ Journal of Further and Higher Education, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 291-306. Available at: https://doi-org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/10.1080/0309877042000241760 (Accessed 9 June 2021).