Why invest more in developing students’ good academic practices?


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In a previous blog post, I outlined why and how I had sought to add to the existing efforts to promote the explicit and embedded teaching of good academic practices.  The wider remit of the scholarship project in which I was involved at that time was, in fact, underpinned by three questions I had often pondered and had not had a chance to investigate during my time as Academic Conduct Officer at The Open University (OU): 

– Did plagiarism-related concerns emerge for students from some socio-economic groups more than others? 

-To what extent were students’ chances to complete their module negatively affected by reported breaches of academic conduct? 

How typical was it for signs of poor academic practice to be observed in more than one assignment by the same student? 

In order to answer these questions, I examined the records of students who were registered on Arts and Humanities (A&H) modules and had been formally referred for poor academic practice support or investigation between the autumn of 2011 (when current academic conduct procedures were implemented) and the summer of 2020.   

Somewhat naively perhaps, as I embarked on the project, I had hoped to be able to identify specific socio-demographic groups that were clearly and particularly ‘at risk’ of displaying poor academic practice so we could tailor our support interventions accordingly.  In reality, it turned out that the profiles of students for whom concerns had arisen were very much mixed. I had better luck, however, with my other two research questions. 

In the period covered by the project, the yearly A&H intake was between 15K and 20K students, and plagiarism concerns – in all their manifestations – were reported for only about 1.3% of our cohort.  Against the backdrop of the often-repeated claims (for instance, in Park, 2003; or Singh and Remenyi, 2016) that plagiarism is on the rise or that we are facing a plagiarism epidemic, we have much to celebrate.  According to formal records, we have not traditionally had widespread academic integrity breaches at the OU, despite the additional challenges we arguably face in view of our open-entry policy and our distance-learning model.   

Yet, looking closer at the available data also presents us with reasons why we should continue to build on how we help students to understand and adopt the conventions of academic writing.  For example, given the frequently unconventional educational backgrounds of OU students, the approach to addressing poor academic practice issues has usually been scaffolded: there is an emphasis on academic skills support and, where a grade penalty is issued, this only reduces the score of the specific assignment referred for investigation, which is often one of about 5-6 assessment points on a module.  More severe penalties, such as disallowing all assessment work on a module, are very rare. This means that causal relationships between academic conduct breaches and failure to complete a module cannot be firmly established.  Nonetheless, we should not ignore the fact that A&H students with poor academic practice referrals on record were at least slightly less likely overall to complete their module, with completion rates following disciplinary investigations – as opposed to referrals for minor slippages – being as low as 48% for some cohorts.  This cannot be purely coincidental.  Most of our efforts to support students, however, are currently reactive and not infrequently hampered by procedural delays and the informal nature of the remedial tuition on offer.  Introducing opportunities for regular, structured, proactive support on a one-to-many basis seems like a good starting point to break down possible inhibitions and dispel common anxieties about academic writing whilst making students feel part of a more inclusive, supportive community.   

It is worth remembering, indeed, that plagiarism can be the manifestation or consequence of significant personal or cognitive difficulties that can be difficult to overcome (Angélil-Carter, 2000).  This seems to be borne out by one of the most staggering findings of the project: that academic concerns arose more than once for about a quarter of the students who needed a referral.  The distribution of referrals for students in this group is also very telling in two respects.   

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Firstly, for over half of the students in the group, poor academic practice issues were identified in two or more modules, and in the main reoccurred over the course of two or more years. Secondly, and not completely unrelated, for just under a third of students in the multiple-referrals group, referrals had come from both within and beyond A&H modules – and about half of the students with A&H-only referrals had studied modules in other Schools and Faculties.  Moreover, about 10% of this whole group had transferred undergraduate credit from elsewhere. 

Considering this multiple-referral group in detail, therefore, provides further clues as to why we should enhance how we support students to develop good academic practice, and how we might do that effectively.  Since 2007, the OU has worked towards the holistic approach to dealing with plagiarism recommended by experts in the field (i.e. Macdonald and Carroll, 2006; and Park, 2004) through the implementation of university-wide policies, procedures, and resources.  However, it was not until 2019, with the introduction of new Level 1 foundation modules, that the teaching of academic skills became an integral part of the A&H curriculum, a step which so far seems to have had very positive results.  The Academic Integrity unit that forms part of one of these modules has been made available to all OU students, and discussions are ongoing about doing the same for the full suite of A&H Level 1 study skills sessions.  In the short term at least, advertising the existence of these resources at every opportunity should go some way towards helping those students who are following pathways that regularly require them to (re-)familiarise themselves with different academic writing practices and expectations, and who often struggle as a result.  Longer term, adapting the Level 1 model of using integrated academic skills resources using module-specific content and examples for post-foundational modules seems desirable, since about half of all the academic conduct concerns have historically derived from post-Level 1 modules. 

 Admittedly, finding the space, time, and resources to include – in a meaningful way – the ever-growing list of things academic teams are asked to be mindful about when designing new modules and programmes can be tricky.  As discussed above, however, even relatively modest interventions can enhance the student experience and help us with our efforts to improve retention and progression. 

 For further details please contact: 

 Encarna Trinidad, Lecturer and Staff Tutor in English 


Angélil-Carter, S. (2000) Stolen Language?: Plagiarism in Writing.  Harlow: Pearson Education. 

Park, C. (2003) ‘In Other (People’s) Words: Plagiarism by University Students – Literature and Lessons’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(5), pp. 471-88.  Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930301677  

Park, C. (2004) ‘Rebels Without a Clause: Towards and Institutional Framework for Dealing with Plagiarism by Students’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 28(3), pp. 291-306.  Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877042000241760  

Macdonald, R. and Carroll, J. (2006) ‘Plagiarism – A Complex Issue Requiring A Holistic Institutional Approach’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(2), pp. 233-245. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930500262536  

Singh, S. and Remenyi, D. (2016) ‘Plagiarism and Ghostwriting: The Rise in Academic Misconduct’, South African Journal of Science, 112(5/6).  Available at: https://doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2016/20150300  

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