Avoiding unfair means guidance - Covid 19

Woman working on laptop from homeDue to the Covid 19 pandemic, departments will need to use predominantly remote means of assessing students. While the existing policy, advice and procedures around unfair means remain in place, it is important to recognise the additional risks associated with these means of assessment. 

  • Open book exams as well as an increase in assessed coursework present more opportunities for unauthorised collaboration between students as well as plagiarism. Students may be taking an online exam which they have 24 hours to complete and therefore ample opportunity to collude with others and/or to find information online.
  • Increased anxiety levels may lead students to resort to unfair means or use unfair means inadvertently.
  • The QAA have warned that Essay Mills are taking advantage of the current situation to promote their services.

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This guidance sets out steps you can take to ensure that your assessments remain valid and fair as well as advice on how you can support your students through this. Providing reassurance to students through clear communications about assessment tasks and procedures is critical.

Design assessment tasks to make it difficult for students to use unfair means

The design of your assessments can go a long way to reduce the likelihood of students using unfair means.

  • Choose assessment tasks which ask students to analyse, synthesise and evaluate information rather than recall it.
  • Add a personalised or reflective element to a task. For example, as part of a task students can be asked to write a short reflective piece about how they approached the task, what they found hard, what they learned etc. Students can be asked to relate the topic or data to their own experience or specific context.
  • Write questions based on a specific context, data set or series of texts.
  • For Blackboard Tests (i.e. quizzes), consider:
    • Setting a time limit in which students can complete the test
    • Randomising the order in which questions appear
    • Randomising the order of answers within a question
    • Using a bank of questions, this will ensure that not all students are provided with the same questions
    • Use calculated questions for mathematical questions, so students get different sets of information to work from.
  • Include the requirement to submit a draft of a piece of coursework for feedback as part of the task and then include a reflection on the feedback as part of the final submission. As well as reducing the likelihood of students using unfair means, this can help students to manage their time and avoid a last minute panic.

See Elevate resources on methods of assessment.

Include steps to deter students from using unfair means

Continue to use existing procedures such as use of Turnitin and students signing a declaration that their work is their own. Consider the following:

  • Use “micro vivas” to carry out spot checks on the authenticity of students’ work. Carry out short interviews (5-10 mins) either by video conference or telephone with a random sample of students. You could use a square root sample of the total cohort, e.g. 7 out of 49, probing them on their understanding of the work they have submitted. Interviews should ideally be carried out with 2 colleagues present or recorded if this is not possible. It is important to let students know about this prior to submission, with details of how students will be chosen and the nature of the interview. Offer alternatives as reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities that affect their spoken communication, for example a discussion via instant messaging on Google Hangout.  You could also use “micro vivas” with students whose performance differs markedly from assessments completed prior to teaching and assessment moving online. In this case, it is important to bear in mind that some students may find online forms of assessment more manageable than invigilated exams and thus perform better.
  • Using Turnitin will enable the generation of an originality report once a student submits their work. The Originality Report shows you any text matches that have been found to online sources or from within its paper repository. The report itself does not indicate whether plagiarism has taken place, rather the amount of text that matches other sources. Academic judgement is key in determining whether plagiarism has taken place. Please note that Turnitin does not have the same guaranteed capacity during busy times as Blackboard Assignments, therefore due to the unprecedented circumstances we, alongside other universities, do not recommend its use unless originality reports are required, or the department already uses it for its marking features.
Provide lots of support to your students

The concept of using unfair means is a concern for many students during “normal” teaching times. This is likely to be heightened during the current situation where students are working and being assessed in unfamiliar ways. Providing clear communications is critical to supporting your students so they feel equipped to avoid the use of unfair means.

  • Remind students about unfair means when setting assessment tasks and emphasise that existing policies continue to apply. Signpost resources to help them with referencing etc.
  • Provide detailed written guidance in advance to students about each assessment task, including the purpose of the task, how to approach it, and, where appropriate, what might constitute unfair means for that particular task. This is particularly important for open book exams. Many students will be unfamiliar with this type of assessment and may be unclear what they can or cannot legitimately do. For open book exams specify what materials students can refer to during the exam and what they cannot use.
  • Ensure that open exam instructions /rubrics reiterate clearly what materials students can or cannot refer to while they are doing the assessment. This is particularly important given the suspension of the usual requirement to approve calculators and dictionaries for invigilated exams.
  • Provide the name of a contact for any queries about assessment tasks, with details of their availability to respond to queries.
  • Use positive language in any communications to students to avoid causing undue anxiety.
  • Make use of the wide range of central support for unfair means: SSiD, Library, 301. Refer students to these in your communications.
  • Trust your students. If students feel they have choice and some measure of control over assessment, the use of unfair means is less likely to be an issue.
Maintain rigour in marking and moderation
  • Continue to implement processes for double marking and moderation, recognising that there may need to be longer timescales due to staff potential illness.
  • The use of “micro vivas” described above, perhaps sampling from highest and lowest scoring groups of students can also be used for evidence at exam boards.

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Further information

Links and downloads

For staff:

For students:

Further support