Exclusive: Bristol Uni says more students are cheating in online exams this year

The uni is worried about the rise in ‘contract cheating’ in assessments

Bristol Uni says that more students have cheated in online exams this year, with plans in place to change assessments to minimise the problem, The Bristol Tab can exclusively reveal.

The university is also particularly worried about the rise in what it describes as “contract cheating”, which is the use of “essay mills” who write essays for students in exchange for a fee.

In leaked documents, the university says that “online assessment has exacerbated collusion and breaches in academic integrity”, with plans in place to substitute exams with coursework, and use proctoring (supervision) in “a small number of cases”.

In a statement to The Bristol Tab, the university did not provide concrete examples, but did say that more cases have been detected this year, for which students have been sanctioned.

Figures also reveal that three in five Bristol students find online exams “less stressful”.

Exams will be fully online in January and Summer 2022, with in-person exams “only where these are essential for discipline-specific reasons or for external accreditation or to assess practical or performance skills.”

The aim is to reduce the need to memorise information, and move towards assessments that mean students have to apply the knowledge that they have learned.

Earlier today, The Bristol Tab exclusively revealed that Bristol Uni plans to scrap social distancing on campus from September, returning to “a more normal educational delivery in 2021/22”.

Bristruth exams online

Other concerns are raised about exams, with staff saying that “students are spending longer” on timed exams. For students with multiple seven-day timed exams, they become “more, not less, stressful”. However, students report that they actually like seven-day timed exams.

This marks a big shift for the university – online exams were only intended to be in place during the pandemic. However, the report does add that “large pockets of academics remain convinced that closed book exams are the only way to assess”, signalling an internal staff debate on the future of assessment.

Students have also expressed a dislike for group work, saying it was “challenging online because of the lack of human connection”, as well as differing time zones and willingness to participate.

Staff agree that online group work is “especially challenging”, although nowhere does the document mention plans to scrap it.

There has been an increase in formative assessments since the move to online learning, which students have generally liked, but staff say they are struggling with the additional workload.

A Bristol Uni spokesperson said: “As universities have shifted to online assessments in the past year, there have been increased reports of cases of collusion and plagiarism across the sector. We are committed to honesty, fairness and integrity in academic work, so that students are rewarded for their achievements and to ensure that the value of a Bristol degree is not endangered.

“Cases have been detected here either by academic staff reviewing submitted work or by students coming forward and telling us where issues have occurred. A number of panels have already taken place around the university, and others are scheduled for this term.

“Where there has been clear evidence of academic malpractice, some students have had a range of penalties imposed – some will need to retake assessments, others have had marks of zero recorded for their work. The University may use its disciplinary procedures and could impose more severe penalties in the most serious cases. These could include the award of a lower degree class and potentially the temporary or permanent exclusion of a student from their degree programme.

“Clearly we are concerned about this and want to support students so they avoid unwitting plagiarism or collusion. We will be publishing a variety of materials in advance of the summer assessment period to help support students prepare for their exams and timed assessments.

“We are also increasingly concerned about incidences of contract cheating on a national level, where students might commission assessment work from ‘essay mills’ or similar organisations for a fee, and then submit it as their own work. If cases are uncovered here, we would take this very seriously, and they would be dealt with through disciplinary regulations.

“We are also aware of cases nationally where students have fallen victim to blackmail attempts after using essay mills. We are naturally keen to protect our students from this and will be raising awareness so they can avoid this happening to them at the same time as highlighting what support is available.”

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