Graham Farrell: Reducing academic misconduct by design

By Robyn Schell, learning technology specialist, Teaching and Learning Centre

May 15, 2014

According to Graham Farrell (right), academic misconduct such as plagiarism and cheating can be crimes of opportunity that can be minimized by thoughtful design. Farrell, a criminology professor and Research Chair in Environmental Criminology, and colleague David MacAlister (associate professor and Associate Director of Planning, Policy and Procedure in Criminology) are using a Teaching and Learning Development Grant to investigate ways to minimize academic misconduct by controlling the environmental factors that lead to it. They have employed graduate students Tarah Hodgkinson and Hugh Curtis as researchers on the project. Robyn Schell, a learning technology specialist in the Teaching and Learning Centre, recently interviewed Farrell about his research.

RS: How did you become interested in the topic of academic misconduct?

GF: My research is in the area of crime prevention through the application of environmental design. The current research, funded by one of SFU’s Teaching and Learning Development Grants, is looking into how environmental design can help prevent incidents of academic misconduct such as student collusion and plagiarism.

Research from other areas suggests that we ought to be able to design curriculum and the administration of assessments to prevent academic dishonesty. Increasing the amount of effort required to commit the crime, reducing reward, reducing provocation and educating students to remove any excuses can prevent a situational crime like academic misconduct.  

We tend to overlook the tremendous influence that design has on our decisions because we like to think of ourselves as entirely free-willed—and because we like to take the credit when something goes well. Psychologists call this the fundamental error. But we know that, for example, we can nudge school children into eating a healthier lunch if we place fruit and vegetables at eye-level and at the front of the cafeteria stand where they can reach it easily. Here the principle is similar, and in essence we are controlling crimes by reducing the opportunities and incentives. For example, in relation to crime, car theft in British Columbia used to be much higher, but now it has gone down because we’ve designed cars with central locking and mechanisms for preventing the thief from starting the car. Car theft has fallen three-quarters compared to a few years ago. We’d like to try to do the same for student cheating.

RS: Why do you think academic misconduct seems to be top of mind recently?

GF: Technological change has created a lot of uncertainty. The Internet is a big facilitator of plagiarism in particular, and cell phones present new routes of opportunity for academic misconduct. While misconduct of various sorts has always gone on, there appears to be an increase in this type of activity, but there is not much research on this topic. We really don’t know too much about these new ways of cheating on tests and assignments.

RS: What are some examples of solutions for “designing out” academic misconduct?

GF: Splitting a two-hour exam with a rest break in the middle designs out cheating while the student is in the washroom—that’s elegant in its simplicity. Don’t allow taking of bags into the exam area that are stowed by the students’ desks. To deter students from using paper mills, break up the assignment into stages submitted across the semester: ask the student to first submit a title, then an outline, then a references list, then a draft before they submit the final essay. This makes it much more difficult to use a paper mill because it is so difficult to match the paper with all the various aspects of the assignment. But it will also serve to raise awareness that somebody cares about their assignment, so they will be nudged away from cheating.

RS: What are the next steps in your research?

GF: We are developing a list of best practices for faculty and hope to do a survey of student and faculty experiences if we receive another stage of funding. In the long term we would like to evaluate design solutions we’ve been working on.