Discuss the factors that influence plagiarism in assessment

Denise Ennis

Section I

In assessment there are many unforeseen consequences that occur in Higher Education, one of the major factors being plagiarism. There have been many debates on plagiarism and various research methods carried out to investigate the reasons why students plagiarise and the factors that influence these reasons. There are many unintended consequences of assessment despite the best planning, for example the more work you give students, the more likely shortcuts will be taken. Plagiarism in Higher Education institutions has increased rapidly in the last decade. The growing use of the internet with prepared essays online has provided students with the resources to cheat on their assignments; copying and pasting quotes from the internet and using sources as their own work. Firstly, to understand plagiarism itself we have to consider the various definitions of this term, Sheard, Markham & Dick carried out a study investigating differences in cheating and define the behaviour saying “if it violates the rules that have been set for an assessment task or it violates the accepted standard of student behaviour at the institution" (Sheard, J .2003). Whilst on the  other hand, a University student cited in Ashworth, P. (2003) defines plagiarism as being "copying significant amounts from a published source; not referencing it, and passing it off as one’s own"(Ashworth 2003). lt seems interesting that plagiarism can also be copying another student’s work in Sheard, Markham & Dicks definition yet, in the previous term of the word plagiarism made by the student, it is not mentioned. This shows a lack of understanding of the term plagiarism and this will be discussed later in this essay.  


It seems difficult to define plagiarism as it is difficult to define cheating from one institution to another as course assessment regimes will differ from one course to another. Maline 1993 relates to this viewpoint by saying, “The difficulty of clearly defining cheating is exacerbated by differences across institutions and across disciplines of study" (Maline cited in Sheard, PQ Markham & Martin 2003:92).


From looking at different definitions of the term "plagiarism" the meaning of this word seems to be a grey area and the term does not have just one definition alone. Universities appear to be very focused on the rules and regulations of plagiarism but do not look beyond the factors that influence these behaviours in assessment. With the growing use of sources from the internet it is very tempting for a student to cheat, for example, a good student could prepare their essay months in advance whilst another could produce an essay within a matter of hours off the internet. lf both pieces of work were handed in and received the same mark it would seem unfair and demoralising for the student that spent months on their own original work. To understand the growing realisation of plagiarism I would suggest that one would have to understand the reasons why students are cheating rather than focusing all the attention on the regulations of plagiarism. 


ln this essay l will be analysing other theorist’s points of view and research that look at reasons why students cheat in assessment. l will be giving a detailed account of the varied research results that have identified the reasons why students cheat in Higher Education, relating this to my own experiences in section two.  

After all, are the students even aware of what plagiarism means in Higher Education? Arguably a student could be cheating in work without prior knowledge; a student could genuinely not reference other sources of work through the lack of knowledge of plagiarism and experience of essay writing. Ashworth, Freewood, & Macdonald carried out a study on the lifeworld of a student and the meanings of plagiarism and strongly believe that it is through a student’s lack of knowledge that plagiarism occurs. The study investigates three students’ perceptions of what plagiarism means and concluded in the research that there are very different explanations. lt blames the University for features of the assessment regime saying that there has been inadequate guidance on the regulations concerning cheating and plagiarism. According to Ashworth, Freewood & Macdonald "Ensuring students understand plagiarism must be regarded therefore as an enculturation task. For students to fully appreciate what plagiarism is and why it will be punished they need to possess not just a clear understanding of what constitutes plagiarism, or the skills needed to avoid it, but also to understand why it is imbued with its particular status.”  (Ashworth, Freewood & Macdonald 2003:261)

 It is clear from the research carried out that there is a lack of knowledge about the term plagiarism and this can only be addressed through educating students at the beginning of the the course they are undertaking. I would suggest that the expectations of a student in assessment cannot be taken for granted if they have not been taught the expectations, i.e. what academics would refer to as cheating. Ashworth, Freewood & Macdonald study shows that one of the student’s main concerns was that student’s use of the internet was increasing the likelihood of plagiarism due to the possibility that students are unskilled in referencing. (Ashworth Freewood & Macdonald 2003:270). This simply shows that there are underlying reasons behind plagiarism, the student suggests that there is a lack of knowledge on how to reference. 

Another study carried out by Norton, L. S & Tilley, J, (2001) looked at the pressures of assessment in undergraduate courses and their effect on student behaviours. They suggest that students are driven by assessment and not learning in Higher Education by using "rules of the game". The study found that students would use a widespread of essay tactics and cheating regimes and showed that these two types of behaviour linked together, (Norton & Tilley 2001: 269)  The study suggested that students may be picking up hidden messages that operate in higher education and use these to be strategic in their approach to essays and exams. The research  found that students would use the "rules of the game" and cheating behaviours to receive abetter grade in their essays. The main  tactics used in the "rules of the game" were; choosing  the easiest title to get a higher mark, including information not covered in lectures/obscure references and using up to date contradictory references. (Norton & Tilley 2001: 269) Norton and Tilley’s study showed that the students are driven by assessment instead of the experience of learning. The "rules of the game" in the study linked  with the concern of failure for the student. I suppose it could be said that students are making desperate attempts to impress the lecturers using a variety of tactics such as cheating because they lack confidence in their ability to produce sufficient work. I think there must be a lack of knowledge for the  student to look for other answers elsewhere. The worry of failure could influence anyone  to plagiarise in their work in this case. It strongly suggests that there are underlying reasons why students have a fear of failing, their confidence in achieving could be low due to the quality of learning in Higher Education. 

Brown (1997) relates to this conclusion of poor quality of learning in education in reviewing the literature on the effects of  assessment on student learning, concluding that much of the traditional type of assessment carried out in Higher Education promotes poor quality learning and a surface approach (Brown cited in Norton & Tilley). Yet in the Higher Education institutions the assessment criteria are of a deep approach when preparing for essays and exams. So how come academic teaching is based on a surface approach  such as reading from lectures notes, giving key facts and figures? lt would seem more practical to encourage a deep approach in lectures giving students the opportunity to discuss research methods and analyse different viewpoints. Boud (1990) in commenting   on traditional assessment in Higher Education, has argued that lecturers often assess students on easily assessable matters such as memorisation of large bodies or factual material (a surface approach) rather than on how students use, interpret or criticise that material to do something further with it (a deep approach). Boud (1990) cited in Norton & Tilley (2001). From reflecting upon the approaches used in Higher Education teaching in comparison with ~ the assessment criteria it would seem contradictory to assess students on deep learning styles when they are taught the surface approach through university. I feel this could influence a student to have cheating behaviours as they are not taught the skills of deep leaning in university.


A further study looked at the behaviours of undergraduate students in comparison to graduate students. Sheard, Markham & Dick carried out a study based within a school of computer science and Engineering in Monash University, The main aim of this study was  to find out if graduate students had different attitudes to cheating in comparison with undergraduates. It looked at the relationship between maturity motivation. The results identified that the three main reasons given by undergraduate students for cheating was not enough time, too great a orkload at university and feeling that they would fail otherwise. lt appeared that there were lower levels of cheating in the graduate courses and generally mature students had more motivation to learn. Richardson (1994) supports this in his own study as he found that mature students typically show higher levels of intrinsic motivation for taking a course.  Richardson cited in Sheard, J. Markham, S & Dick, M (2001:105). It would seem that mature students have developed a stage in their life where they are more experienced in terms of responsibilities and would take more time on their work to achieve a better grade rather than cheating.


In contrast to the previous studies that have been discussed, a study by Hard Conway & Moran argues that the student’s beliefs in the behaviour of their peers can influence misconduct such as plagiarism and cheating, whilst the academic beliefs about students misconduct can influence efforts to prevent and challenge misconduct. (Hard, Conway & Moran 2006). Throughout the research the top results indicated that student peers influenced them to copy from each other’s paper or they received unauthorised aid from another person in exams, prepared work for another student to submit for academic evaluation and worked with another student on material that had not been authorised by the instructor to work together. According to Whitley (1998) 16 studies were reviewed and concluded that there was a strong association between beliefs about the frequency of peer academic misconduct  and a student’s  own misconduct. This finding is consistent with the beliefs about alcohol use  with the idea that overestimating peers misconduct can increase a student’s own misconduct.   (Cited in Hard, Conway& Moran 2006.


The study made by Hard, Conway & Moran also shows that the accuracy of this belief has received less attention with the results not being consistent. I think it is hard to pin point this belief that student’s peers influence them to cheat. Again as mentioned earlier in  the essay, there needs to be more focus on the reasons why the students would want to receive help from their peers. 

Section 2

After discussing other theoretical views and debates on the factors that influence plagiarism I am now going to reflect upon some of the main incidents in Higher Education that have arisen from my own learning experience . Of course there are numerous factors that could cause an individual to plagiarise, however, as student myself who has had the experience in plagiarism, I feel the following factors are important; lack of knowledge on writing essays, teaching styles in Higher Education and social factors. As a student leaving  college to enter my first year of university in Business Studies, I encountered many difficulties, these were firstly writing essays. At school and college the assessment was very much exams, presentations and essays. As a result, I had never been taught the skill of relating my theory to another theorist, quoting another person’s viewpoint that relates to the discussion in an essay. This had a major influence on my perception of the assessment criteria of Higher Education. This had not been taught all throughout my leaming experience and yet I was expected to know how to reference when entering university. This caused an enormous of amount of pressure on my work, my first two essays received a fail for lack of "deep learning and under-referencing” There was no advice  given from the lecturers but to retake the assignments the following summer. According to Laurillard, teachers in university do not recognise this reoccurring problem; that students do not transfer their knowledge across different settings such as school and  college. She also questions whether learning at university is different from learning at school, or learning outside formal education. . Laurillard supports my viewpoint that there is not enough guidance on applying theory to practice saying; "Students often find it difficult to relate theory to practice, that knowledge does not seem to be context-dependent" (Laurillard 2005:13). At University I  found that I was not alone in having difficulties with applying theory to practice, but a number of my peers were experiencing the same problem on other courses. Others were copying and pasting from internet websites and talking about this to other students. As  the word spread across the campus I felt that the only way forward to pass these essays was to do the same. You could say that my  peers played an important factor in my decision to consider plagiarism, although the lack of understanding in the expectations and  method of writing essays also brought me to that point of copying from the internet like my peers at University. I strongly believe that other students also found writing essays difficult, which lead them to look for an answer elsewhere; the internet, When  receiving my plagiarised essay back from the teacher I had been given a mark of 55%, I was amazed by this, the teacher had no idea or clue that I had quite literally copied and pasted an essay from the internet on the same topic. I  was happy to receive a pass grade for the first time in the course I was undertaking. 

Another factor which has proved a problem in Higher Education was the lack of support received from teaching styles. They were very much the opposite from school and college. No extra help was given as the students were expected to work independently with  lecturers just facilitating the course subject. The question is why  does the teaching style suddenly change in Higher Education? Surely there should be a gradual process throughout schooling where students are prepared for this independent style of learning in University? The style of teaching and learning in Higher Education is a complete contrast to school and college in my experience. Lectures and seminars were held in huge theatre style rooms with a seating capacity of 500, the lecturer would stand with a small  microphone at the front reading power point slides, students would be endlessly writing lecture notes. There was no engagement or interaction with the task itself The learning, for me at least, was minimal. Ramsden, (1992) talks about the importance of learning saying “The aim of teaching is simple: It is to make student learning possible" (Cited in Laurillard 2005:11). As a student learning styles are very different, Entwhistle and Ramsdon (1983) carried out research on students and made observations on how they approached their assignments, they produced questionnaires and inventories (e. g. Assist) to carry out their investigation. They found that  students had different approaches to learning, these were deep, surface and strategic learning styles. This is an example that shows from their research that that there are very different ways in which people learn, yet in my first lecture in Business Studies the teaching style did not vary to fit the needs of the students learning. Laurillard talks about the teaching given by university academics saying;

“There is no professional training requirement for university academics in terms of their teaching competence, as there is for school teaching. Possibly for this reason,there is comparatively little research on student learning at university level. If you believe that teaching is about imparting knowledge, then the main requirement of the lecturer would be the possession of that knowledge. For some time, this has been the prevailing view of university teaching, and therefore academics are appointed on thebasis of their qualifications in subject matter knowledge”’.

(Laurillard 2005:12)

This would probably suggest that this is the reason why the schooling system differs to   Higher Education, as there is no emphasise or requirement to have professional teacher training at university as there is in school and college. Therefore this would have an impacton the style of teaching at university.


Lastly, the other factor that I feel influenced plagiarism in my work was the age I commenced Higher Education, 18. At this age I was very irresponsible with little determination to succeed in the course I was taking. My main concerns were the social and emotional factors such as going out every weekend, relationships and interacting with my peers. This had an influence on the way I perceived my essays and exams, and with little enthusiasm for learning, I took  risks copying from the internet to meet last minute deadlines to hand my essays in. Due to the social aspects of my life taking a high importance, I spent little time working on essays and produced them hours before they had to be handed in. This links well with the previous factor I have discussed as I feel that had I been engaged in the lectures, and had knowledge about writing essays, then I may have been more confident in producing work regardless of the social factor. I suppose you could argue that throughout school and college there were always social influences that affected me, however I was still engaged in school and college and did well in assessment. As a result I am not convinced that social factors  had a detrimental effect on my studies. 

I am now in my second year at the age of 23, and have reached the stage where I am comfortable and confident in writing essays and preparing for exams. This could be down to the fact that I am more mature now and much more willing to take responsibility for my  own learning. After starting the Business Studies course and quitting after the first term and testing other courses, I am now at stage where I am enthusiastic about my work. This could be down to a nunber of reasons; the fact that I have received support from study  skills in the university, and that the teaching styles on this particular course are more varied and the fact I have one to one learning with smaller groups. After I have finished lectures I walk away with new knowledge and a good idea of the teacher’s expectations. I suppose you could say that  this is because I am more mature, or because the teaching styles differ from course to course or because I am simply interested in the course and would be less likely to cheat or plagiarise in my work.


From looking at different debates on the reasons why students plagiarise I have reached my own perspective on whether this fits in with my own experience or not. Ashworth, Freewood, & Macdonald study demonstrates that there is a clear lack of awareness of the  term plagiarism in Higher Education. I think this is an important factor to consider when finding out the reasons for plagiarism. This supports my view that there is a lack of guidance on essay writing and the expectations of deep learning that academics expect. When entering University there was not a lecture or seminar on Harvard referencing, it seems difficult to understand why there are not strict guidelines on this matter from the start. After all if cheating in University has increased so much in the last decade and is a major growing problem in Universities, why has there not been any action to resolve these issues? According to Hard, Conway & Moran study it states that faculty’s believe that it is a student’s misconduct that influences plagiarism and cheating. I think it is easier to suggest that students’ misconduct influenced by their peers can cause consequences such as plagiarism. From looking at this study I disagree with peers at University having an influence on   student’s behaviours of cheating. I feel this study does not address the other factors that are important when considering cheating behaviour. Of course for some individuals there may be an element of peer influence but I feel this does not have a widespread influence on students  plagiarising. I think the characteristic of a person influenced by their peers would have already been influenced in education before university, I suggest this would have an effect on their studies such as examinations in school and if they were influenced by their peers their results would not of been very good. To be accepted into University students have completed A levels or equivalent to score enough points to be entered upon a course.

Generally these students are enthusiastic in their learning to apply for university in the first place having done previous A levels, so why would peers have a detrimental effect on plagiarism. I think it’s the lack of understanding in the assessment that needs to be  addressed not the misconduct of peers that influence cheating. 

Sheard, Markham & Dick’s study found that the main reasons for students cheating were time pressure, too much work and the concern of failure. Whilst these reasons fit well with my experience they do not grasp the underlying reasons. Time pressure and the  worry of failure could relate to the fact that a student has a lack of understanding and confidence of what they are expected to do in their work, which leads them to leave it to the last minute and look for ways to cheat. I strongly agree with the study that suggests that mature students are less likely to plagiarise, being older and wiser myself I have taken more responsibility for my own learning. Brown (1997) also supports my argument that there is poor quality learning in Universities with most lecturers using a surface approach in teaching. The surface approach in lectures does not encourage students to take a ‘deep approach’ in their learning, this would suggest that the teaching styles could be to blame when it comes to students plagiarising.

Norton & Tilley (2001) study shows that students are using desperate attempts to receive higher marks by using "the rules of the game", again I feel these tactics are being used because students are unconfident in producing work and use these extreme  measures to pass.


To conclude I think there needs to be further research on the reasons why students plagiarise,  there needs to be more attention drawn to the Higher Education system and how it operates to give students a complete learning experience rather than blame the students for misconduct such as cheating. I would suggest that there should be research on the first essay a student hands in at the start of university. I think that this would show adequate evidence of the lack  of knowledge and support a student has when they enter University which supports my view in the lack of knowledge students have at the start of their course. Further research could  be done such as analysing the first l00 essays and examining the differences between them, or lack of them, This would show whether they correlate with each other, Being the first essay this will show whether students have poor skills in writing essays and relating theory to method. Another research method that could be carried out would be to educate students on the expectations of assessment and guidance of plagiarism and see Whether they receive higher marks as a result of their own work and less plagiarism is encountered

Reference List

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Laurillard, D. (2005) Rethinking University Teaching. (2nd Ed), Routledge Falmer. London

Norton, L. S. Tilley, A.J. Newstead, S.E. & Franklyn-Stokes, A. (2001). The Pressures of Assessment in Undergraduate Courses and their effect on Student Behaviours. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Vol. 26, No 3. Pg No. 270 -284.

Ashworth, P, Freewood, M. & Macdonald, R. (2003). The Student lifeworld and the meanings of plagiarism. Sheffield Hallam University. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. Vol. 34 No.2

Conway, J .M. Moran, A.C. (2006). Faculty and College Student Beliefs about the Frequency of Student Academic Misconduct. The Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 77, No. 6. Pg No. 1059 -- 1079

Sheard, J. Markham, S. & Martin, D. (2003). Investigating Differences in Cheating Behaviours of IT Undergraduate and Graduate Students: The maturity and motivation factors. Higher Education Research & Development. Vol. 22, No, 1. Pg No. 92 -108.



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