Inappropriate Collaboration Prevention

Appropriate Collaboration
Appropriate collaboration is often encouraged by instructors since it can:

  • Develop team/group management skills
  • Combine and encourage multiple perspectives
  • Make a labour-intensive assignment manageable
  • Encourage interdisciplinary exchange

Ways to Avoid Inappropriate Collaboration

  • Be very clear about what level of collaboration you will accept in a course. It is advisable to put this in writing in the course outline and discuss it in class. If you say, “This is an individual assignment and your work is to be original, but I encourage you to discuss the assignment together,” what exactly do you mean?
  • When you are developing assignments, think about the purpose of the assignment. Is it necessary that students do it individually? Could there be benefits to allowing collaboration? What level of collaboration would be acceptable? Being clear in your own mind about the purpose of the assignment makes it easier to explain to students why they should or should not work together. Example: “This is a necessary skill you must learn individually if you are going to be successful with the course material.”
  • Assign partner/group projects. If you know students are likely to work together, design assignments to be done in pairs or groups. There will be fewer assignments to mark and TAs can perform other duties for the course. Encouraging students to discuss group management issues is recommended; e.g., division of tasks, how to address lack of participation issues, etc. Devoting a portion of marks to peer review of participation in the assignment is also recommended.
  • If assigning partner/group projects, introduce some competition with a reward for the top groups. Students are less likely to share information between groups if they are competing with each other.
  • Change assignments regularly. It is very common for students to save old assignments and pass them to other students. If possible, change a small but critical part of the assignment, so students who are relying solely on the old assignment will have a lot of difficulty. Example: change a numerical value or the organism or the chemical compound. When composing new assignments, design them so you have many components that can be changed over the years.
  • Reduce the grade values for questions or problems that are easy to cheat on.
  • Carefully consider how assignments are handed in. Drop-boxes in the hallway are known to cause problems. Consider requiring assignments to be submitted electronically, or submitted to TAs at a specific time.

York University has an excellent website for faculty that provides information complementary to the above:

Lab Assignments
There are some innovative ideas that are in use at McMaster to try to reduce the amount of inappropriate collaborating on lab assignments. For example:

  • Set pre-lab questions that are worth marks. These can be delivered on WebCT, and in answering the questions, students are learning the information they will need to complete the lab in a timely manner. It is recommended that there be a database of questions randomly assigned when students log on so that the answers do not become widely distributed.
  • Try to identify what students are finding difficult. Research suggests students are more likely to cheat when they are short of time. Are they having difficulty with areas because of lack of skill or lack of content knowledge? Explicitly teach the problem areas early. For example, provide labs at the beginning of term for students to learn how to use equipment or to learn specific techniques necessary to the course. Evaluate and grade the skill level achieved. With necessary skills mastered, students are more confident and complete labs in a more timely way.
  • Create "informal" and "formal" lab assignments. An "informal" lab assignment may be a one-page set of questions students have to complete before leaving the lab. Carefully consider how these informal labs are handed in; e.g., have a TA collect them, get a signature from the student, count how many students attended the lab and how many assignments were submitted, etc. A "formal" lab assignment is the traditional lab assignment that students complete following the lab.
  • Create a lab test to prevent students from copying without understanding the tasks at hand. Tell students that at appropriate intervals they will be tested on their understanding of the labs.

An example
McMaster's first-year Biology class 1A03 has developed the following grade breakdown in an attempt to reduce collaboration and to achieve teaching goals:

   6 skills sets 2%
   Pre-lab questions on WebCT 2%
   3 informal lab reports (1% each) 3%
   1 formal lab report 3%
   Lab test 7%
   Total Lab Marks 17%