What do we mean?

There are several types of essay mill selling standard, generic essays or offering bespoke essays written to order by other students. Termed ‘contract cheating’, the sites state that their services are not illegal, fostering confusion for students.  With essays in all subjects and at all levels costing from £36, it seems an attractive proposition for the time-pressed online student studying off-campus.

Quick Wins For Reducing Online Contract Cheating

How can curriculum design encourage student engagement and minimise the temptation to cheat?

With Covid-19 accelerating the use of blended learning approaches in HE, there has been a corresponding rise in online resources which facilitate academic misconduct, most notably the ‘essay mill’ and other file sharing sites which offer 'homework help' and other academic services to students. It’s important to start from the position that we trust our students until they give us a reason to believe otherwise (QAA, 2020), however there are also ways to plan the curriculum to enhance student engagement, reduce the fixation on punitive measures (Harrison, 2020), and mitigate the temptation to cheat.

Below are some ideas for combatting this issue that might be adopted in your teaching right now. This list is not exhaustive, and not all will necessarily apply to your own context. Please contact the Curriculum Development team if you'd like to discuss how to apply these ideas more specifically in your situation.

Quick wins during teaching

Setting expectations:

  • Model good practice during IPT and LOIL to foster a culture of referencing and individual responses to material.  Give full references for material and show how to use it to develop your points to demonstrate critical thinking skills with attribution in action. 
  • Flag up how essay mill sites target students (see below) and cite cases where students have been caught. 
  • Make it clear when collaboration is expected, or when students should work independently.

Supporting understanding:

  • Use assessment for learning points to note where students are progressing or need support. 
  • Make time for learning consolidation to avoid students having gaps and being at risk of falling behind.
  • Remember wellbeing checks mid-unit/course and around deadlines to reduce anxiety over work- personal tutors are more likely to be asked questions around plagiarism than course tutors  
  • Use a ‘walking talking exam’ - where a tutor talks students/demonstrates live through an exam so they can see how to approach it and what the expectations are.
  • Remind students directly before assessments about academic integrity and the penalties for cheating.   
  • Manage anxiety around referencing via personal tutor meetings. 

Using available resources

  • Embed Skills for Study, Cite Them Right, and videos from the Library or the S4S video library explaining plagiarism, referencing, and academic integrity into your core course and unit pages on Moodle.
  • Signpost students to study skills sessions via module Moodle pages and embed Skills Centre and Library Skills videos ahead of assessments to reduce the fears around using material.
  • Use a discussion page/forum for questions on referencing/plagiarism and check in for FAQ weekly and before the assessment point. Mark a cut-off point for answering queries.   
  • Use Moodle to identify students who are not engaging and contact them before deadlines are looming. 

Setting assessment questions

Departments are able to make changes to assessments linked to the type of exam (e.g. closed/open book), changing the number of questions, and adding additional information on guidance (e.g. word length for answer).

  • For some exam types, the ability to randomise questions by drawing them from a larger base, or shuffling the sequence, can be beneficial (Aparna Chirumamilla et al. 2020). See our Writing Effective MCQs page for further details.
  • Can the assessment be used to apply skills rather than a knowledge test? It’s more difficult to buy an answer online within the 24hr window.   
  • Using specific case studies will reduce the chances of an essay mill being able to provide a stock answer. 
  • Making the question authentic:  
    1. Asking questions linked to a specific element of a course or promoting higher order thinking skills will require students to apply their knowledge, demonstrate their critical thinking, and synthesis new ideas. E.g. ‘Using the materials and your notes from weeks 6-9, evaluate the importance of....’ 
    2. Is there a way of asking students to design their own question? You could provide the topic and method which assesses the intended learning outcomes whilst they use their own case-studies to navigate it.
    3. Could the assessment include reflective moments? E.g. Analyse the nature of......in relation to your own practice.

Further information

Our guides on developing effective online exams and online summative assessment both contain more information on designing online assessment and questions as part of a longer-term approach to curriculum development.

More generally, our Academic Integrity page provides relevant information and resources, whilst the University's central Academic Integrity and Test page outlines expectations for student conduct and gives links to the relevant Regulations as well as resources available to students and staff.


Updated on: 05 February 2021