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In this video, we chat with Professor Cath Ellis from The University of New South Wales (UNSW) about tackling the...
We reached out to Dave Tomar, a former essay mill writer and author of The Shadow Scholar, an exposé of contract...
This is the conclusion of our interview with Dave Tomar, a former essay mill writer, current anti-cheating...
What are students thinking and feeling at the moment in which they seek out external, unauthorised help to complete their assignment? We can speculate on their headspace when deciding to engage in contract cheating, but it’s not a moment that educators and their institutions are actually privy to. What might it tell us about the motivations and justifications of students amidst the rising problem of contract cheating?
As the higher education sector in particular grapples with attempted solutions to curb the practice, we mainly rely on students’ after-the-fact testimony and educators’ own observations to inform our view of contract cheating. Predictably absent from this equation is the perspective of the cheating service provider, and specifically the enlisted writer, who remains anonymous outside of their shadowy business entity. You might be thinking: so what? They’re providing an illegitimate service - at least according to Australian law, which in 2020 prohibited essay mills - and have no stake in meaningful educational outcomes, so what is there to gain from their insight?
It’s certainly true that commercial contract cheating is a highly transactional business that does not have students’ best interests at heart, but players within it nonetheless have a unique experience and window of sorts to the student mindset. One such individual who possesses this insider view, or at least did during his stint in the contract cheating industry, is Dave Tomar, author and Managing Editor of Influence Networks.
Dave Tomar is a former ghostwriter who spent 10+ years helping students cheat, including direct communication that granted him visibility of their struggles. In 2019, Turnitin tapped into Dave’s experience to get the candid story of an essay mill insider. Since the release of his new book, The Complete Guide To Contract Cheating in Higher Education, he spoke with us again in order to shed additional light on the problem of contract cheating, and what he refers to as the ‘desperation of students’ that he believes is not being fully addressed in the education system. It should be noted that Dave’s contract cheating experience is centred on North America, however there are discernible similarities to Australia and Asia Pacific more broadly, in terms of how essay mills operate and the underlying student motivations.
Whatever your opinion on Dave’s self-described ‘quest for redemption’ owing to his previous role in the commercial cheating cycle, one can’t deny the compelling perspective he brings and willingness to share his first-hand insights. He’s seen students at their most vulnerable within their academic careers, been exposed to their overall thought process in outsourcing work relative to its perceived risk, and even observed how they feel about the assignments given to them as reflected in the writing brief that they provide. So when institutions ask: ‘how do we disincentivise students from contract cheating?’, Dave has some theories on why the demand is going unabated.
In line with prevailing academic thought, Dave agrees that it is not possible to eliminate contract cheating; just as eliminating the very temptation to cheat is impossible. That being said, he’s confident we can reduce students’ perceived need to cheat and thus disempower the commercial cheating industry. The caveat? He says it will require a mindset shift on the part of educators and institutions in how we approach the problem. Dave notes that there is a tendency to view contract cheating as often the realm of undisciplined or lazy students. Another assumption is that apathy and disinterest in a given assignment is a strong precursor to contract cheating. However, in his experience spanning 10 years and across a diverse student clientele, Dave says these scenarios were not as common.
Far from the image of a cool, calm and calculating student gaming the system, Dave reveals that for the majority of students that approached him to write their assignments, a mixture of fear and desperation was the common denominator. Of course, this is not to downplay the intersecting motivations that lead students down the path of cheating, such as those identified by Amigud and Lancaster (2019), and the opportunism arising from pandemic-led upheavals in education.
According to Dave, many of the students outsourcing their work were operating on the assumption that they were not capable of doing the task, seeing no other way of passing their unit or course. Although Dave was not formally qualified to evaluate the writing skill level of these students, lack of support and/or skill was rife amongst international students for whom English was not a first language. He recalls some of their email requests were littered with grammar and spelling errors, testifying to their inability to perform at the level of their peers and to the standards required of them. Herein lies the problem, and according to Dave,
“we need to disabuse ourselves of the assumption that students have the ability to write, research or read analytically just because they are enrolled in college/university. The reality is that students carry those deficiencies into higher education.”— Dave Tomar
It may be a bitter pill to swallow for institutions, but Dave contends that in many cases, students are not receiving enough instruction on their writing to demonstrate their knowledge for the concepts being taught and the writing standard which has been set, and that it manifests in contract cheating. And although students ultimately bear responsibility for their actions, getting caught up in matters of righteousness or moralising of contract cheating is of little help. For instance, by fixating on the fact there is no excuse for contract cheating in light of the assignment writing help on offer at institutions, Dave counters: “No, it’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation. Ignore it at your peril.”
Encouragingly, institutions are extending their writing support for students, whether it’s in the form of preparatory courses within the curriculum, or more casual drop-in sessions to give extra help to struggling students. However, there is much more work to be done in identifying any barriers in the delivery of this training, including whether it’s elective or mandatory, its convenience amidst competing student demands, and how ‘hands-on’ it is, to ensure that at-risk students don’t slip through the cracks.
The need for renewed focus on writing scaffolds within teaching and learning practices is not to overlook the additional measures to stop commercial cheating providers from targeting students. A comprehensive contract cheating strategy will balance internal, educative institutional policies and external protocol that applies to the sector as a whole. Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is a perfect example of a coordinated national approach to limit the cheating industry’s operations through legislation and provide guidance for institutions. Their legislation that bans contract cheating providers from operating in Australia and their recent strides in blocking website access through partnership with telecommunications providers, is an important layer of a multi-pronged strategy to undermine contract cheating’s scope and student reach.
That being said, it is not a solution in and of itself. Dave himself applauds TEQSA’s efforts to prevent user access, but maintains that addressing the will or intention to cheat in the first place is the cornerstone of a meaningful reduction in contract cheating rates. Unregulated social media and the availability of freelancer platforms are yet more outlets to sustain the supply and demand of contract cheating. Similarly, TEQSA’s purview does not cover contract cheating that bypasses large-scale file sharing sites or essay mills, in favour of help that is closer to home. Bretag et al.’s seminal work surveying student attitudes to contract cheating found that friends, family members and fellow students were the preferred third party source for unauthorised help, and in fact, the primary form of contract cheating that takes place.
These scenarios conjure Dave’s ‘whack-a-mole’ metaphor for contract cheating. Referencing the popular kids game, he points to the persistent nature of contract cheating, and that measures to suppress it will only work for so long until it pops up again. He reinforces that supply will always find ways to meet the demand unless you can stop that demand at the source, pointing to academic deficiency as the core predictor of contract cheating by a student. Similarly, for anyone under the misapprehension that there is some ‘silver-bullet solution’ to contract cheating, Dave’s experience points to a definitive ‘no’, though encouragingly, he concludes: “The solution is educational, which is good news for teachers”.
Improving literacy, and particularly digital literacy, in an era where online, hybrid and asynchronous learning can complicate matters of academic integrity, is akin to playing the long-game in stopping contract cheating. It means building students’ capacity to complete assignments on their own merit using original thinking as a baseline for ideas and ethics, and empowering students to take pride in their written expression.
Truth be told, incoming tertiary students are often underprepared for writing at a university level. The uneasy transition between the sectors is not easy to remedy, but as an advocate for early intervention, Dave says our best hope of nipping student cheating in the bud is to double down on writing initiatives:
“If we want these students to enjoy a meaningful and successful higher education experience, we must implement ungraded writing intervention at the college/university level.” — Dave Tomar
Dave raises another key point here regarding graded tasks, ergo high-stakes environments that apply extra pressure on students to perform and feed into the desperation of students that he saw day-in and day-out as a ghostwriter. There is a strong case for making lower-stakes environments more feasible, to ease the pressure on students and allow them to ‘fail safely’ as they learn how to approach and execute academic writing. It’s a parallel to academic Cath Ellis’ view, who posits that the transactional element of the summative assessment model may separate students from learning goals and increase the likelihood of misconduct.
So, what is our yardstick upon which to gauge students’ writing skill and how can we measure progress? It’s a particularly important consideration for grounding educator suspicions of contract cheating and detecting when it does happen. Dave proposes greater attention to the concept of ‘student voice’, which tends to get lost in a higher education setting where assignments are marked by a revolving door of educators, lecturers and TAs. Of course, in knowing what a student is capable of at a given moment in time and what is likely to be another author, scalability at institutions is a huge factor. This brings us to technology and how it could facilitate the writing intervention and contract cheating detection process.