Bad Practice?

In my early years as a new lecturer, back in the mid 90s, the internet was just beginning to blossom. And with this proliferation of information, so plagiarism, eased by the digital format, snowballed. Whilst plagiarism may have increased, the digital format also facilitated its detection. I remember clumsy copy and pasting techniques in my students that allowed their plagiarism to stand out like a sore thumb. ‘Gotcha’, I would think.

I used my institution’s procedures to call those who I felt had plagiarised their work, to be scrutinised and held to account. However, I wasn’t expecting that, as  the person highlighting the poor academic practice in my students, that I would have my own practice put under the spotlight. What was it about my teaching and assessment practice that had caused my students to cheat? I remember my first experience of trying to uphold standards making me feel that I was the offender, not my students.

There are ways in which, as academics, we can support our students in understanding what is good academic practice and the pitfalls that lead to bad practice (and malpractice). There are also approaches to the design of assessment that can help to minimise plagiarism. I don’t want to get into this here though. The point I want to make is  this – the experience of being put under the spotlight myself, could have taught me to turn a blind eye to the malpractice, because to highlight it is more trouble than it is worth. Which got me thinking, were programmes/modules with no plagiarism, evidence of good practice (supporting students in good academic skills; designing hard-to plagiarise assessment), or were they evidence of bad practice (wilfully over-looking academic misconduct)?

A similar tension I feel exists when we think about module grades. Are high grades on a module a sign of excellent teaching, or are they a sign of dumbing-down and grade inflation? (See  for a discussion of this, including the debate about disentangling quality improvements from inflation practice)

This week I have been writing about student complaints and appeals, and in doing so, the same issue came up – of how complex it can be to disassociate excellent practice from poor practice and how a simple metric can hide so much!

Several authors (Bolkan and Goodboy, 2013; Cooper-Hind and Taylor, 2012; Lala and Priluck, 2011), in studying students complaining behaviour, found that students would not take forward a formal complain if they lacked faith in the system, found tutors unapproachable and feared negative consequences. Conversely, they were more likely to complain if they believed in the quality and speed of the process. As I perused the OIA (Office of the Independent Adjudicator) figures – stated in the annual letters on an institution by institution basis – I was left wondering about the same theme: Are those institutions with a high number of complaints those with with the most rotten practice and in which students are getting a terrible service; or are they those institutions who have clear complaining procedures, that students are made aware of, and in which there is a culture that complaint will be handled professionally and seriously?

So, as usual, judging quality is never simple.


Bolkan, S. and Goodboy, A. (2013) No complain, no gain: students’ organisational, relational and personal reasons for withholding rhetorical dissent from their college instructors, Communication Education 62(3), 278-300.

Cooper-Hind, H. and Taylor, J. (2012). Student complaints: an accurate measure of student dissatisfaction? Higher Education Review, 44(3), 54-80.

Lala, V. and Priluck, R. (2011) When students complain: an antecedent model of students’ intention to complain. Journal of Marketing Education 33, 236-252.