What's behind the rise in HSC cheating?


For schools across Australia, academic misconduct continues to be one of the biggest challenges outside the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to recent data from NESA, a total of 216 schools registered 854 offences involving 734 students last year – a 27% jump compared to pre-pandemic levels. English was the most cheated subject with 88 offenses, while music was the least cheated subject, with a mere 11 cases in NSW.

Students who cheat are jeopardising the award of their HSC. The consequences of breaking the rules range from a warning, to the loss of some marks, to not being awarded the HSC.

NESA CEO Paul Martin said instances of malpractice in exams should be kept in perspective.

“The vast majority of HSC students follow the rules in both HSC exams and school-based assessments. Every year, incidents of cheating in NSW are incredibly low, and 2021 was no different – with less than 0.1 per cent of 75,000 HSC students breaching exam rules,” Martin told The Educator.

“Whether it’s attempted in the exam room or when working on an assignment from home, cheating will not be tolerated and students will be caught.”

The factors at play

James Thorley, the regional vice president APAC at Turnitin, has over 14 years of experience in the education technology sector and has been sharing best practices around technology and policy adoption in education, with the goal of improving education across the region.

Drawing from the work you’re doing with NSW schools, Thorley said there are several key factors behind the increase in students’ cheating in the HSC exams.

“Schools and universities have always been vulnerable to academic misconduct, however increased reliance on digital and asynchronous learning, coupled with ease-of-access to the wealth of information online, means students are being presented with more and more tempting shortcuts in their learning,” Thorley told The Educator.

“The shift to digital can, unfortunately, yield academic integrity risks that require greater awareness and mitigation.”

Thorley said that while there are many reasons students would cheat, an all too common one is the pressure of high stakes assessments. 

“In secondary education, the stakes are highest during the HSC, especially following a period of so much disruption to learning,” he said.

“It’s also important to address unintentional breaches in academic integrity – Students might encounter knowledge gaps in citation and the attribution of ideas or not understand the thresholds for collaboration, if these elements haven’t been outlined clearly.”

Another concern, says Thorley, is that in the blurring of in-person and remote learning environments, students are more emboldened to access external, unauthorised help in their assessments, whether it’s from family members at home, ‘homework help’ websites, or even commercial cheating services that surface more commonly in higher education. 

“Together, these risks impact independent learning and are likely contributing to the rise in HSC cheating.”

So how can schools reduce instances of cheating?

Thorley says academic integrity should be an integral part of an institution's strategic plan and build on the NSW government’s All My Own Work program, to meaningfully discourage student cheating. 

“Much has been done to combat deliberate and inadvertent cheating in higher education, including the work of TEQSA and the Higher Education Integrity Unit, but as seen with the recent HSC assessment data, more attention to cheating in secondary education is needed,” he said.

“Learning objectives need to be communicated early and consistently to set expectations. Students with a clear understanding of what they are learning and why it matters, are less likely to engage in academic dishonesty.”

Thorley said that consistent communication should be supported by pedagogy. 

“Aligning course content to assessment – test what is taught and teach what is tested. Maintaining a focus on communication of goals and expectations nurtures academic integrity,” he said.

“Early intervention with academic honesty works proactively to correct and prevent later, more serious dishonesty. Introducing integrity early on in the educational journey creates a baseline of ethics that guide students as they move through their studies and into their professional lives.”

Thorley says creating an environment where students are allowed to “fail safely” with a constant feedback loop and support through frequent, low-stakes assessments, is one of the best methods. 

“Additionally, incorporating different learning styles with varied exam formats allows students to express different components of their understanding.”

Helping teachers instil healthy writing habits in students

Thorley said Turnitin’s ‘Draft Coach’ is an exciting new edition to the company’s suite of products that builds on “a legacy of empowering students in their academic journey and commitment to academic integrity.”

“Available as an add-on for both Microsoft Word and the Google suite, Draft Coach helps students improve their academic writing and research skills by providing instant feedback where they write,” he said.

“It’s particularly beneficial for secondary school students who are developing the skills of academic writing, and will be of interest to teachers who want to instil healthy writing habits in their students and reduce academic misconduct risks.”

With Draft Coach’s guidance on how to address errors and improve writing before final submission, students can enhance their construction and attribution of ideas, making them less prone to shortcuts or plagiarism and resulting in more confident writers. 

“Alongside the meaningful impact on students, teachers can also save time reviewing student submissions, because students’ prior drafting in Draft Coach will yield fewer errors in grammar, citation and other academic integrity issues for teachers to correct,” he said.

“Furthermore, Draft Coach also promotes independent learning, which is important as schools navigate shifts back and forth across in-person and hybrid learning environments.”