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How metadata helps foster Courageous Conversations about contract cheating

We believe detection is a last step, not a first one–and that misconduct can serve as a teachable moment.

The discussion that takes place after an offense like contract cheating is a significant part of a person’s learning journey. Courageous Conversations, modeled on restorative justice, can transform misconduct into a teachable moment. In this post, we discuss what a Courageous Conversation is, information that can help foster a constructive dialogue, and the outcomes of Courageous Conversations.


Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager

At Turnitin, we’ve addressed the student learning journey as it pertains to academic integrity. Students who feel seen through supportive interventions like formative assessments and feedback loops are less apt to engage in short-cut solutions. We believe detection is a last step, not a first one–and that misconduct can serve as a teachable moment.

The discussion that takes place after an offense is a significant part of a person’s learning journey. When an offender is confronted with concerns, a restorative justice approach aims to get them to take responsibility for their actions, to understand the scope of harm, and most importantly, provide them with an opportunity for redemption. This dialogue is called a Courageous Conversation, a model first implemented as a strategy for building racial equity.

Likewise, education has modeled a restorative justice approach to contract cheating.

What is a “Courageous Conversation?”

The inimitable researcher Cath Ellis of UNSW Sydney has raised awareness around “Courageous Conversations” when it comes to academic misconduct. Ellis describes these conversations as “sitting down with a student and raising concerns about the [contract cheating] behavior prior to investigation,” adding that “It’s important to weigh our words carefully and be aware of the circumstances in which we say them. At this point, we're only ever talking about concerns rather than allegations, about mistakes rather than breaches” (Ellis, 2021).

The characteristics of such Courageous Conversations are as follows:

  • By talking about the behavior prior to investigation, a Courageous Conversation bypasses the stress of a formal inquiry.
  • A Courageous Conversation saves an institution from the expenses (time, money, and emotional investment) of a full-blown investigation. At UNSW Sydney, their Courageous Conversations Program reduced the time taken dealing with misconduct prices by sixty-four per cent (Times Higher Education, 2021).
  • Courageous Conversations can lead to reduced penalties to reward the integrity of admitting to a wrongdoing.
  • In turn, Courageous Conversations are a point at which misconduct can transform into a teachable moment.
  • Such conversations are also an opportunity to collect important data; in addition to data points that will help the student on their learning journey, Courageous Conversations also fully disclose how or why students engage in contract cheating. Collecting names and information like screenshots and receipts help mitigate future opportunities for contract cheating.
What information can help foster a Courageous Conversation?

While suspicion may be the first indicator that an essay is not a student’s own work, it is important to ground any concerns with data.

Metadata is essentially “data about other data”; these pieces of information include time and date of document creation, the file’s creator, any font manipulations, or language spelling. Metadata can provide information as to whether a student’s work is their own. For example, in 2021, UNSW Sydney discovered that one-hundred assignments had been submitted from the same IP address–thus heightening a concern about contract cheating.

Initiating a Courageous Conversation around data points helps focus discussion around the issues and not the student themself. Dialogue about objective information can also aid in grounding the discussion. Questions like, “I noticed that the file owner is not your name and the spelling of certain words is in American/British spelling–can you explain that?” is a more uncontestable and neutral opening than for instance, “This paper does not sound like you.”

The best case scenario is to not solely rely on intuition or any biases we as humans may have as instructors or administrators. The above information can often be found by hand, but Turnitin Originality delivers both metadata and investigative details like forensic language analysis in an objective fashion, making data the first indicator of misconduct and thus removing suspicion from the minds of instructors so they can do what they do best: teach.

What are the outcomes of Courageous Conversations?

Transforming contract cheating into a teachable moment is the most significant result of Courageous Conversations. Ellis states, “It’s all about embracing the teachable moment. Even serious academic misconduct is a mistake from which students have a right to learn. The key thing for us is that the student has the opportunity to remain part of our learning community – to be welcomed back in and reconciled with the academic community.”

At UNSW Sydney, which established a Courageous Conversations Program that helps students reconnect with the university during and after misconduct concerns, reoffenses are low. Just as with learning as a whole, educators want to nurture self-directed learning; the same goes for academic integrity and ensuring that students understand not only how to avoid misconduct but also to work through the issues and emerge transformed for the better.