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In the Spotlight: Mark Sergeant on Academic Misconduct Panel Hearings

Dr. Mark Sergeant, Academic Integrity Coordinator at Nottingham Trent University, UK, who has been involved in over 500 academic integrity panels, provides advice on conducting effective panels, regardless of the environment.

Mark Sergeant
Dr. Mark Sergeant
Academic Integrity Coordinator
Nottingham Trent University, UK

The academic integrity process is bi-fold. Although largely centered around introducing preventative measures and promoting strong digital literacy skills to deter misconduct, it also includes dealing with the administrative aftermath of suspected misconduct, such as panel hearings.

Due to the current pandemic, the traditional process for academic misconduct hearings has taken a back seat, and panels have been forced to move online—which in itself has raised a unique set of challenges for academic institutions. How can institutions uphold the same level of interaction with students as they did before? How is it possible to move online when panel hearings rely so much on paper evidence?

In early August, Turnitin held an exclusive interview with Dr Mark Sergeant, Academic Integrity Coordinator at Nottingham Trent University, UK, who offered best practices for successfully transitioning to online-only panels having effectively leveraged technology. If you missed it, you can watch it on-demand here.

We were left with so many unanswered questions during the webinar that we’ve teamed up with Mark once again for our second offline Q&A of the Taking Integrity Online series. Mark, who has been involved in over 500 academic integrity panels (chairing and presenting), provides more advice on conducting effective panels, regardless of the environment.

Does an individual need training as an online academic panel member to be able to detect cheating?

As a general rule, it is always good practice for a panel to be composed of individuals who have experience in handling misconduct cases so they are familiar with the types of issues that might need to be considered. At Nottingham Trent University—as with many institutions—we ensure that staff receives training in advance of panels. We regularly contact panel members with updates in the field and we review practice on a rolling basis.

Do you hold more panel hearings with mature students or younger students?

Through the 500 panels I’ve taken part in, covering roughly seven years, I’ve noted that the main predictor for having academic integrity issues is a lack of understanding about academic writing. New students do certainly possess this skill deficit, particularly those who have never completed assessed coursework before attending university; however, students who are returning to education after several years, or even decades, also tend to have this problem.

I’m not certain there is a statistical difference between age groups, but I do know that providing training for all new students, as well as some formative/diagnostic assessments to provide guidance, is definitely the key to addressing this.

Can you effectively observe behaviour, such as gesticulating or fidgeting, in an online panel? Such physical behaviours can assist a panel in noting issues and discrepancies in student behaviour.

It is certainly not as easy to observe these behaviours in online panels, but we’ve found that these behaviours can still be observed. For example, we can still see if a student fidgets, whether they’re happy to make eye contact, and we can hear their tone of voice when they respond to challenging questions. Obviously, these things shouldn’t be considered as signs of guilt in and of themselves; the pressure of being in a panel can result in all kinds of nervous behaviour, but they can be useful cues.

You mentioned using information booklets to support your students—can you please tell us a bit more about this?

We have prepared two booklets to support students during an academic misconduct investigation–one is sent to students when they receive an invite to a misconduct panel and the other is sent to students along with information on the outcome of a panel.

The invite booklet provides information on our university regulations, encourages students not to panic about the panel invitation, directs students towards sources of support, such as our Students Union, outlines how the misconduct works and provides guidance on how to prepare for a panel.

The outcome booklet provides information on interpreting potential penalties, outlines the process for launching an appeal, and directs students to sources of both pastoral support and support for the development of academic skills. Both booklets are written in ‘plain English’ and are designed to be accessible to students.

In cases of collusion, do you hold hearings with students together or separately?

This varies across institutions, but at Nottingham Trent University, it is standard practice in collusion cases to see the students separately in consecutive panels. We ensure that both panels involve the same panel members, so they are familiar with all of the issues being considered.

Do you teach your students about plagiarism in the first year? In the South African context, 90% of our students learn about plagiarism when they get to university and struggle to understand it.

Puleng Motshoane, Instructional Designer, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

We have Academic Integrity training sessions in our first year as part of our academic tutorial system. We’ve also found, in the past, that students can sometimes struggle to understand this issue so we have included a number of practical activities for students to engage in. We also offer a small number of diagnostic assessments so students can submit their work and then individually discuss the issues, including plagiarism, with their personal tutor.

Is documentary evidence disclosed in advance to students? How does this work in cases of collusion?

We always release all documentary evidence to students in advance of panels taking place, so they are aware of the specific issues being considered. In the case of collusion cases, we usually refer to other individuals as ‘student b’ or ‘the other student’ to address issues around anonymity and confidentiality.

How do you encourage students to provide detailed statements ahead of misconduct panels?

In our support booklet, we talk about how it is very important for students to express their opinion on the issue. We also make the point that panels can be potentially quite stressful and that it isn’t the easiest environment to express yourself! As a result, we encourage students to submit a statement in advance so they can provide a full and detailed account. Additionally, in their panel invitation, we explicitly ask students to submit a statement and indicate that students who have previously attended panels have found this to be really useful.

I’ve found that students always believe being invited to a panel is the end of their studies and they will be kicked out of university. How can we allay this fear?

I’ve encountered this a lot myself! This is one of the first issues that we address in the support booklet that we send to students, along with a panel invitation (under the heading of ‘Don’ t panic!’). We also always follow up panel invitations with a personal email to students, sent by the Departmental Academic Integrity Coordinator, to informally address any concerns that students have—this is usually one of them!

Do you do anything more informal (e.g. a chat with a tutor to confirm/allay suspicions of, for example, use of essay mills) prior to taking things to a full academic integrity panel?

Gemma Barker, Academic English Tutor and E-Learning Champion, Durham University International Study Centre, UK

Absolutely. Our institutional regulations allow us to conduct an informal interview with a student if we have some concerns about their work but don’t have enough evidence to proceed directly to a panel. We have done this a lot with potential cases of contract cheating to check on the student’s level of knowledge about the work they have produced.

How have you applied academic integrity policy in your school? Could you please tell us this success story? What were the students’ reactions?

This was a fairly long process! It’s key that a standardised system is established so that students from different courses have the same level of training on the topic and have cases of potential misconduct handled in the same way.

I initiated this process by overhauling the way we ran our misconduct panels by providing standardised training for chairs and panel members, revising our standardised paperwork, bringing a strong developmental and supportive focus to our procedures, and making sure that we consulted with students to make sure they could understand everything we produced.

Next, I identified representatives in each department who could advise staff on potential misconduct cases, help to prepare the paperwork, and could take part in our panels. Finally, I completed an audit of the training offered to students and produced some standardised training tools for everyone.

The response from students has been extremely positive – the extra training and support have been very well received and the developmental approach we’ve taken has helped students to identify potentially problematic behaviours early in their academic career.

A huge thanks to Mark Sergeant for providing his expertise on online misconduct panels and helping educators form solid academic misconduct processes during a time of accelerated change.

If you attended the full Taking Integrity Online webinar series and asked a question that we didn’t have time to answer, you may be pleased to hear that we have one more offline Q&A on the way.

In our upcoming blog post, hear from Loughborough University’s Sandie Dann and Kit Messinger as they share extra insight into online panel hearings and methods for supporting the student during this process.

Concerned about contract cheating at your institution?