Collaborative Learning and Academic Integrity

Research shows that group study can accelerate learning, but only if each student is a full and active participant in that learning process. Group collaboration often calls for more rather than less effort on the part of each member of the group. It calls for the mastering of the group process as well as the mastering of a subject.

However, collaboration often brings fears of “over collaboration”—that students will cheat in a collaborative environment. An understanding of plagiarism in the context of collaborative learning, combined with strategies for maintaining academic integrity in collaborative environments, will allow collaborative projects to be used to maximize student learning.

NOTE: Most of the examples and texts below are an amalgam from key writers and researchers in the area of collaborative learning. Sources are provided at the head of each section.

What is Collaborative Learning?

Source: University of Sydney

Collaborative learning occurs when small groups of learners help each other learn. Each member of a group contributes personal experience, information, perspective, insight, skills and attitudes to the group. Ideally, the group’s collective learning is ultimately acquired by each individual in the group.

Collaborative learning requires that learners meet face-to-face or in a computer conference producing a single cohesive assignment, not a group of related assignments. Each learner must help other members of the group learn, so that each member of the group can attain the same level of performance.

What About Collaborative Learning and Academic Integrity?

The boundary between legitimate and illegitimate collaboration can be ambiguous. In collaborative learning, each member must contribute to the group performance. It is unacceptable for all members of the group to attach their names to an assignment completed by a couple individual members.

Encouraging Collaborative Learning While Avoiding Plagiarism

Encouraging students to learn together may pose problems in the area of assessment. For example, if students are encouraged to work together during laboratory experiments but have to hand in assessable lab reports as individuals, how much ‘copying’ is permissible? To what extent does copying in this case constitute plagiarism? Similarly, if students get together to discuss an assignment and to share ideas and references, how might this be reflected in their work and how would this be viewed by the marker?

Helpful strategies to address these issues include:

  • Assignments using Collaborative methods can include the following statement for students: Collaborative learning is an essential component in the learning process and students are encouraged to study with a partner or a group. This in itself does not constitute plagiarism or cheating. However, be certain that the work you turn in is your own and that you completely understand it. Do not provide information to another student so that they can use it without understanding it. (Source: Kwantlen University)
  • Ken Martin Issues of Teaching and Leaning Volume 3, Number 3 “Collaborative Learning or Cheating?”suggests the following:
    • providing students with clear guidelines on what is permissible
    • setting up assessment tasks in such a way that each individual student has to produce a separate part of the overall task
    • setting up a group task in such a way that the group product is marked as a group, but each individual also has to submit a reflective account, to be marked separately, of what they learned during the process of doing the task.

Suggested Statement to Give to Students Regarding Collaborative Work in Courses

(Source: University of Sydney)

(York University) encourages collaboration in learning. The active exchange of ideas is one of the most powerful teaching tools. In teaching, our lecturers are encouraged to share their particular insights with students, and to be generous in the guidance they offer in bringing deeper understanding to the subjects they teach. Students are encouraged to ask relevant questions in class, to seek the opportunity to make serious comment, and to discuss the substance of lectures with fellow-students.

(York University) does not object to students making audio tapes of lectures for their own individual study and for their own study group purposes provided permission is requested of the lecturer and the class is not disturbed. York University does warn, however, against the sale or purchase of any notes purportedly transcribed from lectures or tapes of lectures.

It is vitally important that in examinations and in assignments the work submitted is your own. This does not mean that the ideas you put forward will be necessarily of your invention, but they should represent your presentation and your considered response to a question.

One of the most serious forms of academic misconduct is plagiarism, or seeking to use someone else’s material as your own. It is similar to the offenses in commercial and professional life of passing off, of misrepresentation, of deceptive conduct. If in doubt, acknowledge the source of your information.

It is serious misconduct for a student to discuss the detailed writing of an answer to an assignment with another student, or to look at another student’s answer before the assignments have been submitted.