Honestly learning: Charles Crook and colleagues

Learning can never be a narrowly private matter. It must be something pursued with others. Collaboration is therefore much encouraged in scholarship, study, and the wider world of work. Yet educators are tasked to report on individuals, not collaborations. They must summarise each student with measures that seem to be suggesting their personal characteristics, not their membership of study teams. There are many tensions in this situation. Study practices are designed for study communities, yet assessment practices must address individuals. Understanding requires help from others, yet when does tutoring or collaborating become collusion?
In this project, we consider the various actors in this tension between collaborating and colluding – at least as it is experienced in higher education. This requires consideration of the institutional guidelines that are intended to direct students in matters of academic integrity. It also involves engaging with the various individual actors whose practices define what happens at these boundaries between honest and dishonest forms of study.

The institutional perspective
The attitude of university educators is to be found in the various regulations and guidelines that are published in handbooks and websites that every institution maintains. One of our goals has been to audit the form that this direction to students is taking. We suggest that, currently, it is very weakly expressed. In relation to help-seeking and its border with collusion, these regulations typically only consider a narrow space of help: namely, one that arises within the student peer group. It fails to address the input that students may seek from professional tutors, bespoke authoring services, families, and external friendships. Advice is therefore incomplete. But it is also inconsistent across institutions. Finally, it lacks awareness of what we term an “incoherence”, whereby good student practice is defined with insufficient attention to how far such advice violates existing and strongly established expectations around interpersonal relationships, student communities, curriculum design, and patterns of personal study.

The teachers’ perspectives
In their response to these tensions, different academic disciplines would appear to pursue a variety of approaches towards both assessment design and what they regard as appropriate help-seeking practices by students. We have engaged with academics at the forefront of teaching and learning management in various disciplines. These encounters reveal much uncertainty about the nature and extent of help-seeking that violates local expectations about good study habits. These conversations suggest the existence of problems that are recognised as concealed but also understood to need solutions.

The students’ perspectives
We have surveyed students to explore the nature of the stress that accumulates around assignment tasks – with a view to understanding the circumstances that might lead towards inappropriate practices of seeking help. This survey has been complemented by focus group discussions and also by advertising an opportunity to reflect on personal habits (and the habits of peers) in relation to violations of integrity rules. A rich corpus of written response is allowing us to understand these stresses better and communicate them to staff – as well as creating support resources for students themselves.

The business perspective
The commercial provision of assignment authoring services has expanded considerably in recent years. Our project has considered the business face of such services through an audit of their website content. We have identified some of the rhetoric about study and educational practice that is addressed at students. Unfortunately there is a degree of coherence between the arguments developed in this advertising and the tensions that students themselves feel around study. However, our approach is to make this rhetoric visible and subject to a critique that we expect to have an impact on how students think about their obligations to the education community.

The project
This project is currently funded by the Nottingham/Birmingham Partnership Scheme and involves a collaboration between Charles Crook (LSRI), Elizabeth Nixon (Nottingham Business School) and Anke Buttner (Birmingham University, Psychology). Some of this work has been discussed in publications below and others to follow. The project is also producing web-based material that addresses the concerns of university teaching and learning managers as well as individual teaching staff. We are also authoring web-based material that confronts students with the propriety and danger associated with breaking institutional visions of academic integrity in study.


Crook, C.K. and Nixon, E. (in press) The social anatomy of collusion, British Educational Research Journal.

Crook, C.K., (2018). Issues of academic integrity around learning and assessment. In: R. Luckin (Ed.), Enhancing learning and teaching with technology: what the research says UCL Institute of Education Press. 110-123

Crook, C. (2015). Cheating with essay mills: An extension of students asking each other for help. The Conversation, 17.