Instructive guidelines for processing cases that fail to meet minimum academic standards

Background

In a meeting on 20 June 2005 the Heads of Department adopted the Faculty of Humanities' (formerly: the Faculty of Arts) plan against academic misconduct/plagiarism. The plan is an intergrated part of the Faculty’s action plan as well as the Quality Assurance System.

As part of this plan, instructions for the Departments have been prepared relating to the difference between academic misconduct/plagiarism and occurrences of assignments/papers that fall below minimal standard of academic acceptability which is not necessarily academic misconduct/plagiarism, and proposals of potential sanctions in cases that are not classified as academic misconduct or plagiarism.

One of the main objectives of this work is to develop a common practice when treating various types of poor scholarship to the extent possible considering the several different forms of assessment and academic traditions.

During the entire process of developing a plan to reduce the occurrence of plagiarism and academic misconduct, emphasis has been placed on increasing the students’ ethical consciousness pertaining to academic work. It is important to have good routines that will reveal occurrences of poor scholarship such as plagiarism or lacking or poor references. It is also important to have good routines for procedures in cases that do not classify as academic misconduct but fail to meet the requirements for academic work.

 

What is academic misconduct?

It is important to clarify what the laws and regulations define as academic misconduct, and is treated as cases of such. Being found guilty of academic misconduct will have serious consequences for the student involved. For this reason, strict requirements apply as to what can be defined as academic misconduct.

Today, academic misconduct is to a large extent related to plagiarism or the use of sources without reference particularly when using the Internet. New methods of assessment also involve other types of activities, but we have chosen to focus on written assignments/tests, including the final written examination and larger written compulsory assignments.

 

According to Act relating to Universities and Colleges (hereafter abbreviated Norwegian Universities’ Act), only assignments/tests/exercises that count for the final grade and larger compulsory assignments can be subject to cases of academic misconduct. The Faculty of Arts has not given a definition of ‘larger compulsory assignments’, but we have established a practice that defines papers of more than 8 to 10 pages as ‘large’ in this connection. However, this rule is neither absolute nor normative. It is regarded as a guideline, and opens for the possibility of smaller papers being treated as larger compulsory assignments, if there are academically based reasons to do so. The general principle is that compulsory assignments are 'large' if there is only one such activity in the course, if at Master's level, and if the assignment includes major academic challenges.

 

With a gradual transition, our scale ranges from obvious academic misconduct according to the law via poor scholarship to poor performance. Academic misconduct according to the Norwegian Universities’ Act requires evidence that the student either wilfully used unauthorized items or texts or plagiarized other people's texts in order to obtain a higher grade, or committed such an offence with gross negligence, i.e. blameworthy conduct.

 

Cases of academic misconduct are treated according to the adopted guidelines and are eventually discussed in NTNU's Appeals Committee. Norwegian Universities’ Act, Section 42 subsection 3, and Section 54 subsections 1a and 1b, and Study regulations at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Section 36 (Norwegian only)

 

Criteria for evaluation of sanctions for cases that do not classify as academic misconduct

I. Type of assignment/test/activity

 

Compulsory assignments

Assignments/papers and other activities which need to be approved (not graded) before the student can sit his or her exams.

Compulsory assignments (both written and oral) that do not count for the final grade are generally treated differently from activities that are graded. Compulsory assignments are part of the continuous assessment which is part of the student’s learning environment. Hence, the objective is not as much to test the students’ knowledge and skills as to provide learning and guidance.

Please note that only larger compulsory assignments fall under the regulations governing academic misconduct even in cases of serious neglect.

 

Graded activities

Semester assignments/semester papers/term papers, take-home examinations and other activities that are graded and count in the final course assessment.

Assignments that count in the final course evaluation are usually dealt with more seriously than compulsory assignments, but considerations may be made to the course level, the size of the assignment and how much it counts for the final grade.

Please note that when it comes to activities that count in the final course evaluation, careful considerations must be made as to whether the neglect is so serious that it classifies as academic misconduct.

 

II. Course level

It is natural to react milder to occurrences of papers failing to meet minimal standards of documentation and independent work for students in the initial stage of their Bachelor’s degree programme (basic level) than for students at Master’s level. Occurrences of papers falling below a minimal standard of academic acceptability will also be dealt with differently if it is submitted at an early stage (basic level) of a major/specialization than at a later stage (intermediate level) of the same study. Later in a Bachelor’s degree programme (e.g. at the intermediate level of the student’s first or second major/specialization) it will not be natural to differentiate between students at the basic and intermediate levels. Requirements set for students at Master’s level are higher regardless of where they are in their programme.

III. Degree of neglect

This is a matter of opinion. When it comes to plagiarism in examination papers, large parts of the paper must be a direct copy before the student is found guilty of committing an examination offence/academic misconduct. Attempts have been made to create tables where the percentage of plagiarized text is evaluated to reactions and sanctions. However, this approach very easily becomes too rigid, as considerations are not made for differences between subjects, levels and form of assessment. We rather ought to develop a common understanding of where to put the line between different sanctions based on experience and discussions.

When evaluating the degree of neglect, another aspect which needs consideration is the degree of guidance and information the student has been offered regarding academic writing, including referencing.

 

Sanctions

The first element to consider is whether or not the case in question fulfils the Norwegian Universities’ Act’s requirements for academic misconduct:

The assignment/test counts in the final assessment of the course (graded activity), or is a larger compulsory assignment.

The offence is serious and wilful.

In cases of academic misconduct, NTNU’s Appeals Committee decides upon the reaction based on prevailing regulations (The Norwegian Universities’ Act, Section 4, subsections 7 and 8, and Study regulations at NTNU and Instructive guidelines for the management of academic misconduct/attempted academic misconduct at NTNU)

When it comes to other types of academic offences/poor scholarship we need to find other suitable sanctions:

 

Activities counting for the final grade

Regarding graded assignments, unacceptable standards of scholarship will be discovered by the examiner during the marking process. Assignments lacking documentation/references/bibliography may result in a lower grade; plagiarism (not to the extent that it classifies as academic misconduct) may result in a fail grade for failing to meet minimal standards of independent work. The academic environments take the level of study into account in these matters.

Example of a potential problem:

Is it reasonable to react milder to a smaller semester assignment of minor importance for the final grade and/or submitted at an early stage of the Bachelor's programme than to a home examination submitted late in the programme?

 

Compulsory assignments that do not count for the final grade

For compulsory assignments/assignments that do not count for the final grade, the situation is different. As already mentioned, the compulsory assignments are part of the continuous assessment which is part of the students learning environment. The main objective of these activities/assignments is not to test the students’ knowledge and skills, but to provide learning and guidance. The reaction in this case may vary depending on the course level of the assignment, whether the assignment is one of several smaller assignments, and whether the student previously has been made aware of poor references in his or her papers. Hence, it is not obvious that a paper submitted at an early stage of the programme where the student quite clearly has copied a source without providing any reference will result in the student losing his/her right to sit the exam. It will be more suitable for the purpose to offer advice and give the student the opportunity to submit the paper once more. If this is one of several smaller assignments, it may be approved followed by advice and comments as to what must be improved before submitting the next paper.

Students regard poor scholarship and academic offences which are not academic misconduct as unjust to fellow students, and they call for strict repercussions.

 

Checklist and examples

We have provided a checklist of different factors that should/ought to be taken into account when considering cases of academic misconduct or papers failing to meet standards of documentation and independent work. However, this list is neither complete nor absolute. Some departments or academic environments may even wish to include other categories.

We would also like to point out that this is not meant to be rigid instructions, but rather guidelines for academic environments and departments in order to develop the most appropriate routines and procedures. Discussions related to this topic will be an important part of the work of a contact group. The contact group consists of the deputy heads, as well as one administrative member of staff from each department, which was established in the autumn semester of 2005 which gathers the persons in charge of this work from each department.

The categories are not absolute. The academic environments are free to evaluate the division between assignments/tests that count to a higher or smaller degree for the final grade. There may be cases where a strict reaction is appropriate even though the assignment/test is of minor importance and vice versa. The line between more or less than 50 per cent is put to indicate that it may be useful to differentiate between important and less important activities as regarding the final course evaluation.

 

Type of activity

Each activity may be checked off more than once. It may for instance be important to check whether an assignment is a piece of individual work or a group assignment (working method), regardless which other category under ‘Type of Category’ it belongs to.

  • One of several minor compulsory assignments – graded as pass/fail
  • A minor compulsory assignment – graded as pass/fail
  • Large compulsory assignment – graded as pass/fail
  • Graded assignment that amounts to less than 50 per cent of the final grade evaluation basis for the course/subject
  • Graded assignment that amounts to more than 50 per cent of the final grade evaluation basis for the course/subject
  • Take-home examination

 

Working method

In addition to the type of activity, the working method bears consequences for the reaction. Raising the students’ consciousness related to what is expected from an individual paper versus group work is important. The students would like the academic environments to offer more courses in writing at all levels. Alternatively, lectures or group sessions at the Introductory level (Ex. Phil.) could be used to a higher degree as a writing course, where the students also will have an introduction to the requirements for a good academic paper presented by their own academic environment, and a follow-up throughout the programme.

 

  • Individual assignment
  • Group assignment

Course level

Here it will be appropriate to differentiate between the basic level and the intermediate level within the same subject specialization.

  • Early in the Introductory level (Ex. Phil./Ex. Fac.)
  • Later in the Introductory level (Ex. Phil./Ex. Fac.)
  • Early in the Bachelor’s programme/basic level
  • Early in the Bachelor’s programme/intermediate level
  • Late in the Bachelor’s programme/second subject specialization/one-year study programme
  • Master’s level

 

Degree of the offence

It is also appropriate to differentiate the degree of the offence:

  • Poor academic performance in terms of failing to meet set standards of academic acceptability.
  • Paper failing to meet minimal standards of documentation (when using sources references)
  • Partly copying/plagiarism
  • Academic misconduct/plagiarism: Clear cases of copying.
  • Was the student offered the necessary/adequate tuition in and information about the use of sources, references and other rules and standards for academic writing?

 

Sanctions

The sanctions will be evaluated in relation to the type of activity, the course level and the degree of the offence.

  • The student’s work is approved
  • The student is called to a meeting and given the opportunity to submit a new assignment *)
  • Lower grade
  • The student’s work is not approved/fail grade
  • Academic misconduct – treated according to standard procedures

*) The departments need to decide to what extent they would prefer routines for submission of new assignments, including the number of new chances and deadlines. We do not recommend that students may sit their exams provided that they submit obligatory assignments after the examination; such cases require the students to give their written consent to their sitting their exams with reservations to the compulsory assignments being approved.

 

Examples of how to make use of the checklist

We have provided six examples below:

 

If the following items are checked off

  • Minor compulsory assignment
  • Submitted early in the Bachelor's programme at the basic level
  • Clear case of plagiarism

The case does not fall under the regulations governing academic misconduct (not a graded activity, not large enough compulsory assignment).

 

Possible reaction

The student is called to a meeting and given the opportunity to submit a new assignment.

 

If the following items are checked off

  • Major compulsory assignment (usually from 8 to 10 pages or more, but could also be less for academic reasons)
  • Submitted early in the Bachelor’s programme at basic level (usually the first and second semesters)
  • Clear case of plagiarism

The case falls under the regulations governing academic misconduct (large compulsory assignment and serious offence).

 

Possible reaction

Academic misconduct

Note: If the extent of the plagiarism is not large enough to classify as academic misconduct, or if other circumstances relating to the assignment makes a report about academic misconduct out of the question: The student is called to a meeting and given the opportunity to submit a new assignment. Alternatively, the assignment is awarded a fail grade, particularly if the student has received adequate information about academic writing and has been offered follow-up.

 

If the following items are checked off

  • Minor compulsory assignment
  • Submitted late in the Bachelor’s programme (e.g. at specialization level)
  • Careless and poor references

The case does not fall under the regulations governing academic misconduct (not graded activity, not serious enough offence).

 

Possible reaction

Either:
The student’s work is not approved.

Or:
If this is the first of several minor assignments and the assignment otherwise is good, the academic environment may choose to approve the assignment after a meeting with the student. If the next compulsory assignment also is characterized by plagiarism, there is good cause to award a fail grade.

 

If the following items are checked off

  • Graded assignment that amounts to less than 50 per cent of the final evaluation basis for the course/subject
  • Submitted early in the Bachelor’s programme at basic level
  • Clear case of plagiarism

The case falls under the regulations governing academic misconduct (graded activity, serious offence).

 

Possible reaction

Usually academic misconduct

If the assignment is of minor importance to the final grade, considerations may be made to the early stage of the programme, particularly if the information about or training in the use of sources and academic work has been poor, and the result may be lower grade.

 

If the following items are checked off

  • graded assignment that amounts to more than 50 per cent of the final evaluation basis for the course/subject
  • submitted early in the Bachelor’s programme at basic level
  • careless use of sources, elements of plagiarism

The case does not fall under the regulations governing academic misconduct (not serious enough offence).

 

Possible reaction

Low grade or fail grade. The later in the programme the assignment is submitted, the better reason to award a fail grade.

Note: In cases where a low grade is the result of plagiarism/unacceptable academic standard, where an assignment fails to meet minimal standards of documentation and/or independent work, it is necessary to state this information in the argumentation for the grade.

 

If the following items are checked off

  • Graded assignment that amounts to more than 50 per cent of the final evaluation for the course/subject
  • Submitted early in the Bachelor’s programme at basic level
  • Clear case of plagiarism

The case falls under the regulations governing academic misconduct (graded activity, serious offence).

 

Possible reaction

Academic misconduct