Getting Help with Assignments
In China, there is a very strong emphasis on study, on achieving qualifications, on satisfying family expectations, on meeting ever more stringent job market requirements. As a result, Chinese students studying abroad tend to pursue demanding courses at exacting institutions, tend to be working close to their maximum capacities, factors that are reflected in the grade classifications that they receive: whereas about 70% of all students get a grade classification towards the upper end of the scale (a 1st or a 2:1), only about 40% of Chinese students do so. Given these academic challenges, Chinese students often seek additional support when it comes to completing the assignments on which their grades depend.
But are you allowed to get help with your assignments? The answer depends on exactly what form that “help” takes:
Tuition: always allowed
Essay mills: never allowed
Proofreading/copy-editing: usually allowed
Universities have no problem if you seek tuition in order to improve your oral or written English language skills. Should you decide to do so, there are a number of factors to consider.
First, pick the low-hanging fruit: when it comes to improving performance in most activities, there are some skills that can be improved quickly, easily, for a modest amount of effort – the low-hanging fruit – and some skills that cannot – the fruit which, to continue with the metaphor, can only be picked if you first expend the not inconsiderable effort involved in climbing the tree. When the activity in question is improving your English language skills, some skills – such as identifying the collocation patterns most apposite to express your thoughts – have to be finely honed through many years of intensive language exposure; but some other skills – such as using the correct grammatical constructs and the appropriate forms of punctuation – can be mastered for a modest amount of effort. So when seeking tuition, focus on those skills that will yield the most benefits academically, and will do so expeditiously.
Second, most English language courses don’t concentrate on helping you to improve your writing skills – when seeking tuition, identify those that do. Even when courses focus on the development of writing skills, they so often present material from a deconstructivist perspective: they present you with specimens of complex sentences and then deconstruct them – a far from ideal approach for ESL/EFL students. Far better is the constructivist approach: one that starts from the simple sentences that you can generate at present, and then shows you how these sentences can be combined and enhanced – by way of different types of initial, medial, and final lexical elements, by way of different types of internal punctuation – to produce the complex sentences that will be expected from you in your written assignments.
And, finally, ensure that your tuition is personalized: it should show you how to identify and correct the errors that you make most frequently; it should start from and enhance those skills that you have at present – it should neither reinstruct you in what you can already accomplish nor attempt to instruct you in what is at present beyond your grasp.
If you haven’t come across them before, let me explain how essay mills work. You supply an essay mill with the title of an essay that you’ve been asked to write to fulfil an assignment. The essay mill asks one of its ghostwriters to write the essay for you. Then you submit the essay as though you had written it yourself.
You’ll find many essay mills advertising their services online. Of course, they say that they are simply providing you with an example of what a well-written essay on the topic of interest looks like; they never suggest, at least directly, that you submit the essay as though it were your own.
Universities disapprove very strongly of students submitting essays written by essay mills. Should you get caught using an essay mill to compose an essay that you submit as your own work, your final grade classification might suffer, or you might even be excluded from your course of study.
While universities claim that their disapproval of the use of essay mills by students is based on ethical considerations, the real reason for their disapprobation is the financial impact that the widespread use of essay mills would have on their revenues. If employers find that students who have obtained high degree classifications at a particular university are lacking in ability, then their estimation of the university will fall, leading to a decrease in the university’s league table ranking, and, subsequently, to a decrease in the university’s revenue.
Technological developments now make it much easier to spot essays produced by essay mills than was the case in the past. The cost of writing an essay from scratch is substantial, but ghostwriting is a competitive business. And so ghostwriters frequently take shortcuts to improve their productivity: they may copy some of the text for an essay from an online source. However, universities now make use of anti-plagiarism software, such as Turnitin, software that compares each student’s essay, sentence by sentence, with all relevant online sources to see if there is a match – making plagiarized material easy to spot. Even if a ghostwriter does not rely on online material, he or she is likely to be repeatedly writing essays on the same subject, and so is likely, advertently or inadvertently, to reuse some text from a previous essay when writing a new one. Organizations that offer plagiarism detection services maintain databases of the essays submitted by students; they also run their anti-plagiarism software against these databases, and so reused sections of old essays are readily identified.
But technology can go still further. Even if you were prepared to pay the high cost of ensuring that all your essays were written from scratch, a university would still be able to determine that the essays you submitted were not your own: software that was once used solely in forensic science for the purpose of identifying individuals based on their writing styles is now being used by universities to compare different essays written by the same student: as an essay mill will farm different essays out to different ghostwriters, the differences in their writing styles will be readily detectable even when all of them are writing their essays from scratch.
So, it seems that universities have all the technology they need to eliminate the ghostwritten essay. If so, then why is it that many students – both native English-speaking students and ESL/EFL students – make use of essay mills, and rarely get reprimanded? While tutors may suspect that particular students are using essay mills, those tutors are usually reluctant to raise formal complaints. While software may flag up a student’s essay as likely to have been ghostwritten, the university’s administration is usually reluctant to take action.
The problem for universities is that student fees, especially overseas student fees, generate a very substantial amount of revenue. If a university does censure a student for using an essay mill, then the fact that it has done so is likely to spread very rapidly on social media. As a result, prospective students – both domestic and overseas – may drop the university in question from their shortlists; it’s not that the students in question are necessarily intending to make use of essay mills, but rather that prospective students are wary of universities that they perceive to be treating their existing students harshly. So the detrimental repercussion for a censuring university is that its revenue stream may plummet. So a university cannot act alone. If it does so, then students will go elsewhere. Even if all universities within a particular country were to adopt the same stringent policy against ghostwriting, then doing so would only drive students to universities in other countries where enforcement was lax. So, given the business model adopted by universities and given the absence of globally enforced standards, the use of essay mills by students remains a practice that universities are disinclined to police effectively.
However, if – like many Chinese students – you are tempted to use an essay mill, you are unlikely to realize any long-term benefits. First, even though universities in English-speaking countries favour the personal assignment approach, you will still have to sit some tests and examinations. Getting good grades on your essays is not going to compensate for getting failing grades on tests and examinations. Indeed, one way that some tutors compensate for the absence of effective policies against ghostwriting is to give more weight to examination scores when these scores are much less than the scores obtained for personal assignments. Second, employers are not stupid: they want, and they will only employ, competent, highly productive employees. You are not going to get and retain a highly paid job based on your university grade classification alone. Employers may ask you to sit additional tests as part of the job application process. Even if they decide to give you a job on a trial basis, you won’t retain that job for long or you won’t get promoted if you can’t “deliver the goods”, if you don’t have the skills that the employer needs. So – tempting though it may be – relying on essay mills as an alternative to working hard while at university will not help you to improve your skills, will not serve you well in the long run.
If you use a proofreading/copy-editing service (the terms are often used interchangeably), then you prepare your assignment in the normal manner: you read the recommended materials and sources, you make notes, you structure your essay so that the issues are dealt with in an appropriate order, and then you write the essay putting forward your best arguments to support the points you wish to make. At this stage, you send the draft manuscript to a proofreading service; it will correct errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and may also reword any awkward constructions (depending on the level of copy-editing that you have requested). Then you submit the edited version for your assignment.
The use of a proofreading service is generally allowed by universities – almost always for postgraduate students and often for
undergraduate students (though permission to do so will depend on the course). It all comes down to how your assignment will be graded:
For example, the proofreading of research papers prior to publication is the norm – the lecturer who teaches your course probably uses a proofreading service prior to submitting his or her own research for publication. The reason why there is no objection to this practice is that the authors of research papers are not being judged on their English language skills, but are, instead, being judged on the quality of the experimental research that they have undertaken and on the quality of the arguments deployed to support the theories that they have advanced. By improving the quality of the presentation though proofreading, those experimental results and those arguments are made clear to readers of the research paper, putting those readers in a good position to understand and evaluate its contents. The same logic applies to many university assignments – such as those involving the production of MSc dissertations and PhD theses. And so, in many instances, getting a draft manuscript proofread is acceptable, and even encouraged.
For example, suppose you are studying journalism and your assignment involves interviewing some people about a particular issue and then writing up what you have discovered by way of an article. In these circumstances, the quality of the writing may play a major part in determining your grade classification, and so getting third-party assistance to improve it might not be acceptable.
So, there is no simple answer as to whether the use of a proofreading service is acceptable: the position will vary from course to course, from university to university, and from country to country – sometimes using a service is acceptable and sometimes not. Search your university’s website to see if it has a clear policy on the use of proofreading services; here is a typical example, taken from the University of Essex:
… it is acknowledged that certain types of student texts are quite often submitted for proofreading to a third party, and that such assistance is at times actively recommended by supervisors. This is particularly the case for doctoral dissertations which typically aim for publication standard in their presentation. In addition, students whose first language is not English may want to have Masters level projects and dissertations proofread. There are no University regulations forbidding the use of proofreaders for other types of work …
If you can’t find such a policy, then ask the supervisor who has given you the assignment to clarify what is acceptable and what is not.
There is an important point to consider. When native English language speakers use a proofreading service, their objective is to improve the presentation of a particular document, not to improve their English language skills. But for the ESL/EFL student it’s a different matter: you should use a proofreading service to improve simultaneously both the document presentation and your English language skills (unfortunately, universities provide very little by way of feedback on the quality of presentation of the assignments that their students submit). Some proofreading services will not only correct your document but will also show you exactly what changes they have made to the draft manuscript. Viewing these changes can be facilitated by enabling the “Track Changes” feature within MS Word prior to editing the document, or it can be facilitated by providing you with a separate document in which all the changes to the original are marked up and highlighted. So if you decide to use a proofreading service, ask in advance whether you will be able to see the changes that have been made when assessing the merits of the candidate services. Viewing these changes is important, as you will typically make similar language errors in assignment after assignment. If you can determine what these errors are and can understand what you need to do to correct them, then you can steadily improve the quality of your writing as you progress from assignment to assignment.
Is there an alternative to employing the services of a human proofreader? There is, but it has pros and cons. There are a number of tools that you can use to partially automate the proofreading process – beyond the rudimentary corrections suggested by MS Word’s spelling and grammar checker. These tools may check grammar and punctuation, may suggest sentence paraphrases to improve presentation, and may check the text for plagiarism. By far the most popular and effective of these products is Grammarly; it comes as a free basic version and as a paid-for premium version, the latter with enhanced functionality.
If you’re interested in a plagiarism checker, then this review contains a useful comparison of the best products available (thanks to AB for the recommendation). Bear in mind that most of these plagiarism checkers only examine text that is accessible through Internet searches. But universities also make use of plagiarism checkers that scan databases of student essays, reports, dissertations, and theses – documents that are not usually in the public domain. However, you are likely to know if you have copied text from another student’s essay, but may be less certain as to whether some of the notes taken while doing background reading have been copied directly from a source. And so a plagiarism checker that relies on Internet searches will usually suffice. Of course, a plagiarism checker does not actually detect plagiarism: it merely presents you with lengthy phrases from your own work that are also found in other works belonging to its database. It’s a judgement call as to whether the use of a particular phrase would constitute plagiarism: some of the lengthy phrases flagged by a plagiarism checker are widely used and can legitimately be considered part of the language. For example, Grammarly Premium incorrectly flags up each of the following phrases as being plagiarised:
there are a number of tools that you can use
by far the most popular of these products
as a free basic version and as a
it’s a judgement call as to whether the
While proofreading tools are generally reliable when it comes to detecting plagiarism, they are far less so when it comes to finding errors in punctuation, grammar, and presentation.
First, these tools will frequently throw up false positives: they will suggest changes to well-written prose that, if accepted, would weaken the prose or would introduce errors. For example, let’s take the two opening paragraphs from what is one of the standard university texts on linguistics, A University Grammar of English, written by one of the world’s most celebrated grammarians and linguists:
English is generally acknowledged to be the world's most important language. It is perhaps worth glancing briefly at the basis for that evaluation. There are, after all, thousands of different languages in the world, and each will seem uniquely important to those who speak it as their native language, the language they acquired at their mother's knee. But there are more objective standards of relative importance. One criterion is the number of speakers of the language. A second is the extent to which a language is geographically dispersed: in how many continents and countries is it used or is a knowledge of it necessary? A third is its functional load: how extensive is the range of purposes for which it is used? In particular, to what extent is it the medium for highly valued cultural manifestations such as a science or a literature? A fourth is the economic and political influence of the native speakers of the language.
If we restrict the first criterion to native speakers of the language, the number of speakers of English is more than 300 million, and English ranks well below Chinese (which has over three times that number of speakers). The second criterion, the geographical dispersal of the language, invites comparison with (for example) Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic as languages used in major world religions, though only Arabic has a substantial number of speakers. But the spread of English over most of the world as an international language is a unique phenomenon in the world's history: about 1500 million people – over a third of the world's population – live in countries where English has some official status or is one of the native languages, if not the dominant native language. By the third criterion, the great literatures of the Orient spring to mind, not to mention the languages of Tolstoy, Goethe, Cervantes, and Racine. But in addition to being the language of the still more distinguished Shakespeare, English leads as the primary medium for twentieth-century science and technology. The fourth criterion invokes Japanese, Russian, and German, for example, as languages of powerful, productive, and influential nations. But English is the language of the United States, whose gross domestic product in 1980 was more than double that of its nearest competitor, Japan. No claim has here been made for the importance of English on the grounds of its quality as a language (the size of its vocabulary, its relative lack of inflections, the alleged flexibility of its syntax). The choice of an international language, or lingua franca, is never based on linguistic or aesthetic criteria but always on political, economic, and demographic ones.
As might be expected, the text contains no errors and is well written. Now you might expect that a proofreading tool would concur, but instead Grammarly Premium flags up twelve exceptions, eight errors and four presentational recommendations. None of these suggestions has merit, and all the changes that Grammarly recommends would either weaken the prose or would introduce grammatical errors. The false-positive rate – one false positive for every thirty-six words – is typical of Grammarly when presented with well-written, error-free prose. So, beware whenever you are tempted to accept the recommendations made by a proofreading tool!
Second, proofreading tools also fail to detect many different types of language error – types of error that would be immediately evident to a human proofreader. For example, let’s take a number of sentences covering just the limited topic of subject-verb agreement (taken from a highly regarded microgrammar, The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference):
Fish and chips are served in the afternoon.
The supervisor and the employee each is required to attend the meeting.
Every supervisor and every employee are required to attend the meeting.
Everybody and his mother seem to be on a low-carbohydrate diet these days.
It does not appear that his friends or the senator have committed any impropriety.
An estimated one out of eight people in the United States are owed money.
Many a parent are likely to be offended by the new policy.
Each of these sentences contains a grammatical error, but Grammarly Premium found none of them. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of error categories that a proofreading tool will not detect.
So the error-checking capabilities of an automated tool fall far short of those of a human proofreader. However, despite their limitations, you should not be discouraged from using proofreading tools. They will flag up many genuine errors. If you have good English language skills, it will be immediately obvious whether or not what is suggested to be an error is a false positive. If your language skills are not so good, then you’ll have to consult a textbook on grammar and punctuation to help you determine if a false positive is present – doing so may be time-consuming and inconvenient when you have a rapidly approaching deadline, but by making an effort you’ll steadily improve your English language skills.