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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Designing out plagiarism: Online assessment in the study of biblical languages


Written by
Dr Elizabeth Burns, Reader and Programme Director, Divinity by Distance Learning University of London 

Requiring students to provide a rationale for each translation in an online exam served not only to address an urgent problem caused by the pandemic, but also as an enhancement to students’ learning. 

Hebrew alphabet hand written

The University of London online Bachelor of Divinity programme offers the opportunity to study religion from a variety of angles and includes optional modules in biblical languages. Students can learn the original languages of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament, and use their knowledge to deepen their understanding of those texts. 

Although most modules of the programme include coursework assessment, three of our four biblical languages modules are assessed by means of a three-hour unseen examination alone. As the 2020 coronavirus pandemic developed, however, it became clear that end-of-year examinations in centres around the world would not be possible this year, and that online examinations might be particularly problematic for modules in biblical languages. Our students would need to be able to type in Hebrew and Greek, and, without invigilation, how would we know whether they were simply copying and pasting pre-prepared translations of the set texts? 

The first problem was relatively easy to solve. We provided guidance on downloading fonts and keyboards, and allowed extra time for each examination in recognition of the challenge that learning, at short notice, to type in Hebrew and Greek – and particularly in Hebrew, which reads from right to left – might represent for some of our students. 

The invigilation problem took a bit longer to address. It soon became apparent that assessment on a platform capable of providing online proctoring (invigilation) would prove too costly for a programme unable to make the economies of scale available to programmes such as those in Finance or Law which have many thousands of students. We therefore needed to find a way to run online examinations which, although timed and unseen, were not invigilated, without compromising the quality of the programme and the degree awarded to our students.

We were very grateful for the advice of a colleague from our wider network, Dr Dustin Hosseini, Senior Teaching Associate and Digital Education Facilitator at the Lancaster University Management School. In the light of this, we amended our ‘translation only’ examination questions so that students would be required to provide a rationale for their translation. This worked well, particularly in the introductory modules which focus on learning the language rather than exegesis of the set texts; some students provided supplementary notes at the end of their translation, while others added their notes in brackets. In fact, it has served not simply as a way to address an urgent problem caused by the pandemic, but also as an enhancement to students’ learning since we had not previously required students just beginning their study of these languages to explain why they had chosen to translate an ambiguous word one way rather than another. 

The use of Turnitin as a tool in the assessment of translation from biblical languages raised some interesting questions. For many words and phrases, the number of possible translations is limited; for example, how many different ways could one translate Pontius Pilate’s ‘Behold, the man!’? And there are many existing translations of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, including the literal translations provided by The Berean Literal Bible ( Students’ similarity ratings are therefore likely to be higher than one might expect, and this is particularly so when an examination paper includes a number of compulsory questions – on parsing, for example – to which there is only one right answer. 
There are still, however, ways to identify genuine plagiarism. For example, where a similarity has been identified by Turnitin, it is possible to check for particularly distinctive turns of phrase which do not represent the most straightforward English translation, especially if more than one of these occurs in the same source. 

And there are further ways to mitigate or prevent plagiarism. For example, one might award only a very small percentage of the available marks for translation alone, and omit the sources of the passages to be translated, thereby making it more difficult for students to find and modify an existing online translation. 

Finally, the risk of plagiarism can be avoided by providing a variety of questions which cannot be answered by means of an internet search or straightforward copying from a textbook. Such questions might include asking the student to identify and parse particular words in a passage (such as two different forms of a specified verb, two verbs in a specified tense and mood, or the only two examples of a noun in a specified declension), to identify three different prepositions in a passage and say which case each one takes, or to say which word is the subject of the verb. Even with access to reference books during an online examination, without a good grasp of the language a student would be unable to answer questions of this kind in the limited time available.