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The educator too, must accept blame for plagiarism! May 20, 2011

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Student Development, Teaching.
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The status quo in thinking about plagiarism usually goes like this: “Integrity is a compulsory value for each individual student, and they must uphold it in all matters, including homework and assignments.” Most universities require students to sign a pledge never to commit cheating or plagiarism. Coming from an education climate rife with plagiarism issues, I too, held strongly to this. (Disclosure: I copied math homework in uni – at most twice. But the distaste and pointlessness it left in my mouth made me swear never to do it again. I however never claimed the work as my own – the lecturer basically knew (and expected) everyone to copy.)

As such, most academicians have a tendency to place all the blame on the students – students who plagiarise are scum, with no values, etc etc. I wish they’d stop etc etc. I don’t think that is fair.

I am not trying to excuse a student’s individual responsibility to hold to academic values. However, looking at the big picture – human beings are incentive driven creatures. It is not always clear what those incentives are – it often differs from person to person. But increasingly in academic institutions (especially those catering to mass higher education), those incentives are ‘paper oriented’ – they want a degree, to get a good job and start a good life. End of story. Very few come here these days to actually ‘learn’. (Most don’t even know what that means anymore.)

A student who arrives here with values, will lose them very quickly. Submitting their own work, and at the same time watching those around them plagiarise and receive better grades is hugely demotivating, especially when ‘own work’ and ‘own learning’ often seems to matter little towards the ultimate goal – the degree. An educator has the responsibility to crack down tirelessly on plagiarism. Every instance of plagiarism encountered must be punished with the maximum possible sentence with zero negotiation/tolerance or the educator has failed his responsibility to every student who is trying to hold on to whatever shreds left of their academic integrity.

It is the educator’s responsibility to recognise students who hold on to academic integrity, not just with words, but with the assessment itself. They must be able to measure themselves against their plagiarising peers and know that they are better for it. And no – not tomorrow, not ten years from now when they are better members of society etc – but NOW. An educator who is incapable of allowing such students to recognize their own worth is scum as well.

Having said that, it is not always easy to detect plagiarism – in mathematics for example where often the solution steps are close to being the same. After detection, it is similarly hard to prove plagiarism. It is too time consuming, and there is a lot of other work to do – improving classroom methodology, research, etc. As such, another responsibility falls on the educator – to ensure that assignments are as impossible to plagiarise as possible. After a year of trying, I find it really isn’t as hard as some people pretend it is.

(Giving the same math problems to a hundred students and interviewing them one by one is often not a valid method of plagiarism elimination. It becomes an “interview assessment” instead of a “math” assessment. We’d probably have to do a “solve this problem in front of me” session for a significant random sample of students, and immediately fail those who are unable to solve said problem in order to provide a deterrent to plagiarism. And is that fair to those who ‘escape’? What about those who cannot think under pressure? Plus, if we’re going to assess them in our presence anyways, why not just do a small open book test?)

This trimester, I went with the standard practice for a subject I am teaching for another department – I gave out two ‘back of the textbook’ math homework assignments usually slated for 15% of the total assessment. Being free to give additional assignments, I cut the textbook assignments to 5%, and gave another case study/research assignment which is impossible to copy, and assigned it 10% of the grade. I told myself that this is sufficiently balanced. The 5% assignment will still force those who copy to at least write solutions, and maybe that will prompt them to learn eventually.

I am always honest and direct with my students, and I admitted to them that it will be quite impossible for me to hunt down plagiarism in the 5% assignment. But I told those who attempted the work themselves to write, “Own Work” on the front cover – as a point of pride for them, and to make it known to me. Of course, it is impossible to substantiate this claim from the student, and as such assessment cannot be adjusted to accommodate this.

However as I went through the assignments yesterday and today, every time I gave a high score to an obviously or suspiciously plagiarised assignment, and a low score to an “own work” assignment, I felt more and more empty inside. Yeah it’s only 5%. But it’s also hours of work from my precious “Own Work” students being effectively trivialized.

I enabled plagiarism this trimester, and I accept this blame.

Never again. Not even for 5%. I will never again allow myself to follow “standard practice” in giving take home assessments for which I am not ready to reasonably detect and punish plagiarism. And if I find that I am forced, I will fight it tooth and nail.

Thank you to all my “Own Work” students, for this valuable lesson in this educator’s career, and my sincerest apologies.

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Comments»

1. keeve - July 9, 2011

i agree with you..sometimes life is so contradictory, it is a fault of the society. i am still a student right now. I will learn but not copy as some students do. because i believe in the future, we will use what we hae learned.

2. Murray - August 15, 2011

I totally agree with your title!

While math is seen as an exercise in calculation, and assessments are based on end-of-the-chapter questions, the situation will never change. It is possible to give individualized math assignments that require creativity and some genuine problem solving and thereby reduce plagiarism. Heck, students can even feel some ownership in what they produce!

I’d be interested to know more about the “case study/research assignments” you gave.


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