Plagiarism: What Do Students Think?

It is only a week and a half into the semester, and already my office mate and I are talking about plagiarism.  There are hangovers from last semester – cases that never quite got resolved – and our college has a new plagiarism policy that requires, among other things, that we submit any plagiarism accusations to the dean within 15 business days.  (This is good to know; sending off those letters often falls to the bottom of my to-do list.)  So we’ve been wondering what instances will rear their heads this semester, and what we can do to head them off, beyond the myriad precautions we already take.

In discussing it, an old question from a friend and reader, Gen X, emerged for me: if you asked students, what would they say about plagiarism?  Why do they do it?  Why do they continue to do it even though they know it a) may get them into trouble, b) does not help them learn, and c) is both cheating and stealing?  Do they see it some other way?  Are they desperate?  Do they (as I suspect) really feel it’s no big deal as long as they don’t get caught (and sometimes even if they do)?

I would be very interested in anyone’s take on this; I’d be especially interested to hear from students, but we’ve all been students at one time or another.  Have you ever plagiarized?  Why?  Did it seem justifiable, or did you not understand the problem, or did you know you wouldn’t get caught, or did you feel it was your last best resort?  If you did get caught, what were the consequences?

(I did it on minor assignments in high school all the time.  If my biology teacher asked me to answer five short questions about the beluga, I knew he wasn’t asking me to copy information out of the encyclopedia, but I was never, ever reprimanded for doing so.  I never plagiarized anything in university, from what I remember, but I had friends who did, shamelessly.)

Why do students plagiarize?  What can be done to prevent them from doing so? Is it really such a big problem?  Gen X wants to know, and so do I.

Image by  Michal Zacharzewski

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More Ways To Cheat (Because Where’s the Fun in Doing the Work?)

This week, The Tenured Radical has an imaginary conversation with her imaginary college-age progeny in which she explains why he/she should not cheat in order to get through the hellish last weeks of the semester.  In the process, she directs us to some more online cheating resources (see one of my earlier posts for an enlightening one).  My favourite: a detailed video on how to cheat using a Coke bottle, a scanner, Photoshop, and all that time you could have used to study.

TTR also gives the progeny some tips on how to avoid plagiarizing and how to avoid being accused of it if you haven’t done it.  I heartily wish I’d found this post three weeks ago – a number of my students could have benefitted from its wisdom.

Image by Alice Luidelli

How to Cheat

So I came across this Wikihow site the other day.  It details 120 ways to cheat on a test.

Does this say something about:

a) kids these days?

b) human nature?

c) the inevitable descent into absolute amorality/immorality for which the internet will prove responsible?

d) a revolution in human thinking that I’m too old and prissy to understand?

e) all of the above?

My favourite part is the introduction:

Cheating is considered dishonest. It counts as stealing and lying. There are some cases, however, where cheating on a test might be argued to be acceptable. Sometimes there are tests that are the result of politics, rather than practicality.

The wiki is in fact helpful for teachers, whose minds will pop at some of the instructions.  Write on your hands with skin-coloured gel ink?  Use a compass to scratch answers into the cover of a metal binder?  Tape a paper inside your hood and then put your hoodie on backwards? (Seriously? Like no one will notice?) Score an eraser down the middle and write notes on the inside?  Wouldn’t studying be easier?

Many of the methods involve using a cell phone.  This brings up the inevitable question: in a world where everyone has a cell phone with them at all times (everyone except, ahem, me, as I would prefer to save my money and NOT be reachable every second of the day, thank you), does it make sense to give tests for which a quick internet search or a text to a friend will turn up an answer?

I know that if I cared to look, I’d find plenty of things online that would horrify me more than this wiki.  I know there’s no use in being morally outraged about school cheating – students who cheat find this outrage amusing.  I hear students in the hallways all the time saying things like, “Why didn’t you just cheat, you idiot?” or “This calculator is perfect for cheating – the bottom slides right out.”

What’s a teacher to do?  Is cheating more rampant than ever, or is it something that always has been and always will be?  I – most of us, I think – approach cheating as a moral problem, as if we could solve it by teaching students right from wrong.  This clearly isn’t working.  Is it school, and tests, that have to change?

Image by David Hartman