Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Cheating Successfully

I used to consult for schools and social service organisations that were struggling to manage programs for children with behavioural problems. One of my favourite memories from that time is of a parent who approached me after I had given a talk, described the numerous times her teenage son had been caught in possession of drugs on school grounds, and then confessed, “To be honest, I don’t know whether to be angrier at how often he violates the rules, or at how stupid he is about it: I mean, come on, how difficult can it be not to get caught?!”

I always remember this conversation when I catch students cheating – the ham-handedness of the effort is sometimes as affronting than the cheating itself: I find myself wondering what it was about me, exactly, that made someone think I would fall for *that*… I’m quite sure, of course, that there are plenty of “successful” plagiarisers and cheats whom I don’t catch: there are always a few suspicious assignments where I decide to give students the benefit of the doubt, and I’m sure there are others that don’t set off any alarms for me. But the particularly brazen and reckless ones always get to me…

I noticed today that Savage Minds’ oneman has written a post on teaching cheating, and also cited a piece by Alex Halavais that provides recommendations for those who would like to “cheat good”. I recommend that any students contemplating cheating in my courses read these works, and take their advice to heart – at least then, if you get caught, I won’t be torn over whether to be disappointed by the cheating, or just exasperated by how easy it was to catch…

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17 responses to “Cheating Successfully

  1. verbalchameleon July 7, 2006 at 12:24 am

    I know someone who had two students who were dating (he had seen them together), and (this is key) who knew HE knew they were dating. They were in two different sections of his composition course, the same semester, and each turned in the same term paper. Unbelievevably stupid, right?

  2. E May 18, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Over the years I have caught a number of students plagiarising or cutting-and-pasting from the web. Sometimes the effort to put together such work is almost as much effort as writing the essay in the first place! Each semester there is usually 1 or 2, sometimes they are just suspicious essays where there is little chance of proving plagiarism, othertimes they are poor attempts at cutting and pasting another student’s work from the web and passing it off as their own.

    Once my suspicion was twigged when a student submitted work that contained different fonts, in a place where it made no sense to have a font change. And sure enough it was ripped directly from the web, another student’s work (in the US) posted online. But the thing that irked me the most was that they had not even bothered to check that they had changed the font and reformatted their work!

    I have always wondered if I should feel sorry for the ones that do cheat, but do it badly so they get caught?

    I think I do feel for them as they must be that stressed they have got to a place where handing in something that places them at risk of exclusion from their program is preferable to them writing something that might fail, but get them an overall aggregate pass with other work.

    The students who know how to cheat successfully, and there are probably a number, we will never know about. The ones with money, who do cheat, probably just get someone to write their essays or reports anyway.

  3. N Pepperell May 19, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Yeah, I’ve gotten these too – the strangest are the ones who have gone to the trouble of cutting and pasting from materials that aren’t online – so I have to trundle around in the library to find the sources: honestly, it’s a great deal of work (for them, and for me)…

    I’ve gotten one of the changed font ones too…

    Assessment load will be a factor – as, inevitably, will be things like relative sophistication (affecting the ability to plagiarise in subtle and less detectable ways) and income (affecting the ability to purchase less detectable materials)…

    On some level, of course, students are adults – there is a cost to not using university as an opportunity to practice the skills you are going to need, in an environment that is far safer and (hopefully) more supportive than other environments will be… Personally, I’d rather someone who’s feeling overwhlemed just come to me to negotiate something aboveboard – but students don’t always know this is possible, and individual situations can make this difficult…

  4. E May 19, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Well the ones that have done it from materials that are not online – actual books – are the hardest to catch, and it seems like a lot of work for them to have plagiarised this way, something that would often then be solved by referencing. They are the most puzzling category of student.

    One other issue is that international students (despite supposedly having it drilled into them) do not ‘get’ referencing. I have been told that it is considered rude (or not appropriate) in Chinese culture to make direct reference to the source/master/writer… I will have to confirm that one day…

    I’m of the same view as you when handling this matter. It is obviously always preferable for me to have a student to submit later or negotiate something else rather than submit something on time that they decide to plagiarise.

    There is also a real cost to the university; when an organisation/employer hires a student who has plagiarised their way through their degree, compared to another who has done all the work, and the plagiarist turns out to be utterly incompetent, then the value of that degree from that particular university can drop for all other students. That organization/employer also may be less unlikely to employ more graduates from that university. And in the eyes of prospective undergraduate students looking around for a degree that factor may be important if the degree gets a reputation of churning out incompetent graduates. So while it does not matter on one level what work is in front of you and it is certainly easier to let all students pass than search for plagiarism or even fail students it can have other consequences.

    Another question I’m wondering about: is it reasonable for sessional staff to search for plagiarism? The situation is that sessional staff (I mean tutors paid by the hour, not fully tenured staff) simply are not paid enough for their time to mark in the first place that they cannot really afford to spend the extra hours hunting down plagiarism. I’m not sure that it is reasonable when you are being paid an hour (or less) per student for all their assessment-administration etc.

  5. N Pepperell May 19, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    I have done plagiarism searches as a sessional, but I figure it’s up to the sessional: suspicious pieces can be passed upward to the course coordinator or senior tutor (or, if the sessional is a course coordinator, then to the program coordinator). They can make the call about how much searching they want to do.

    Same with things like special consideration work that comes through after the end of the contract period. Again, I’ve tended to handle this stuff, but my understanding is that sessionals strictly speaking aren’t expected to do so.

  6. E May 20, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Yeah I have done the same. In terms of plagiarism it is to do with academic credibility. In terms of marking things after contract ends for students with special consideration I have done this as I have this *strange* :-P sense of being *fair* to students. But I began to wonder when will university start being *fair* to me! I think this semester I am going to pass any work to full-time staff that falls after the end of my contract, which I don’t like to do, but there is a point where I think your responsibility as a tutor ends (being paid probably equivalent of minimum wage if you count the actual hours involved vs what you are paid for as a sessional tutor).

    Anyway…I best get back to marking, else I will never finish with this semester…

  7. rob May 21, 2007 at 9:50 am

    Plagiarism is an interesting, and complex — and frustrating! — issue. It’s an issue that I’ve spent a little bit of time researching and writing about, and a hell of a lot of time having to deal with in a pedagogical context, both in terms of preventing it and penalising it.

    I have to say that I was struck by this statement from E:

    Well the ones that have done it from materials that are not online – actual books – are the hardest to catch, and it seems like a lot of work for them to have plagiarised this way, something that would often then be solved by referencing.

    In my experience, which may well be idiosyncratic and from which I therefore do not mean to generalise, students who’ve plagiarised from books/journal articles are actually among the easiest to spot, because they usually (?) provide the reference details for the sources they’ve plagiarised!

  8. N Pepperell May 21, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    rob – I’ve found this too – although not, unfortunately, to the level of actual page numbers, so there can be a great deal of flipping around to locate the exact passage.

    My favourite plagiarism story, actually, concerns a student who would have gotten away with it entirely – I never suspected a thing – except that they dropped by my office, just to chat, you know, for no particular reason, really, about how strange it is – didn’t I think – that students would sometimes try to get away with plagiarising their assignments… I have a really soft spot for this student – a sort of tell-tale heart that just wouldn’t let them get away with it…

  9. E May 21, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    What if they have not provided reference details and a nice neat “trail”? ;) Or tried to pass off sections from texts or journals or theses as their own thought?

    I stand by that statement (I think!) Rob. If they do it from books or journals or theses (not online) it is the hardest way to catch. Hardest… And you do not want to haul someone in for something you cannot concretely say “This is plagiarism and not an honest mistake.”

    The situation that Rob describes, where there is an actual trail to follow, only happens in 2 scenarios in my experience thus far.

    1. If they are trying to plagiarise and do it poorly or in a way that is possible to trace.

    2. Students simply do not know how to reference properly and inadvertently plagiarise what they are and do provide reference details.

    There is another situation where I have had students try to pretend that they did not know what they were doing was plagiarism and ‘act stupid’ when they were confronted with it.

    Although a student on friendly terms with you trying to pull a swifty is a bit much N Pepperell!!

  10. N Pepperell May 21, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    I just remembered another favourite plagiarism story – this one didn’t happen to me, though.

    A friend was reading a student’s paper, and was really impressed with the argument – found themselves nodding along to points and really enjoying the cleverness of the argument. And then started getting this strong sense of deja vu.

    Turned out the student was plagiarising from a book review my friend had posted on Amazon.com… ;-P

    And: if you think my story above was a bit much, my personal candidate for the “bit much” award is here.

    I have, incidentally, caught “library” plagiarisers without a nice reference trail – poor sods who had gotten unlucky enough to plagiarise from something I’d read recently…

  11. E May 21, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    I like L Magee’s response to your “candidate for world’s best attempt at pulling wool over eyes of lecturer/tutor and failing” post though!

    I firmly believe that almost any instance of plagiarism could get picked up on and acted on.

    But this hardly seems possible in reality, with the continued outsourcing of tutoring and even marking in some instances, under the neo-liberal paradigm, which means for tutors a certain number of pieces of assessment must be gotten through for a tutor to “break even” if ever possible, hence most tutors do not have the time or inclination to hunt for plagiarism. Education suffers, credibility goes down…ra…ra…ra

    What is the solution? Apart from reversing things like increasing numbers of students per tutor, lowering workloads and employing people on a full time basis instead of all these casual positions… ;)

    I don’t think students get quality education (in my local context). It is all about quantities of students through a system…rather than qualities of students and education within the system…

  12. N Pepperell May 22, 2007 at 3:40 am

    The thing that takes time isn’t so much plagiarism detection, as it is plagiarism proof. Generally, the sorts of things that make me suspect plagiarism are fairly “instant” – significant shifts in writing style within a piece, sudden and implausible increases in the quality of writing or analysis between assignments, disjoints between the content of a piece and the actual assignment, etc.

    It doesn’t take any additional time to notice such things – and my sense is that it’s an individual thing how often they get noticed. I tend to stumble across around half a dozen suspected cases of plagiarism per term – but I know a number of faculty who almost never notice any, and full-time or casual status doesn’t have much to do with this. Some of this may be “structural” (I tend to teach “hard” classes, so there may be more pressure on my students to plagiarise – more risk of students feeling overwhelmed by the material, etc. I do build assessment options into my courses to try to minimise this pressure, but students don’t always fully realise that these are there, etc.), some of it may be that I tend to “plagiarism proof” my assessments (which, as a strategy, doesn’t actually prevent plagiarism, but may make it stick out a bit more), and some of it boils down to things like my having worked as a copy editor for some time, and possibly being more automatically attentive to things like style.

    What takes time, though, is proving the case – and this is something that casual staff can push upwards to their course coordinators or supervisors. So there are ways to pursue the issue adequately, without asking someone to put in a large number of additional hours.

    Similar options exist for other kinds of special situations (students who need additional support, etc.). The reality, of course, is that most casual staff will take these responsibilities on board anyway – but it can be really helpful to know what sorts of other resources are available, so that a staff member (full-time or casual) isn’t thinking they must handle everything.

    All of this, of course, is in the category of what planners would call “muddling through” – making do within a situation over which it’s difficult to exert individual control. There’s a much broader problem relating to the whole structural/political context in which universities are operating, in which universities and students are both under increasing financial pressure, placing stress on the quality of education from multiple directions. These sorts of pressures are not institution-specific – or, for that matter, specific to Australia (my experience in the US was actually worse…) – but can only appropriately be dealt with on a political level.

    So, in a sense, there are strategies that we do until the revolution comes, and strategies directed toward bringing that revolution about… ;-P

  13. rob May 22, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Hi E (and NP)

    What if they have not provided reference details and a nice neat “trail”? ;) Or tried to pass off sections from texts or journals or theses as their own thought?

    I stand by that statement (I think!) Rob. If they do it from books or journals or theses (not online) it is the hardest way to catch.

    I’m just saying what I find easiest, so when I say “in my experience”, etc. I don’t mean to suggest that it won’t be different for others. Like NP, I find plagiarism very easy to spot, and in the above kind of situation I’ve found that the student almost always leaves a trail and/or plagiarises from a set or recommended text or a high-profile, introductory text, all of which I’ll have been reasonably familiar with. (It’s trawling the thousands of results that a Google search will bring up so as to find the unacknowledged online source that annoys me.)

    Part of the reason why they almost always leave a trail (again, in my experience) is that, in my disciplinary context, students are required to inform their discussions through reference to readings and research. In other words, “passing off” sections from texts as “their own thought” will lead to the student getting a very poor mark, since they will have failed to demonstrate how their argument has arisen as a response to a specific body of research. Most of the time students are aware that their arguments need to be “supported” and consequently that their assignments need to be referenced (though I sometimes wonder whether it might in fact be the mistaken belief that they must come up with “their own ideas” that actually leads students, in some cases, to plagiarise).

    Plagiarising, in the form of masking one’s sources, works against this requirement, since it ultimately minimises the signs of research. Accordingly, the student needs to “fake” the reference, either by actually providing the details of the source and trying to disguise the extent to which they’ve drawn from the source or by providing false reference details. Either way, if you can spot the plagiarism (which usually requires little more than identifying a slab of text with only one acknowledgement), you will find at the same time the means to prove the plagiarism. That’s not to suggest that there isn’t a bit of work involved in gathering the evidence — and certainly, I’d be among the first to lend support to the points raised here about the labour-wage inequities, etc., related to plagiarism-detection demands made on sessional workers. But I do think that the trail of evidence is pretty much in plain sight. I can imagine a few kinds of academic humanities work where this may not be true — e.g. in text-based interpretive exercises, say, explication of a philosophical or literary text, where the student is expected to cite only the text being interpreted — but it seems as though this kind of academic exercise is becoming less frequent across the range of humanities disciplines.

    At the risk of transforming this discussion from an informal chat among peers to a more involved debate, I’ll just add a bit more in response to the following:

    The situation that Rob describes, where there is an actual trail to follow, only happens in 2 scenarios in my experience thus far.

    1. If they are trying to plagiarise and do it poorly or in a way that is possible to trace.

    2. Students simply do not know how to reference properly and inadvertently plagiarise what they are and do provide reference details.

    From what I’ve already said, it’s pretty obvious that I’m suggesting not only that (at least in my experience) it’s always the first scenario but that it’s very difficult not to leave a trail. But I’ll go further, since the second imagined scenario often plays a key role both in plagiarism policy and in students’ defences against charges of plagiarism. Almost every plagiarism policy I’ve ever encountered makes allowances for the possibility that the student doesn’t “know” what plagiarism is, and so students must be provided with “definitions” of plagiarism from the commencement of their studies and if they are ever found to have “unintentionally” plagiarised.

    I’ve argued elsewhere that this way of understanding plagiarism belies the complex and variable nature of plagiarism both as an act performed by students and as a problem to be dealt with in the university. There are a number of points that could be made in this respect, but the key one concerns the fact that this view of plagiarism focuses on “intentions” rather than on “capabilities”. In other words, plagiarism is imagined as the deliberate undertaking of a person who possesses — as all human subjects supposedly possess — an innate or, at least, fully acquired capacity to know what constitutes appropriate moral behaviour (in this case, responsible citation) and to act accordingly.

    The problem here is not so much that this view of conduct assumes that people have knowledge of what constitutes (in)appropriate behaviour but rather that it presumes they are capable of acting on the basis of that knowledge. Much contemporary continental philosophy and social theory, by contrast, would lead us to consider the extent to which comportment is not so much a matter of using knowledge to inform one’s actions and behaviour but is rather something more like a skill or aptitude. Certainly, it’s not too hard to see the practices of citing, referencing and commenting on published materials as techniques that can be employed more or less skilfully or effectively in given situations. And in the case of the essay, which still constitutes the primary form of assessment in humanities study, it is precisely the unsuccessful or “inappropriate” deployment of such techniques that often constitutes the ground for making the charge of plagiarism. From this example, though, we can see that the charge of plagiarism presupposes the ability to appropriately deploy the range of techniques suited to a specific task and commanded by the context. To that extent, moreover, knowledge of what constitutes plagiarism and of the fact that it’s “wrong” is not enough to enable a student to avoid plagiarising.

    In light of that possibility, I would prefer to rephrase the second scenario thus: students simply do not know how to use sources properly (i.e. don’t know how to read scholarly texts, how to recognise in such texts the passages or ideas that are relevant to a particular assessment task, how to situate those passages within the context of the essay topic and within the structure of the essay’s argument, how to rearticulate those ideas and passages so as to explain their significance within that context and that structure, and how to link those rearticulations to other elements within the overall discussion) and it’s this lack of ability that leads them to produce a bad (i.e. poor) synthesis of fragments taken from their research and their own (inept) attempts to comment on that research. In other words, if there’s a “lack” here, it’s a lack of “know-how” rather than a lack of “knowledge”.

    Undoubtedly, there are students who “knowingly” plagiarise, and there are some who try their best not to plagiarise but ultimately are incapable of not doing so. I don’t mean for what I’ve just written to be taken as denying a certain degree of culpability on the part of students who plagiarise. I’m mostly interested in trying to prevent plagiarism by focusing attention on its complex (potentially a-moral) causes and developing strategies that are more responsive to such causes. In this last respect, of course, a significant first step would be the linking of plagiarism management to the kind of training in academic research and writing techniques that is usually offered by university “Language and Learning” centres (when the latter aren’t being dismantled by university management, that is, with the aim of decreasing the number of “research-inactive” academic staff in anticipation of the RQF!).

    I should finish by noting that perhaps a lot of what I’ve just said can be attributed to the fact that the students I’ve taught across the three universities I’ve worked at are usually lower down on any scale of academic ability one would care to imagine. While I think that it’s possible to generalise up to a certain point from the above, therefore, I don’t believe that it can stand as a comprehensive account of plagiarism in all its forms and performances.

  14. N Pepperell May 22, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    rob – I’ll take a look at your comment substantively in a bit – just wanted to apologise for Akismet’s over-energetic attentions… If this happens again, just shoot me an email – although I do glance at the Akismet queue periodically, I get so much actual spam here that it can quickly push a legitimate post too far down the queue to catch my notice… So please nag me when this happens, as otherwise I might miss it… Now for a proper read…

  15. N Pepperell May 22, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    rob – I’m having a long week (contributing its small bit to a long term… ;-P), so I probably won’t phrase what I’m trying to say very clearly, but: yes.

    When I speak to students about plagiarism, I actually discuss the issue very similarly to the way I discuss any other significant deficit in skill. So my affect and approach is no different, for example, from when I’m trying to work with a student who has failed an assignment for any other reason: I try to break down for the student what is expected, outline how they can meet those expectations, suggest places they can go for assistance if they’re struggling with specific skills, and then let them know whether there is anything they can do about the specific assignment they’ve failed, or whether they will have to draw a line behind under this particular assessment, but use the discussing to help them prepare better for the next, etc.

    I also, of course, outline the potential disciplinary consequences (so far, I’ve handled each of my plagiarism cases “in house” – although I always make very clear to students that they are entitled to a formal hearing, and what such a formal process would entail – I think it’s important that they not feel trapped into accepting whatever consequence I would impose).

    I emphasise that disciplinary consequences can follow in academic and professional contexts regardless of intent – and that, in holding their work to this particular standard of academic conduct, I am therefore also not judging – or concerned with – their intent. The discussion is pragmatic: what consequences will follow from what they have already done, and what do they need to do, in order to ensure they will not land in this situation again. (For most students, I suspect the answer to this latter question is something along the lines of: don’t take another course with me… ;-P But that’s neither here nor there…)

    The reality is, some students do “cheat”, in the sense of deliberately deciding to cut corners in order to reduce their workload (a decision that itself may be driven by complex issues in students’ lives, and may therefore not have any particular “moral” implications). And some students genuinely think they’re doing the right thing by taking their words from someone whom they assume knows more than they do. And some students are simply lost and have no idea how to tackle an assignment, so they toss other people’s words at it in a kind of blind panic.

    None of this really matters, pragmatically – just as it doesn’t really matter why someone doesn’t know how to structure a piece of academic writing, or find literature related to their research, or other kinds of skills that are required to communicate effectively in an academic discussion. And all of this needs to be tackled by a comprehensive training in academic research and writing techniques.

    I build this sort of stuff into all my classes, regardless of what I’m meant to be teaching substantively (I just came out of teaching a quantitative methods course, where a large section of the course was devoted to very general socialisation into academic research and writing – today’s lecture was almost entirely on writing strategies, and it isn’t the first lecture with that emphasis…). I do this because these sorts of skills are actually a prerequisite to other forms of learning and to the ability to participate fully in professional and academic debates. These skills are therefore simply more fundamental than the explicit content of my courses…

    That’s my current take, at least…

  16. rob May 24, 2007 at 11:28 am

    NP — yep (pretty much). There are occasions when I get pissed off with really blatant palgiarism and (especially) collusion, but that’s owed as much to the fact that faculty policy means I can’t just give the assignment a zero (or whatever) but have to go through a rather ridiculous process of demonstrating “intent” and sending the student a formal warning, etc.

  17. N Pepperell May 24, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    We’re allowed (at least, this is my understanding, and I’m stickin’ to it…) to manage plagiarism cases “in house”. There are some disadvantages to this, in that it doesn’t create any permanent record accessible if any other charges are later brought in a formal disciplinary process. But there are also advantages: my “in house” plagiarism policy is an automatic 0 on the assignment, and no resubmit (this is in a context, though, where my courses are generally designed to offer students multiple assessment options, so students generally have a choice between taking the 0, or doing an additional assignment). This is assuming the case is clear cut – not in the sense of intentionality, which I tend to bracket, but in the sense that the plagiarism is definitely provable.

    I do, though, outline the option of going through the formal disciplinary process. So far, students seem to prefer taking their consequences in my course…

    I obviously can get pissed off too – it’s why I periodically vent here (in a form, I should note, in which I’m genericising and blurring together actual incidents – stories of aggregated plagiarism…). What I’ve written above is not so much my internal monologue about these issues, as it is the way I try to approach the issue when speaking with students, having first taken whatever deep breaths and engaged in whatever meditative techniques are required… ;-P

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