Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why do Students Cheat?

Why do students cheat? Is it because they didn’t study so they steal answers from someone who did? My belief is that most cheating today is plagiarism, not someone covertly looking at someone else’s paper in the hopes of seeing an answer they need. Actually there are many forms of cheating, but in my experience, plagiarism is the most common.

One year ago, three very bright, promising students turned in a written assignment in my class. When I looked at their work, I could tell immediately that it came directly from Wikipedia. I can zone in on Wikipedia prose very easily! So I went to Wikipedia, looked up their topics, and naturally found word-for-word answers on Wikipedia without any citations in their written work. As a professor, I don’t even consider Wikipedia to be a scholarly source! And they cheated anyway, never thinking that I might catch on that their writing skills had suddenly improved!
Those students went before the University’s Honor Council, which assigned penalties to each of them based on the amount of Wikipedia content copied directly into their assignments. Penalties were assigned, and all of them failed that particular project. To their credit, they expressed that they understood what they had done and would never do it again. I hope so!

About three years ago I did a group writing assignment, and groups peer-reviewed themselves. This peer review was important and had a deadline. Each group was to write a memo to the other group describing what they found along with recommendations for improvement. One group inexplicably forged a memo from another group saying that the peer review was complete. They cheated because they had run out of time and rather than ask me for an extension, they resorted to forgery, signing other students’ names to their paper’s peer review. Because I have a basically simple mind, I could not get my head around the fact that they had not only cheated, but they had lied and forged signatures as well. I could not believe it! Those students also went before the Honor Council, and again, penalties (this time more severe) were assigned. Were my disbelief and the reaction of the Honor Council enough to ensure that they would never act in that way again in an academic environment? I’m just not sure.

Recently I had a student for whom English was not his first language. He turned in an essay in which the writing style ranged from very, very poor to exceptional and then very poor again. Once again I suspected plagiarism, and visited a few websites that I knew he had surveyed for this assignment. Large blocks of his essay were copied directly from these websites with no citations at all. I gave him a zero for the assignment, and then sat down beside him and explained, in depth, what plagiarism is and how to avoid it by properly citing references in your paper. I thought he understood. The next assignment was a research paper – a significant project in regard to the amount of research and writing required. Once again his paper contained large blocks of very well written text, surrounded by paragraphs of much lower quality. I visited his references online, and found that once again, he had simply copied large amounts of text and pasted them throughout his paper. I gave him a zero for this assignment as well, and talked with him again about plagiarism. I truly don’t believe he understands what he has done wrong in these assignments, and I imagine he’ll do it again in another class.

So why do college kids cheat? Laziness? A failure to study extensively enough? A lack of understanding about references and citations? For some reason I always take it personally, as a personal affront that they would cheat in my class when I give them so many opportunities to do well. After 8 years of undergraduate teaching, I’m pretty sure that cheating will continue.

Hopefully I can divert some offenses by spending more time teaching about plagiarism and writing honestly. I just want them to learn, and to do it honestly!

Relevance & Undergraduate Teaching

This semester I have developed a new understanding of the importance of relevance to undergraduate students, particularly freshmen.

To teach engineering ethics to freshmen students, we often turn to engineering disasters. These case studies often involve ethical problems that contributed to the disaster, such as the epic struggles between engineers and NASA managers over the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Those ethical problems, added to the spectacular stories of the disasters, usually make a compelling lesson.


A few days ago I prepared a lesson using the Teton Dam collapse as the primary case study. I prepared the case study and even found a great website with moment-by-moment pictures of the leak that turned into the collapse of the dam. I even found a picture that showed a tiny speck coming down from the top of the dam toward the leak – it was a bulldozer sent down in a futile effort to stop the leak. Moments later the leak opened into a huge hole, swallowing the bulldozer. I felt certain my students would be fascinated.


After I presented the case and the pictures, I expected questions (sometimes I find myself expecting applause for particularly great lessons) but I received mostly blank stares. One student from the back ventured, “Katrina?” With that one word, I suddenly understood. The Teton Dam collapsed in 1972. There is no good video of the event on YouTube. The collapse only killed 11 people and the flooding was not extensive. In their minds, not only was this disaster quite old, it was out of their personal experience range and was therefore not relevant. Katrina, on the other hand, they knew about. It was relevant because they witnessed it in 2005, when they were 13, and they felt the extent of the tragedy. It was relevant to them because it was huge in scope and garnered an international response.

These students were born in 1992. The Space Shuttle Challenger is not part of their experiential understanding. Neither is Three Mile Island, the Ford Pinto explosions, or Chernobyl. I know where I was when the Challenger exploded. The defining moment for these students is September 11. They were 9 years old and it was the first extraordinary event they witnessed that was not part of history, and now they will compare every event like this to their experience in 2001. These students understand why terrorism is now considered an emerging technology.
So the challenge is to make historical issues relevant. Just conveying the information, even with the addition of media, is not enough. Spectacular stories aren’t enough. We have to connect to their prior knowledge and experience so that they can create new experiences and new meanings.

I am learning this as I go, making mental notes to consider relevance before I deliver any lesson. I am reminding myself that just like them, I knew where I was when….it’s just that we know different events on different timetables, making relevance a factor.

Teaching Freshmen!

Teaching undergraduates is one thing, but teaching freshmen is quite another. I recently gave my freshmen students a research paper assignment on ethics in emerging technologies in engineering. We had studied ethical theories such as utilitarianism, duty ethics, rights ethics, etc, and emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, stem cells, neuroenhancements, biomass & energy, and genetic modification. These freshmen engineering students are majoring in mechanical, industrial, biomedical, environmental, electrical, and computer engineering and are pretty smart to have made it into the School of Engineering.

I believe these students should study emerging technologies because by the time they reach mid-career, these will be real technologies the world is using. I believe they should study ethics so that they can protect themselves from problem situations when they enter the work world.
But, some things I just do not understand. One student chose to write extensively about the ethical concepts promoted by Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. (We had not studied Robin Hood in class and I doubt I could find him mentioned in any scholarly articles on ethics). Another student wrote about neuroenhancements being used to treat bipolar disorder, stating it is also called maniac-depressive disorder. Another student wrote about computer networks, with no mention of ethical implications and no description of it as an emerging technology. Another student’s paper bounced from really bad writing to really great writing, back and forth until the conclusion; it was like riding a roller coaster. All of his references consisted of urls, so I checked. He copied and pasted most of his paper from professional articles.


Finally, all the A’s and B’s went to students sitting on the left side of the room, while all of the C’s, D’s, and F’s sat on the right side of the room. Now, did the smarter and weaker students self-select into their own groups and their own side of the room, or was this random? Interesting. Maybe I should mix them up!


Our last class is Wednesday, and then the final exam later. I’m tempted to ask about Robin Hood and maniac-depressive disorder on the final!