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!

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