Search This Blog

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Long and thoughtful comment on student cheating

The Shadow Scholar and the prevalence of cheating in tertiary education

Author and university lecturer Caron Dann wrote a really interesting commentary to my last post, on the booming and lucrative business of pseudonymously writing papers for desperate students. 

As it is rather too long to fit in the comments box, and Caron is a writer I really respect, I take the liberty of copying it below:

I'm a university lecturer and I know this goes on. It's the reason we need to keep exams and they need to be worth a significant percentage of the unit's final mark (40% in the case of the unit I teach).

One young person I know said students can buy essays over the internet for as little as $30.

There's another good way of evaluating students, and that's by presentation, during which they have to answer questions from other students and for which at least a part of the content has some personal element. Even if the material is plagiarised, they at least have to do preparation in order to present it to the class, thereby learning something.

I agree with Ed Dante about the desperation. It's unfair for incompetent students to be passed at first-year level - particularly if they are lazy, haven't the English skills or are just not up to it - because they then end up 'desperate' later on, having learned very little.

I also think schools don't prepare students for tertiary education. In Australia, at least half the high school graduates go directly on to tertiary learning, yet most haven't the faintest idea what it entails. Many - especially private school students - seem to have been coached a lot at school in narrow areas, for the sole reason of getting good marks in their leaving certificate so they can get in to the uni course of their choice. Meanwhile, they don't know the basics of their subject or even of academic writing or how to use a library catalogue. Many first years have no idea that cutting and pasting from the internet is plagiarism.

Meanwhile, classes keep getting bigger and bigger, since we made universities "businesses". Classes are so big that tertiary teachers often can't possibly learn the names of everyone. So the student becomes a nameless face among the masses and if she or he falls behind for any reason, they do indeed become desperate.


Franklin Researcher said...

I posted a comment on plagiarism and paper mills on my Facebook page back in the summer, when the Harvard professor Mark Hauser was caught fabricating data, which is simply another form of academic dishonesty. "All of these idiots who go on about plagiarism not being a big deal, entirely miss the point. Academic honesty is the coin of the realm in science and academia in general, and like real money, the value of intellectual property is ultimately based on faith that people have followed the rules, rules that create lasting value in the form of knowledge. Betray the faith, and you debase the entire fabric of that system. This fellow at Harvard is no different from the student who cuts and pastes papers together from other sources and presents it as his/her own, except that Hauser cannot pretend he did not completely understand what he was doing. Knowledge is part of a causal chain, break that chain through dishonesty, and you poison the fruit."

I still feel the same way, and it incenses me when administrators at academic institutions do not understand and/or respect the importance of this issue. I mean, what the hell is a meritocracy about if the meaning of merit becomes debased?

Joan Druett said...

It certainly is a murky area, as you say. A friend observed that meticulous footnoting is often just a way of making plagiarism respectable -- and I do think he had a point, because there are so many academic books that just echo each other. Nothing replaces ORIGINAL thought based on thorough research. Thank you for your input to this interesting topic, and I would love to hear more.

Caron Dann said...

Yes, I agree with you both. The amount of "research" that is simply repetition of earlier work is scandalous. Often research today is done only because there is a big grant connected, and often results are already ascertained and the stats have to be arranged to support it. Universities these days rely on grants, which are often given to projects based on fashionable topics, not necessarily the most valuable. I always think of the Perth researchers who discovered that stomach ulcers could be cured with antibiotics. At the time they were doing their research, it was considered so bizarre, they couldn't get any grants for it. They ended up winning a Nobel Prize. Their university now runs a grant scheme for unusual types of research not covered by mainstream grants.