Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cheating Culture

Feeling kind of blue today. Down the hall, my department chair is meeting with 2 students and their instructor over a plagiarism case I uncovered. We require all students in our advanced composition class to write an essay in class. They must achieve a certain assessment on the essay in order to graduate (but we give them workshops up the wazoo to help them, and they have multiple opportunities to write the essay again before they graduate, with the appropriate support given to them). But it is high stakes.

We're not sure how the students plagiarized but we're pretty sure the language on both essays matches that on a Yahoo Answers web site. Did they copy from each other? Did they bring up the site (separately) on their cell phones? Did they know the questions in advance and looked up the site and memorized it? I'll find out when the meeting is over.

I coordinate this writing assessment every term, and I read somewhere between 200 and 300 essays in the last 2 weeks of the term, and I just happened to notice this case because they both mentioned the golden lion tamarin, a monkey I enjoy seeing at our local zoo. It's weird how this happens, but it also makes you wonder how often it happens and I don't notice.

To add to the complexities, both these students are international students. My husband once suggested to me (in the case of the person who violated security at Newark and shut down the airport for hours) that people who live in totalitarian countries tend to be more likely to cheat or violate the laws because the laws are inherently unfair and overcontrolling laws, so the people develop the habit of violating them. Yet we also have high levels of cheating in American culture, a non-totalitarian culture (despite Bush/Cheney's best attempts). David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, will be visiting my campus next month, and I plan to ask him for his input.

Meanwhile, I think what a lot of "21st century skills" people are thinking about is how to evade the problem. Joe Hoyle suggests that we stop trying to test for memorization and instead test for other skills, like critical thinking and learning. (Via Delaney Kirk.)

We are so used to seeing other countries, with their pedagogy of memorization, as superior learning environments to America's. But maybe time will tell if these strategies actually increase learning and education, or whether we still measuring success by old standards.


Amy P said...

When I taught Russian high school students, cheating was huge, particularly among marginal students. I particularly remember one student whose cheat sheet showed clearly through her transparent blouse (very fashionable in the mid-90s). I and two Russian colleagues were hearing her oral exam when I pointed this out to my colleagues. I am not totally sure that they would have brought it to her attention otherwise. The kids wanted to pass and the teachers wanted the kids to pass, so a blind eye tended to be turned to this sort of thing, or "catch and release". Also, the tests tended to require vast amounts of memorization, so the temptation to show up with pre-written exam questions was very strong. As I recall, a "parachute" was a slang term for a large-scale cheat sheet, and I think they also used the term "bomb." The Russian students had it down to a science.

It can't exactly be entirely put down to rote memorization vs. creative work or cultural differences. Years later, it was quite shocking for me to discover how pervasive plagiarism is in the US in higher education and how shameless the perpetrators are. The excuses are always the same (I didn't know! I forgot to cite!), even if there was a plagiarism talk at the beginning of the course. The plagiarized papers are often a sort of very complex blend of original work and uncited borrowed text from multiple sources that looks like it must have taken more time to compose than a completely original work. I blame cut and paste.

MH said...

When I wrote the following (comment), or rather the bulk of it, I lived (with my family), in the (residential neighborhood), a (few feet) from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again. And I don't see how plagiarism is much of a problem.

Amy P said...


Pretty good. There's a very lively academic folklore on the subject of best plagiarists ever. It's hard to choose, but I like the person who tried to pass off a piece by Karl Marx as his own. Students who plagiarize ethics papers are also a perennial favorite.