Why do students copy when they have nothing to gain?

The days before Turnitin.

Identifying sources in the days before Turnitin.

I seem to have spent a lot of my time over the last year or so dealing with plagiarism. It’s a frustrating process which leaves me feeling rather like a seventeenth-century witchfinder, catching the stench of demons wafting from every crevice, and haunted at night by visions of tittering imps waving unmerited degree certificates. Plagiarism is also an issue that’s received at least its fair share of media coverage and of academic soul-searching in the likes of the THE, but I find myself wondering whether some of the more interesting issues it raises are overlooked in much of the public debate.

Most of that debate has concerned cheating in summative assessments that contribute to degree classifications. Much of the debate has also concerned international students, though it’s not clear to me whether this is because they’re any more likely to cheat, because cheating by such students brings into relief the tension between academic standards and profit that develops when universities hawk their wares abroad, or because of the opportunity to tie oneself in multicultural knots worrying about whether students from certain cultures somehow can’t understand Western notions of academic honesty. I have my suspicions about these matters, but they’re not where my interest or most of my experience lie. Rather, I’m interested in a stranger phenomenon: students who submit work for formative assessment which turns out to have been copied directly either from external sources or from their colleagues.

In the cases I’m concerned with, the students have been clearly informed that what they submit is to be their own unaided work, and they have been clearly informed that the formative assessment will not contribute to their eventual marks. (At most, there is a requirement that they submit a “genuine attempt” at the work in order to qualify for the end-of-year exam.) They are not, therefore, in a situation where it is rational, albeit dishonest, to copy. The vast majority of the guilty students are also local to my university, so Western versus non-Western cultural differences can safely be ruled out. (Very few of our students are even from the West End.) With no incentive to copy, with instructions not to do so, with the incentive of useful feedback if they do submit their own work, and with the well-publicised wrath of the Dominie waiting to descend upon plagiarists, it seems bizarre that any student would hand in copied work. And yet it keeps on occurring: class after class, assignment after assignment… What on earth is going on, and what might it tell us about our students? I’ve tried asking the ones I catch in flagrante, but all I generally get out of them is muttered apologies and an admission that they’ve “been stupid” — accurate enough, but not an explanation of their original thought processes. Until fairly recently I had only one working hypothesis for what lay behind their behaviour; recently I’ve developed another two, and I’m currently not sure which, if any, has merit.

Behind all three hypotheses lies the assumption that students, being human, generally don’t read the instructions on their assignments carefully. If they did, then they would know very well what they were expected to do, and the only explanations for copying would be total stupidity or a kind of congenital dishonesty. I think somewhat better of my students than this. Instead, I suspect that when I set them a task they make some implicit assumptions about my expectations and about the meaning of the task, and that these expectations largely reflect what they have been used to in school and what they’re used to in their lives outwith university, rather than reflecting the explicit requirements that I and my institution have of them. The interesting thing about unprofitable plagiarism, therefore, is that it may offer some insight into the assumptions our students make, and thus more generally into the way they approach their studies.

My original hypothesis was that many of these students are confused by the difference between the process and the product of tackling a maths problem. When set a problem, the hypothesis goes, such students see it as a request to be told “the answer” rather than a request that they demonstrate a process of argument leading to an answer. Their task is therefore something like a treasure hunt: to locate the answer by whatever means and to present it to the questioner.

The circumstantial evidence for this hypothesis is the indifference that many students show to “working”. When they arrive at university, very few students seem to realise that their working is part of their answer to a question. Rather, it’s a private affair of scribbles and cryptic annotations, like those to be found among a crossword-solver’s marginalia; if working is offered to the marker at all, this is as a moral watermark indicating that the answer wasn’t copied, not as an explanation of the process by which they reached the answer. Could this belief that the “answer” and the “working” are separate reflect a learned expectation that it is the product, not the process, that matters? This hypothesis seems particularly plausible given that today’s students are rarely far from their smartphones: in class, their response to an unfamiliar word or concept is less often to look at their lecture notes than to Google the word and seize on the friendliest-looking resource they stumble upon — whether it’s relevant or not. The picture of problem solving as a computer-assisted treasure hunt, then, does seem to be one that will naturally occur to these kids.

I’ve concentrated most of my efforts to deter copying on this process/product distinction, drawing analogies with training for a marathon and trying to persuade my students that although running a 10 km training course and taking a bus from one end of the course to the other have the same product (being 10 km from where one started), only the former process will prepare one to attempt the marathon without coughing one’s guts out a few hundred metres down the road. My experience so far is that students blink solemnly at such analogies, file them in the trashcan of the brain used for disposing of middle-aged moralising, and go on doing exactly what they were doing before. Either I’m not getting the message across effectively, or this message is aimed at the wrong misconception.

My two more recent hypotheses both start from typical phrases in the guidance about plagiarism that we give to students: first, “there is nothing to gain by copying”; and second, “your own unaided work”. I’ll look at them in turn.

It is possible that some students simply don’t believe, or don’t understand, that there is such a thing as marking for formative purposes only. Their assumption, in other words, is that every piece of their work that I see contributes, or at any rate might contribute, to their eventual mark: everything is a test. The support for this hypothesis comes from conversations in which students either express bewilderment that I would ever expect them to hand in work that didn’t contribute to their final mark, or explain that they didn’t hand in an attempt at an assignment “because they were struggling with it”. For many of these students, there seems to be no room for the process of tackling something, getting it wrong or partly wrong, learning from this and improving next time.

Such an attitude is consistent with the fixed-ability mindset that many of our students seem to bring to mathematics. It’s seem not as a subject in which one can learn and develop, but as a talent that one either does or doesn’t have: the tasks that one is set therefore have the sole purpose of measuring whether one is “good at maths” or “not good at maths”. It doesn’t require familiarity with the systematic work of Carol Dweck and her followers to see why this attitude is detrimental to learning. What is much harder, and what I have yet to work out how to do, is to wean students away from this mindset and into one in which mathematical ability improves with effort.

I also wonder whether students’ reluctance to believe in formative assessment is an unfortunate consequence of the enthusiasm for continuous assessment that pervades the school system. The aims of continuous assessment are laudable: to remove from summative assessment the stress and artificiality associated with one-off high-stakes exams, and to give it instead some of the qualities of everyday, low-stakes classroom activities. The problem may be that as summative assessment takes on some of the qualities of everyday learning, so everyday learning takes on a tincture of summative assessment. Every task becomes an opportunity to raise or depress one’s overall mark — perhaps infinitesimally, but no less importantly. By trying to protect our students from the consequences of abrupt, brutal failure in exams, have we created an environment in which they have no safe opportunity to experience the succession of minor failures, setbacks and recoveries that are indispensible to real learning?

My final hypothesis is that some students simply don’t understand the concept of “your own unaided work”. I’d believed until fairly recently that this was a piece of excessive cynicism with its roots in the fact that at school I hated and despised groupwork, and that I’m not terribly keen on it even as a notional adult. I was therefore surprised when, during a conversation with a maths teacher in a highly respectable school about plagiarism in maths competitions, he offered essentially the same explanation. “We place a great deal of emphasis on group work and collective learning”, he told me, “and so for many of our students it just isn’t natural to go away and work on a problem without consulting somebody.”

I’ve ranted previously about the cult of the extrovert and the valorisation of teamwork, and floated the possibility that some students are so steeped in these values that they don’t know how to put in the hours of quiet concentration that remain essential for most people to grasp a mathematical concept or argument. I’m so little used to being agreed with that my school colleague’s comment took me entirely by surprise. He followed it, apparently in a spirit of genuine curiosity, by asking what these tasks were at university for which we required students to work individually. I didn’t answer “practically all the ones that we hope will lead to changes inside individual heads”, and this wouldn’t have been quite accurate — discussion and collaboration patently do have benefits, as long as individuals also make the effort to assimilate what has come up in discussion and make it their own — but it was the first response that came to mind. I’d not want to teach in a hypothetical situation where each student sat in a little isolated cell and was forbidden to share ideas with any other, but neither do I want to teach in a less hypothetical situation where each student assumes there’s no need for them to understand any given point as long as there’s somebody else in the room who does.

If this hypothesis has some truth to it, it might explain the confusion some students feel about plagiarism. They’ve spent years being told that teamwork was a Good Thing, bordering indeed on a moral duty (or at least a duty imposed by the divine mandate of What Your Future Employers Will Expect). Suddenly, they’re then told that relying on other people to help with their work is a Bad Thing (or at least one that will get them into trouble with the unpredictable maniac at the front of the lecture room). Like most people commanded to change their moral framework overnight, or to dismantle the hard-earned mental structures they acquired at school, they react with a mixture of panic and disobedience.

Where does this leave us? I’m convinced that there’s something to be learned from the fact that so many of my students copy work unnecessarily, and I’m reasonably sure that at the root of it are the expectations that my students carry into university both from school and from “real life”. (That’s the “real life” that involves beer, football, Facebook and stacking shelves in Tesco at the weekend, obviously, in contrast to the unreal life that involves science, mathematics, and the ideas that have put the human species in a position to build Tescos and Facebook and to devote its remaining energies to the enjoyment of beer and football. Reality is never a straightforward concept to define.)

What I don’t know, and am not sure how to determine, is the extent to which my three hypotheses are correct, and what I can or ought to do in response. Telling students not to copy seems to have less and less effect. Hauling offenders into my office and telling them not to copy again is marginally more successful, but it’s a high-effort strategy, doesn’t address the underlying misconceptions, and fails often enough that I’m pretty sure it isn’t optimal. Picking up on the witchfinder image and opening a campaign of public duckings and burnings would be… well, admittedly an attractive notion in some of my darker moods, but not practical in the modern university sector.

Does anyone out there have any solutions that I could steal?

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4 Responses to Why do students copy when they have nothing to gain?

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