Agony aunt

April 28, 2000

Q

With all the scare stories about downloading essays from the web, how can I check that my students are not cheating?

A

One of the banes of technology is that it is becoming ever easier to cheat in essay writing. A simple cut and paste can move a block of internet-ready text from an obscure web server to a student essay. We have all, I suspect, had that strange feeling of grappling with a student's grammar one moment, to wishing we could express an idea so clearly. In the days of a limited number of set texts, such students would have been too lazy to look around the library for other books or articles from which to plagiarise. Now, we find they never leave their browser to bother with the library.

Having found a dodgy section in an essay, what can be done? Technology can, of course, be used in defence: by picking on a phrase in the essay that seems particularly unusual and thus potentially stolen, that phrase can be input to a search engine to discover whether something is returned. This will work if the document has been indexed fully, or if it appears in the section of the document that has been indexed by the search engine. But this is time consuming. Is there another way?

Two researchers from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Richard de Mulder and Cees van Noortwijk, have devised "The Andromatics Text Grader and Fraud Finder", which is being tested in Erasmus and at Stockholm law school but which can be used with any type of essay. The system can grade essays against a model answer and can also rank essays from students according to a fraud score - a number applied between one and 10,000 where the higher value indicates a greater similarity to the other essays that are being marked. This would discover copying between students, but also could discover copying from previous years' essays. Essays at the higher value can then be visually assessed by the lecturer.

But we are not slaves to technology in our search for plagiarism. There are more socially based solutions: one is to emphasise to the student that the more citations they have at the end of their essay and the better they utilise these in the essay itself, the higher the mark. Students may stop seeing that they have to hide their use of others' work and instead highlight it - is not that what we really want from student essays anyway?

Richard de Mulder can be contacted at: demulder@frg.eur.nl A

There is no sure way of checking whether students are cheating by downloading essays from the web.

There are websites from which essays can be obtained and opportunities for students to have essays written for them. It is difficult to match a suspect essay to a source. If students share information and it appears in several essays, then an electronic means such as copycatch (copycatch@freeserve.co.uk) can be used (THES, How to..., September 3 1999).

It mostly comes down to knowing your students - but there is one hope. Students who write their own essays have drafts and notes. Students who download material do not. One way of making cheating more difficult for students is to say at the start of the programme or module that they should have available draft notes for their essays, which can be produced if necessary.

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