Cheats offer lesson in learning

May 23, 2003

Plagiarism and the internet should make us rethink the purpose of assessment, says Tony Mann

It takes only a matter of seconds to show that a student has plagiarised. A simple search on the web is often enough. The quantity of plagiarism found in this way is causing concern, though I am not convinced that it is any more widespread than before, just easier to detect.

Software can help expose plagiarists. I don't entirely trust such systems: one program even claimed (wrongly) that I had not written my own lecture notes. Some academics suggest that we should assess less by coursework and more by examination. But after being told by a friend of how she used to cheat by concealing information in her clothing, I have less confidence in the security of the exam process. Technology, such as wearable computers and head-up displays in spectacles, will soon make traditional examinations even less secure.

But these approaches tackle the symptoms rather than the underlying ailment - why do students plagiarise in the first place? The situation is not straightforward. What is a student to think when a digital encyclopedia uses as a selling point the fact that children can cut and paste text directly into their homework?

And was it cheating when as a mathematics undergraduate, I memorised proofs that I did not understand so I could reproduce them on demand? Then there's the praiseworthy exam answer that reproduces exactly what I said to the class. It isn't surprising that some students are confused over what is permissible.

The distinction between plagiarism and good practice is not always as simple as university regulations imply. Students have to learn about the professional culture, and the fact that we have a problem with plagiarism is an indication that we do not always communicate this effectively. After all, this generation is comfortable with music that relies on sampling - plagiarism in a rather different context.

We have to accept in designing assessment that internet technology is available. If we want to know whether a student can find information, then cutting and pasting demonstrates that ability. If we want to assess understanding, whatever that means, we have to design assignments accordingly.

We claim that we want students to think for themselves, but our marking schemes often reward them for coming to the same conclusions that we do. We say that learning is more important than assessment, but the practice suggests otherwise.

At all stages of education, the cost of falling just below a certain boundary is disastrous, whether it be a student achieving 69 per cent or a university department falling marginally short of a 5 in the research assessment exercise. Assessment assumes a disproportionate importance. This applies as much to undergraduates as it does to school and hospital league tables. It encourages a focus on what is measured rather than on learning.

By placing so much importance on assessment, we mislead students about the purpose of education. Plagiarism is a consequence.

The web and the uses our students put it to should lead us to think more carefully about the purpose of assessment. If, as I believe will increasingly be the case, digital and communications technology makes assessment problematic, or rather forces us to recognise problems that already exist, the result may be a genuine focus on learning. If internet plagiarism has this result, it will be a most positive development for the academic world.

Tony Mann is head of mathematical sciences at the University of Greenwich.

He outlined his ideas at the "Teaching Mathematics through History: How Can the Web Help?" workshop at the University of Warwick on Saturday.

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