Talking Shop: Why don't we turn the tide of plagiarism to the learners' advantage?

November 24, 2000

Instead of making cheating a policing issue, it may be time to try a different tack, suggests Ranald Macdonald.

Why the fuss about plagiarism? After years of trying to get students to develop information skills, we are penalising them for using those very same skills on the internet.

When graduates go to work, many will not need to use the critical and independent thinking skills they develop in study. Rather, they will perform routine tasks using information provided by others. We need to be clearer about what skills we want students to have.

There is a distinction between ignorance and poor study skills early in a course and a later serious offence that might compromise a student's fitness to practice.

The harsher the penalties, the less likely they will be used. Students need to know that if the university is tarred with the plagiarism brush, their award is compromised. But playing to some students' better nature or common sense does not always work. It is necessary to consider the learning, teaching and assessment strategies used. And this becomes a staff development issue.

The widening diversity of intake into higher education has changed the character of the student population, and many lecturers have not adapted. Motivation for learning may have become based more on the job at the end than on learning for its own sake.

The growing number of overseas students has highlighted cultural differences in approaches to plagiarism and collaboration. Some students might feel inhibited about seeking advice. They may not be clear about when and what collaboration is appropriate or when individual effort is required.

Research on cheating and plagiarism at Sheffield University revealed that students' views on cheating do not tally with official views as reflected in the regulations. Cheating is regarded as relatively legitimate where a course is seen as of marginal importance or badly taught. These feelings are heightened where the assessment methods almost invite cheating.

The research also found that, at best, students were unclear about what constituted plagiarism, seeing it as more to do with meeting conventions of correct referencing. There was also lack of clarity about the threshold at which legitimate use of unattributed material that is "officially" permitted becomes a punishable offence.

Rather than telling students not to copy material from the web, which is only going to tempt some to find out why, it might be better to require them to research three contrasting sites and then analyse and evaluate the differences.

Extra credit could be given for direct reference to other, appropriately cited, sources. Giving students a list of web sources shows that we know the material exists and that it has its legitimate place. If we are worried about essays being copied, ask for a title and abstract, plan, draft and final reports.

The message is: do not treat plagiarism as merely a policing and regulatory issue. Information management and critical analysis skills are important and need to be developed. But it is also worth considering whether it is the students with poor study skills who suffer and those who are adept at plagiarising who get away with it.

The solution seems to be that, rather than worrying about students copying unattributed materials from the internet, we should give clear guidance about what is appropriate, reinforce it through the learning tasks set and use assessment to measure how, not just what, students are learning.

This is not to preclude the use of examinations if that is what is felt will give the assessment procedures credibility. But the challenge would be to set an exam for which students do no revision. What is being assessed is how they have learnt and the way they apply their learning to case studies, materials or problems.

In an article last year ( THES , September 3 1999), Jennifer Moon concluded that "the best way to prevent cheating, plagiarism and collusion is the threat of detection". Plagiarism is going to be a fact of life if the way we assess learning encourages, or rewards, the uncritical use of secondary materials. We need to be more imaginative, while recognising the constraints imposed by large classes and reduced resources.

An interesting thought at my own university was: is a good university one that detects plagiarism, or one where it seldom occurs? I would add to that: or one where the assessment procedures reward the how as much as the what, so plagiarism would be pointless. Now that is a challenge.

Ranald Macdonald is co-chair, staff and educational development and associate head of academic development, Learning and Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University.

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