Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Yuri in Youngstown on Academic Cheating.

When I first became a Dean, I had no idea that a large part of every week would be spent on academic cheating cases. It was endless. It was discouraging. It changed the way I look at students forever.

In reviewing the past couple of relevant posts and comments, I remember a couple of English professors at my college who began to combat this in a way I found clever and unique.

It started with one loudmouthed kid who sat in my office one day
blaming his professor for a plagiarized paper. The argument was illogical but boldly proclaimed. He said, "My professor never even saw a rough draft." (Why? Because the kid skipped it.) "My professor gave me so much time out of class to work on it." (Why? Well, because this is college.) In the end, the kid just bought or copied a paper from an essay mill and turned it in. It popped up 90% plagiarized in our SafeAssign software, and then I was asked to be involved.

In the aftermath of that, two English professors made changes to their "out of class" essays, requiring that they be written - for the most part - in computer labs, much as they had run their final exams in the past. They had noted an increase in plagiarism and a complementary discrepancy in the quality of out of class and in class writing.

These profs, both of whom who are still here and thriving, began to book 2-4 classes in a row in our computer labs. Essay assignments were given ahead of time, and students could make notes and outlines and even do research. But they could not write.

Only in the labs were they allowed to work on their actual documents. At the end of lab time on a particular day the professors gathered the in-progress drafts (one on a flash or external drive; one by taking in emailed files.) Then the next day the students would continue with those same files.

I'm sure some kid figured out a way around the system, but all in all the incidences of plagiarism plummeted in those courses. The practice has now spread to some other faculty in English, and a great amount of worry that our students are doing their own work has dissipated.

I don't know if this kind of thing would work for everyone, of if there are some important pedagogical practices being skipped, but I do know it made for a lighter load for me.

- Yuri


  1. Those English profs are my heroes. I can't believe I never thought of that, and me here with a plagiarized paper right on my laptop staring at me. 94% plagiarized and in the wrong format!!

  2. Are these content courses, like literature classes, or composition courses? I have to admit that giving up a couple of weeks' literature content to in-class writing for multiple essays would be hard on me.
    I have never seen so much academic cheating of all kinds as I have this semester, though, from opening a book and looking at it during a closed-book test to plagiarism and making up sources, and I have no idea how to deal with it.

  3. Brilliant! But as noted not always conducive for content-rich courses.

  4. Yeah, I tried that...

    "But I can't write in-class!!!!!"

    "I need more tiiiiime!"

    "Can't I just finish this at hooooooome???"

    The whines and excuses and incidents of me catching snot-nosed rugrats skipping the assignment to do whatever the hell they wanted on the PCs rose each term.

    It *can* work, but the bad students will ALWAYS find a way to screw it up.

    -anon y mouse

  5. I tried it too, with the additional requirement that assignments be handwritten. Got one that seemed odd, so I Googled a few phrases and came up with WalMart's mission statement. The student had quietly gone online during the class writing period and copied out WalMart's mission statement onto their worksheet.

    I have no idea why the student thought that WalMart's mission statement would be an acceptable substitute for the actual assignment. When confronted, they just got quiet.

    This was the second class this student had taken from me, and the second time I'd caught them plagiarizing. I did the paperwork to report the plagiarism, just as I had the time before. The student dropped the class and re-enrolled the following semester. Now equipped with a tutor supplied by the Appeasement, Retention, Success, and Engagement Office, the student passed the class and eventually graduated.

    So in-class writing isn't really foolproof either. Maybe oral exams?

  6. The problem with this method is that, should a student bring a draft from home and type it in the lab, that would be considered cheating. As a matter of fact, I used to do it that way all the time because I did not have a computer back then. This also reduces the available time and does not allow the student to work on the paper when he or she can concentrate the best. If, for example, the student did not sleep very well, he or she would have to go to the lab regardless instead of working on the paper after a good nap, even at odd hours. People with odd schedules or health problems who would have been able to do the work at unusual times (or at least outside the lab's scheduled hours or limited opening hours) would be particularly disadvantaged. Their very attempts to be responsible would count against them, if that would mean that they would still work outside the lab in reality, unless the storage medium for the whole draft would be their own memory rather than sheets of paper.

    1. No. Students begin the draft in the lab. The assignment is given there. People unable to attend class or scheduled labs are hampered, yes. These are face to face classes. Being responsible could also mean making the class a priority. Surely not every minute of every lab would nerd to be used to complete the assignment, so being hungover or needing an extra nap woukdnt necessarily make it impossible. The professors know how much time students have for the task, just like any in-class assignment. And the reduction in opportunities for students to cheat have been reduced. It is not a theory at my university. None of this designed to hurt responsible students.

  7. At the very least, I suspect we're going to have to move toward at least some writing in a supervised setting to compare to what they supposedly do by themselves at home. I'd be reluctant to have all papers written in the lab, because that is, in fact, a pretty artificial setting, and one in which many students genuinely can't do their best work (I couldn't either, though I could do reasonably well). Besides, they need to have the chance to wrestle with writing on their own, and develop their own writing practices (and their own self-discipline).

    But shorter in-class writings in a lab with the internet turned off, prompt, and sources and citation handbooks provided at the beginning and end of the semester, combined with telling students that the exercises are designed both as a baseline diagnostic and a final exam *and* as a point of comparison against their out-of-class writing, might well work. Students (well at least my students) are remarkably vulnerable to what I call the "man behind the curtain syndrome" -- in other words, if I claim (with some validity, but perhaps not quite as much as I pretend) that I can tell if they're plagiarizing even without a plagiarism checker -- or, in this case, if I claim that I can tell whether the same person wrote the in- and out-of-class writing -- they tend to believe me. Sure, a few are probably skeptical, but a good number go into full panopticon self-surveillance mode (and a good many of that group go into full panic-for-no-reason mode, which is the downside to working with students who are all too used to being surveilled, tested, etc.).

    So far (touch wood) a somewhat idiosyncratic, and therefore hard to plagiarize, assignment with a lot of smaller, equally hard to plagiarize scaffolding assignments leading up to it is working for me. I also have them run the scaffolding assignments through the plagiarism checker built into the LMS, and make it clear that any honest mistakes caught at that point can be fixed. That seems to keep the plagiarism down.

    Mind you, I'm still getting some really bad papers. In fact, I may be getting more really bad papers than I would if they could figure out a way to plagiarize/steal a response (and, I may still be getting work done by someone else than the student, which is a problem the in-class writing would solve, or at least flag). But I'm seeing little plagiarism beyond the occasional poorly-paraphrased but at least minimally cited sentence or two.

  8. If you want them to write at home and don't mind them using the big G monster, you can make them write with Google Docs - and revise with Google Docs. That way you can monitor all the changes they make and will see, in particular, if they copy & pasted it in. You can even leave comments on the side of the document if you make them share it with you. Then they can work anytime anywhere and you are not tied to the lab.

    You could also require that they hand in a reflection (1-2 pages) on their personal writing process. How long did it take? What was problematic? What worked well for them? How do they feel about the finished product? I do that in my hamster fur weaving class (which is not a composition class). I make them discuss the process of hamster fur weaving, not just send in a foto of the finished product. Oh, and it has to be in complete sentences, just 'cause I'm a meany.

  9. Like many composition professors, I require students to do quite a bit of drafting outside of class. Several times each semester, though, I book computer labs and students are required to bring in their documents for conferencing and revision. This cuts down on the actual plagiarism by quite a bit, as students are forced to discuss a lot of their writing -- including the writing process -- while we are sitting inches away from each other, looking right at their work.

    I do have them do quite a bit of pre-writing or writing invention work in class. These are directed and I look at them. Students label them busywork until they realize that I'm actually reducing each of the more complicated essays into smaller, component parts, making larger assignments more manageable and forcing students to think about how they can meet all of their goals for specific assignments. This, too, cuts way down on plagiarism because 1) students don't resort to lifting work from the internet because they feel overwhelmed, and 2) I see a lot of parts of their essays before they've actually composed a draft, giving me points of reference for discussion. It's exhausting for me, because in every semester in which I am not teaching a literature class -- and that's most semesters -- I have nearly 120 writing students, but it's so worth the effort to help students uncover their own writing processes and to get them to understand how much of a time commitment their college coursework is.

    As Suzy mentioned, Google Docs can be a big help in the effort to combat plagiarism. I haven't resorted to that yet out of self-preservation; I don't want to be expected to be on call 24/7, and my students who do use Google Docs on their own kind of expect an immediacy from me that I am not prepared to give.

    We don't have software like SafeAssign at LD3C, but I can usually spot a plagiarist quickly -- even in literature classes -- and a couple of Google searches confirms my sad suspicions.


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