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March 23, 2004
This is why you have exams

Frank Furedi in the Telegraph, on cheating at university:

Last week, I received a letter from a young colleague working in a university in the North East. She had recently examined 48 third-year undergraduate essays and found that at least 15 of them were plagiarised.

When she raised the matter with her senior colleagues, she was instructed to treat the essays as "poor work" and mark them down. But she was also warned not to take any steps that would lead to disciplinary action against the cheating students because that would be a "messy business".

Plagiarism is indeed "messy". Among undergraduates, the practice usually involves copying someone else's work and presenting it as one's own.

Acknowledging a source, even of just a paragraph, is part of an ethos of intellectual honesty that academia must take for granted. That is why in previous times, immediate expulsion or, at the minimum, failure in a course were seen as an appropriate response to plagiarism.

At the root of this tendency is surely the practice of asking people how well they are doing, and believing their answer no matter what. (This is one of the things I here mean by the word "Sovietisation".) In this case, "continuous assessment", by the teacher who is doing the teaching, amounts to self-assessment, and is an invitation to the teacher to help his pupils cheat, instead of to stamp it out.

This is one of the big reasons why you have exams. It's a lot harder to cheat during an exam. If exams are the key measurement of success for each student, then they will also be the key measurement of the success of a teacher, and then the teacher won't want to cheat. Cheating would merely be self-deception on his part, the postponement of the bad news and the failure to correct it, as well as deception of the pupil of course.

I think exams are well worth taking. (Employers certainly seem to think so.) In addition to being semi-objective, they also measure the ability of the exam victim to handle information under conditions of high stress, a most important ability in the modern world. Do you forget it all a month later? So what? That's what happens to most information you handle when you are a working adult. Life would be unliveable if we remembered everything we ever "learned". (I have said this before here. But this is not a problem, because this is true enough to be worth repeating.)

A friend recently complained to me that when she was at school she learned lots of stuff, but now can't remember any of it at all (in fact she forgot it all immediately), and this now angered her. Why didn't I learn something worth learning, she now asks, that I wanted to learn? Good point, and she is now busy learning things she really does want to learn. Meanwhile, I think she almost certainly did learn more than she now realises.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:27 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSovietisation

Apropos Sovieticisation, you might like to check up on the splendid Russian word TUKHTA (that's an anglicisation of the spelling, natch). You can find it defined, with many many examples, in The Gulag Archipelago. Volume 2 iirc. Recommended (the book, as well as the word).

Comment by: Andrew Duffin on March 23, 2004 04:39 PM

Personally I think that if one plagiarizes on an essay they should be flogged or expelled (okay maybe flogging is extreme) with no exceptions. Lowering standards just because it is a convenient way to avoid a mess is lazy and disrespectful of the academia in general.

Having said that, I don't really like exams either. Exams (other than essay exams) promote memorization rather than understanding of material. The ability to spit out the information does not indicate comprehension or the ability to apply knowledge to new contexts.

Comment by: Blinger on March 24, 2004 06:08 AM

This corresponds exactly to my experiences in academia. As a doctoral student, I would augment my meagre income by acting as a 'demonstrator' (i.e. teaching assistant). I would help guide students in the lab courses through the trickier points of the thing they were studying and give them hints when they got stuck. I also had the responsibility of marking the reports they subsequently prepared.

At the end of one term, I was given the task of marking the results of a fairly major project that one class had undertaken. After about ten of them I noticed an ominous trend. Phrases and in some cases entire paragraphs were copied verbatim between reports. As I proceeded, I started to notice that there were several different, sometimes overlapping variants of the report. I began to be able to discern a sort of taxonomic structure - in the end I was almost able to ascribe a sort of evolutionary tree to the plagiarised reports, rather like philologists do with missing or partial texts of ancient manuscripts.

By now both worried and annoyed, I wrote a detailed memorandum, with copious examples of the suspect work, heavily footnoted and with an explanation of my hypothetical taxonomy (I seem to recall it took me about three days to write). I went to the lecturer who was running the course and said, "we have a serious problem." He looked at my memo and promptly got the Head of Department involved. The Head sent my report over to Admin, along with some thoughts of his own and the lecturer. And then - nothing. The degree of plagiarism varied from student to student. The most egregious example was one in which, as far as I could tell, two students had run off two copies of the same report with simply their names substituted. For these I recommended expulsion. For the remainder, I recommended sanctions ranging from failing that module of the course to failing the course entirely. Most severe sanction actually imposed: loss of marks for that module and a written warning put on file. Most escaped scot-free.

I was sickened. Just a few years earlier, as part of our induction to studying Physics at Imperial College, we were given an afternoon's worth of lectures on integrity, ethics and the scientific method. We were told in no uncertain terms that not only would cheating get us kicked out, it would end our scientific careers. And yet, in the mid '90's, students at a University in the north of England could plagiarise with near impunity.

The reason? Money. Every lost student was a lost grant. So shackled is the University system to the filthy teat of Government (especially post the hare-brained notion that more than a small fraction of a nation's youth is capable of conducting study at degree level) that chasing grants is the primary, secondary and tertiary priority of universities. Teaching and research quality is important only inasmuch as it can be used to garner a tick in the right box in the latest assessment exercise. Only a complete divorce of higher education from government can halt and reverse this trend.

Sorry for such a long comment, but I thought you might like a confirmatory example.

Comment by: David Gillies on March 24, 2004 09:03 PM


On the contrary, no need to apologise. Absolutely fascinating. I am about to put up another posting mentioning this comment, just to make sure that no one who might be interested misses it.

I've just had a better idea. I'll do a posting on Samizdata as well. Bear with me, this may all take some concocting, so expect it when you see it.

But definitely, for now: thanks.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on March 24, 2004 09:38 PM

The students in the history department at my school have a little joke we share when the professor isn't listening: "Stealing from one person is plagiarizing; stealing from many people is research."

Comment by: Kacie on March 26, 2004 05:22 PM
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