Plagiarism v. Learning

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Plagiarism v. Learning

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The SIGCSE mailing list has been having a very active discussion of plagiarism in computer science classes of late. These discussions seem to recur with disappointing regularity. If not in the SIGCSE list they show up on the APCS mailing list. These discussions tend to follow some very predictable paths. They start with attempts at writing a bulletproof statement of acceptable use and reuse. Students are amazing “classroom lawyers” and find loopholes that a tax attorney would be amazed at. This leads invariably to a discussion of what is and is not plagiarism. Code sharing? A good think in the professional space. There are “how do you?” type sites that are widely used by developers at all levels to learn. So where is the line between learning from a code sample and “stealing” code? And where does open source fit into the discussion? It’s all so much more complicated than one would ever hope it would be. I’m not sure I am ready to jump into the discussion at that level. What I am really interested in where all this leads in terms of education. Here is where a comment by Jim Huggins from the Computer Science Department at Kettering University who wrote:

A student who pursues good grades rather than a good education will ultimately receive neither.

Some times these arrival of poor grades comes later than we’d like. One would like to see these poor grades come early enough in a student’s educational career to serve as a wakeup call. Some students are just outstanding at gaming the system and so realize too late that they haven’t really learned enough of a real education. This is their loss mostly but it is also a loss for society. Imagine if that talent was trained with real education? Alas, too many students get through with a transcript that doesn’t reflect the reality of what they know. Or don’t know.

What is the responsibility of the educator here? I remember when I was a high school student my teachers and guidance counselors told me that university professors would not care if I failed or succeeded. It would be up to me. I didn’t find that to be true where I went to university though. I found faculty would who go far out of there way to help me succeed. Of course they expected me to do may part. They expected me to work and to do my own work. They’d help me as long as I would work with them and not expect them to carry me. I learned a lot from them. Arguably students who plagiarize or otherwise take short cuts are not doing their part.

It is tempting to ignore the plagiarism and wait for the inevitable failure to wake the student up. There are problems with this attitude though. One is that with our over emphasis on grades too many students are likely to see others getting away with cheating and decide that they need to do the same to “keep up.” This is unfair to otherwise good honest students. Arguably it is also a failure on the part of educators to do a complete job of education. So where do we go?

Ethics also comes up in the plagiarism discussion as you might expect. This seems to be increasing in importance for teachers of all subjects but especially for computer science educators. Not just because of plagiarism but the many societal issues that computer science is developing as unintended consequences. Ultimately perhaps the answer to plagiarism is not a bulletproof set of rules but an honest discussion of the purpose of projects, tests and other evaluative tools. If students were able to buy off on the importance of learning over grades and understand that evaluations are tools to help them as much if not more than to show up on their transcripts maybe the drive to cheat would diminish? Can we restore the idea of educators and students are partners in learning rather than opponents fighting about grades? Seems like something we should be trying.

  • First ... thanks for the quote.  :)

    But I really wanted to respond to a question you offered at the end: "Can we restore the idea of educators and students are partners in learning rather than opponents fighting about grades?"

    Several years ago, I had a disastrous situation in one of my classes.  Roughly half of the twenty students in my class cheated on an assignment.  I had created what I thought was an interesting assignment ... of course, many other teachers had created that assignment over the years, and solutions were available everywhere on the Internet.  Several common code bases were circulating among the class.

    In the aftermath, after extracting my pound of flesh from the offenders, I talked with the class about precisely the question you raised above.  I had at least one student afterwards tell me that my remarks were very helpful to him in re-thinking his attitude towards completing assignments, and the whole professor-student dynamic.  So, in the wake of that disaster, some good might've come of it.

    I think I should probably talk more about that idea in my classes --- especially on the first day when I go over all the arcane policies in my syllabus, including the plagiarism policy.  Someone once taught me that it's better to express rules positively instead of negatively: e.g. "walk" instead of "don't run".  What's the positive version of "don't cheat"?  I have to think on this ...

  • Grades should be a reflection of learning.  But as long as grades have such a major influence on a student’s economic future there is always going to be the need/desire to get the grades at all costs.  From there things start to get very moralistic.  

    I guess in a way I almost promote plagiarism in my programming classes.  I tell the kids to not reinvent the wheel.  I tell them to find somebody else’s wheel, tear it apart, and rebuilt it to suit their situation.  Interestingly enough very few follow that advice.  They want to built their own code or get advice/help from fellow students.  I also promote students helping students which can also lead to plagiarism.  As can be expected I have one or two students that are programming geeks.  They grok programming.  The kids that are just suffering through a semester of programming because the fly fishing class did not fit their schedule get help from the programming geeks.  I encourage this because it improves the ability of knowledgeable kids to explain and understand their work.  The assignments are individually unique enough that the advice hardly every results in an exact copy of code.  A simple assignment like drawing a house in VB and Small Basic using turtle graphics leads to all sorts of unique code.  Nobody wants their house to look like anybody else’s and they all want to outdo each other in design and options.  When making games in Corona everybody wants their own version to look unique.  Although they may get a snippet of code from someone else they always want to tweak it to get their own thing going.  Plagiarism in a programming class is not that hard to beat, the assignments just have to have an originality aspect.  But programming is not like an English essay where there are 47 ways of stating a thought.  In programming there is pretty much only one way to write an If/Then statement.

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