Copycat

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Puffin Ganin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Puffin Ganin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

I have this friend. Let’s call her S. She teaches undergrads online. A couple of weeks ago we had a conversation that went something like this.

S: You’ll never believe what happened the other day!

Me: Mhm?

S: I caught this student plagiarizing!

Me: Oh? Yeah, there’s always someone who copies something off someone else. And sometimes, you know, they don’t even know what they’re doing is plagiarism. What was it?

S: Yes, but this wasn’t just something! She copied the entire course!! (her voice rises)

Me: What do you mean ‘the entire course’?

S: Well, you know I teach online, right? She got all the assignments off a student who took the course last year and posted this student’s work as her own!!! (her voice is almost a screech)

Me: Okay, wait a second. Hey! Breathe! Like, what, literally all of it??

S: Yes, ALL of it! She copied the assignments, the forum posts, the glossary entries…even parts of the journal entries! (she takes deep calming breaths) Just saying it out loud makes me freak out again, and it’s not like I’ve been doing much else since I found out!

Me: Oh, wow. How…I mean, how did that even happen??

S: I don’t know. I guess the student last year saved all the work she did and emailed it to her. (her voice is more subdued now) I don’t think she knew it was going to be copied, like, with no modifications whatso–

Me: But why would she even do that?! The one from last year? Why would she think someone this year would need…I don’t know, her journal entries?

S: Maybe just to see what the course is like? I don’t know. Remember when we were at university? We gave our notes to people.

Me: Yeah, but those were notes. I mean, you could use them to study, but you’d still have to do the actual studying yourself. Not the same thing.

S: Yeah, I know.

Me: So, but…wait, I’m still…the whole course?? Did you give them the exact same assignments this year?

S: What, you’re saying it’s my fault now?!?! (she starts turning bright red)

Me: What?! God, no, of course not!!

S: Yes, I mostly set the same assignments!  I…I just designed the course last year – I didn’t see this coming!! 

Me: Okay…

(Short silence)

Me: Ummm, your course lasts four months, right? Are you saying you didn’t notice till the end that she’d copied it all?

S: Oh, and you would’ve picked up on it in week one, I guess? 

Me: No…look, I’m not the one who copied the course. Stop biting my head off!! I’m just trying to figure out what happened here! Obviously you’re upset

S: Upset?! Why would I be upset?! I’ve only been made to look like an idiot, I’m probably all they talk about in their Facebook group! Why would I–

Me: Wait a second! Reality check! You say you caught her. Did you tell her?

S: Of course I told her!

Me: Well, then. You’re not an idiot, you’re a teacher who doesn’t let kids get away with copying. Plagiarism. Whatever. What, d’you think it’s not gonna spread? That you figured it out?

S: Oh. Well. Maybe. I don’t know.

(Another short silence)

Me: Well, what happens next?

S: What do you mean?

Me: With the student? Can she still take the exam? What are you going to do? What did you do?

S: Well, I talked to the head of department. First of all, she’s my boss, so I’d have to do that anyway. Second, she’s dealt with this kind of thing before. I didn’t think it would be fair for the student to take the exam, what with all the others who didn’t copy.

Me: Okay, so what did she say? The head?

S: Apparently, this student has done this before. It’s not the first time she was caught.

Me: Oh, wow.

S: Yes. And last year, well I’m guessing it wasn’t this serious, because she was made to apologize and that was enough, I guess. 

Me: Apologize? That’s really effective. That’ll stop them copying, having to apologize! Did she apologize to you?

S: Yes. But I don’t give a… I mean, I know she’s not really sorry. Of course she’s sorry she got caught. That’s the only reason she’s saying she’s sorry. That and hoping that I’ll buy the apology and let her take the exam.

Me: So…she has to take the class again then?

S: Well, it’s a compulsory course. She’ll have to, I guess.

Me: But then you’ll have her in your class next year!

S: You know, I’ve thought about that. I feel sick to my stomach every time I think about that. She thinks I’m stupid, she thinks my course is so boring there’s no point contributing one single original piece of writing…I don’t want her back in my class.

Me: But if it’s a compulsory course, there’s nothing you can do.

S: No, I know that. Maybe I just won’t teach the course next year.

We left it at that. I think S had grading to do.

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8 thoughts on “Copycat

  1. Hana Tichá

    Hi Vedrana,

    I’m glad to see another great post on your blog.

    Well, copying all the assignments and passing them off as your own is, to my mind, a very serious transgression. Given the fact that the girl is an undergraduate (read: old enough to realize plagiarism is a crime), I’d never let her take the exam; or I’d impose another draconian measure on her. On the other hand, I think it’s pretty risky to run a course that is exactly the same as the previous one. Thus part of the blame lies on the teacher as well. But still, I believe the culprit is definitely the plagiarist, not the teacher.

    Based on the answers S gave you, deep inside she felt guilty from the very beginning (and thus she reacted the way she did to your utterly innocent questions). I don’t get it though why S feels like an idiot. Is it because she had uploaded the same assignments? As I see it, she should feel lucky that she unveiled the truth and thus she can avoid this problem in the future. Anyway, if I were S, I wouldn’t mind seeing the girl on my course next year again (provided that the head will allow her to continue her studies); she could be sure that I’d watch her closely this time. 🙂

    Hana

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    1. Hi Hana,

      I’m glad you liked the post.

      I think the reason S feels stupid is because she is in paranoid mode and the most insecure part of her (which under ordinary circumstances has no need to surface) is afraid that this was a game to the student – a sort of, ‘betcha she’ll never figure it out; they never read assignments anyway’ kind of game. A kind of game that students don’t play with teachers they respect and feel they can learn something from. She then wonders how many other students feel this way, although she’s never had reason to doubt that she does her job well.

      You make a good point about the risk a teacher takes when running the same course. However, I feel quite resentful about this apparent need to police students and stay one step ahead of them so that they won’t get the opportunity to plagiarize. You said it yourself – they’re old enough to know that plagiarism is a crime. This time spent on finding new pedagogically sound and effective activities (while there’s nothing wrong with the old ones) could instead be spent on working with students who are genuinely interested. That is not to say that the exact same set of activities can be used for twenty years in a row, but I feel it’s not unreasonable to stay with something that you’ve found works well for a couple of semesters.

      Thanks for commenting, as always! 🙂

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      1. Hana Tichá

        If this was a game to the student, S should feel proud she has discovered it. I wouldn’t say that students play this kind of game with teachers who they don’t respect; this is about the student – not the teacher. Some students are unscrupulous and disrespectful, and they simply take advantage of a situation; maybe the teacher is really nice and some Ss see it as a sign of weakness, which it is obviously not. Or perhaps the student is only lazy and reluctant to do what she’s supposed to do at uni, in which case she’d better do something else instead (find a job in a local supermarket?). Or maybe she can’t see any learning potential in this particular course, which, again, is not the teacher’s fault. None of these is an excuse for plagiarism.

        I absolutely agree that teacher’s job is not to police the students (definitely not at university level). What I meant was that it is risky to recycle the same material because there *are* students who have a tendency to cheat – no matter who the teacher is. Maybe the teacher is too trusting to realize this though. All in all, it’s a great opportunity to learn something valuable from a minor failure.

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        1. I’ve been wondering about this student and students in general. You point out that there is another option – they don’t have to go to university. I am wondering if this is, perhaps, a reflection of the situation young people find themselves in these days. Unemployment is skyrocketing in several European countries and maybe some think going to university is a way of postponing the moment when they’ll have to face the job market and the attendant rejection and disappointment. Which is to say, perhaps they’re not really interested in what they’re studying, but are hoping things will look up by the time they graduate. I realize also that some students go to university simply to fulfill the expectations of their parents, and some may have been interested in another major, but were unable to get in.

          I am now thinking about another point you made – the student can’t see any learning potential in this particular course. You go on to say this is not the teacher’s fault, but I can’t help thinking that it might be. Isn’t it part of our job to present the material we teach in a way that its potential will be clear to our students? Focusing on how to achieve this might be the opportunity to learn something valuable, as you pointed out.

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  2. Hi Vedrana

    Thank you for this post – I have been thinking about the conversation you shared for the last two days, and enjoyed reading the further exchange in the comments above. Hm, what a situation!

    As I was reading, there are several things I wanted to ask about:

    – is plagiarism openly discussed with students at the beginning of each course? Do students sign any ‘official’ document? An example I saw was on CourseEra, where there is a statement you need to mark before starting any task or homework saying something like ‘the work is my own’.

    – are students aware what exactly it is, and is not? (and what would happen if they do try to copy things?)

    – how ‘alert’ are teachers to the situations like this? I mean, do you personally have a system/approach to ‘track’ (or to even doubt) that what a student is submitting might be someone else’s work? I am a bit ‘naive’ personally and don’t do such checks (and after your post started to think about it more!)

    – copying everything from someone else and watching what the teacher would do seems very unusual, and brings another question: what was the goal of this student (for doing so? for learning on the course?) If I were the teacher, I would really want to talk to her and listen to her perspective. Well, maybe I am writing this because I am not the teacher.

    Finally, I remember when I was in primary school and my classmate copied a test from me, our teacher said that we each get a half of the top grade. Funny how long this memory lasts! 🙂

    Thank you for the great post!

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    1. Hi Zhenya,

      Thanks for commenting. Great questions! Incidentally, I think splitting up the grade sounds like a highly effective approach for young learners, and/or in cases where one student let another copy (as opposed to lending someone your notes).

      At the institution where I teach students are not required to sign anything. There is a checklist on the university website which helps students avoid accidental plagiarism, but I have no idea whether other instructors point students to it. I have so far included a warning that I spot check for plagiarism in my own course guidelines; however, I never specifically said anyone would fail the course if they were caught plagiarizing. I think this was because I never expected this kind of plagiarism; the worst I thought would happen is what occasionally happens – someone copies part of an assignment off the internet, and when I point this out they realize I read what they write and don’t do it again.

      This argument that students may not be aware of what plagiarism is…I’m not sure what to think. Yes, there are undoubtedly cultural differences which play a part in how people approach referring to what others have said, but that anyone has made it to university level in Croatia convinced that passing off a colleague’s work as their own is socially acceptable…let’s say I remain deeply skeptical.

      Are teachers alert to this – again, I can only speak for myself. I’ve heard that there are apparently instructors who don’t bother to read what students hand in. I could only guess as to why. Perhaps they feel underpaid, perhaps they don’t like teaching and resent “homework checking” (something they see as a mundane, administrative task) eating into their research time, or maybe there is/are other reason(s). I am always on the lookout, but can’t, of course, claim that I am always successful. It’s hard to check if they’re submitting another student’s work, especially if the student took the course several months ago. It’s easier to suspect and check if someone’s copied something off the internet.

      As to the last question, I am inclined on the whole to say that it is unlikely the student copied simply (or even mostly) to see what the teacher would do, or if they would catch on. It does seem like a very risky experiment just to score imaginary points against the teacher. I agree that we should hear the student’s perspective and S actually did this, but I feel that going into these reasons in public may not be fair to the student. S, however, didn’t think that these were reasons strong enough to excuse plagiarism. Having said that, I do wonder – what do you think would be a good reason to explain this kind of plagiarism away? Is there any?

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      1. ‘What do you think would be a good reason to explain this kind of plagiarism away? Is there any?’

        I like this question. I am not sure there is an answer I can be certain about. Yes, I think it was a game/experiment, with a purpose. I don’t think one would do that with a course one likes, or considers useful/important, so the attitude is probably between neutral and negative. Now, if negative, what could that negativity be about: the teacher, the subject, or university system (or anything else?)

        It also might be something from the student’s life: maybe a job she took and does not have time to study; maybe a relationship problem (and again, distracted from everything else and a friend is trying to help)?

        Or… maybe we are over-thinking, and this was just to see what would happen? (or a bet with that friend?)

        In any case, it is a little mystery I would love to think and read more about. Are you planning on Copycat -2, by any chance? 🙂

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        1. Yes, I think Copycat 2 will probably follow at some point. 🙂 There’s enough material for another post even now, but I’d like to give it some more time and see how things develop. There are actually so many angles to consider: of course, there’s this particular student (and you’re absolutely right, we may be overthinking this particular case), there is the issue of whether a society subscribes only nominally to the notion that plagiarism is wrong, how and if teachers/instructors check for it (and what types of plagiarism they check for), and so much more…thanks once again for raising great and important points in your comments!

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