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I have been teaching for three years now. This year, for the first time, I caught multiple students in a class (out of 50) either handing in the task of a colleague or copying the majority of someones work.

Now I've started to question myself whether this could be on me in any way. Could I have caused this behaviour by something I said? Am I getting paranoid, or was this just a coincidence or the usual abnormal behaviour of some students?

For more context: All students in this class are going to be teachers. In the first lecture I mention some e-learning resources including the online library of all master's thesis of the faculty.

Additional information to answer some comments (some comments are now in chat): This is a course at university level. In this University cheating is -- on paper -- taken as a serious offense. Meaning, if you get caught cheating it will be noted in your examination record and you have to repeat the whole class. Apparently, not all students know this.

I mention the online library in this course because we are discussing electronic materials in this course. One topic of the course is using "digital tools" for teaching. For me this includes using existing resources for preparing classes.

I checked my slides from the introduction. I did not have a "do not plagiarise note in them". Although, I believe that this should be not necessary.

I have to admit that I might invite them since I do not change the tasks between semesters. The reason for this is that I quite like them and that I have the feeling that the output of the tasks will be useful for them in the future.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Apr 30 at 13:52
  • Kudos to you for considering yourself instead of immediately blaming the students. Not saying it's you; but happy to see you have an open mind. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 1 at 14:11
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I suspect that in a group of 50 students there will be a few who want to cut corners. It isn't your fault, exactly, but there are some things you can do to make it less likely. If the number is small, you can deal with it individually in your office, of course.

But you should consider why people feel that cheating of any kind is a viable option for them.

If the tasks you set are all very high risk then people will sometimes act badly out of fear. This goes for both assignments and for exams. If you permit re-work to improve grading on assignments you lower the risk and improve the chances of proper behavior.

If the risk of cheating is extremely low, some will do it out of laziness. I once had a group whose experience previously was that no one actually looked at their work, so it didn't matter much what was turned in. I had to convince them (and the Dean) that I was willing to fail everyone if they kept up that behavior, and also convince them that I would look at and comment on their work. But if they don't get individual feedback, their work actually has little value to them for learning. With 50 it may be difficult to give this feedback, of course, though it is (IMO) essential.

Some students have gotten the idea that the reason that you set a task is to get the "proper" answer, rather than to help them learn. So their focus becomes getting that answer, even if no learning occurs. You need to find ways to educate them about the nature of education - especially as they will be teachers. It sometimes surprised a few of my students that I didn't ask them to do things because I needed the answers. I could provide my own answers. It was the production of the answer that was important, not the answer, and the answer could actually be wrong if I could use it to educate (re-work, feedback, ...)

There are other tricks that can be used to lessen the likelihood of plagiarism. Don't used old exercises if you find students turning in old solutions, for example. But permitting, even requiring, teamwork can, in many cases, lower the risk of plagiarism, as well as make education more of a social process. It also helps solve the 50 student problem if students work in groups, or even pairs.

In case of paired or group work you need a way to do peer evaluation, of course, but it need not be meaningless or threatening.

There are also strictly punitive measures, though I try to avoid them. Giving zero credit for all parties when plagiarism is encountered can be effective. So can expulsion for repeat offenders.

  • Good points, but I think the one about fear might also work the other way round: For a teacher they fear, pupils often work harder, and more timely, so they are better prepared, and are actually able to finish the tasks by themselves, before the due date. I'll say it depends strongly on circumstances and the individuals how this ends. – Karl Apr 29 at 18:49
  • One thing I would add in my syllabus was "the point is the change in YOUR brain, your skills, not to find the best possible expression of an idea." I wanted them to understand WHY plagiarism isn't helpful. It's not like coding, where finding "the right piece" is the goal. – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Apr 29 at 21:22
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    Hmmm, @April, in learning to code it is the brain, not the code. But yes, a good point for the syllabus. – Buffy Apr 29 at 23:49
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    Cheating Lessons by James M. Lang reiterates a lot of points in this answer in a form of a book, so I would advise to add it as an optional reading. – svavil Apr 30 at 8:23
  • yes, if it's a programming class, then learning it is the goal, but if you're at work, just getting a snippet that works from SE or GitHub is fine. Same with creating a lesson plan - I'm may snarf a useful-looking exercise. But I still have to know how to put it together. In English 100 classes, students wanted to find and piece together The Best stuff, until I advised them that the goal was different, and explained how paraphrasing (with cites) proved they UNDERSTOOD their argument better, even if the professionals "say it better." Bloom's taxonomy was helpful. – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Apr 30 at 13:13
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There is no excuse for plagiarism.

They certainly know that they cannot just copy someone else's work (also not in parts) - especially if they want to become teachers by themselves!

I like to give a few slides of the beginning of the term that make this very clear:

If you copy then you will get a score of 0 for this assignment and I will watch all your following ones very closely (in big&fat red letters).

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    Zero is the same "penalty" you'd get for not handing in the assignment at all; it seems wrong to me to grade "did not do the work" and "actively attempted a fraud" as the same. At my school, the default penalty for plagiarism was negative 100% on the assignment for a first offense, and expulsion for a second. – Eric Lippert Apr 30 at 23:21
  • Students are hesitant to share their work if doing so risks dropping their grade from 100% (assuming correct work) to 0%, so this punishment isn't necessarily useless as means to curtail cheating (assuming there are not other options for cheating). This works even better if you also add an addendum, "If you put both names on your paper, your grade will be divided between you. This will not be considered cheating." – Brian May 1 at 13:22
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Could you have caused it? Most likely yes. One can certainly imagine something you did that made it more likely for your students to plagiarize; further proving that it is impossible for you to have caused it would be very hard.

Should you feel responsible though is a different question. I will say no, you should not. Your students are (presumably) adults, in which case they are responsible for their own actions. Even if you specifically told them that they should plagiarize, this does not necessarily absolve them of responsibility.

Having said that, it's easiest to sidestep the issue by telling students not to plagiarize in the first class. Mind you, this doesn't mean that some students won't plagiarize anyway (some parents in this case even defended their children), but at least now they cannot plead ignorance.

  • The only way that someone in authority can certainly (most likely) cause (be the source of) an action by others is to instruct that action directly or to leave absolutely no other viable choice but that action. The instructor’s approach may have left the students with the sense that cheating was an easier path to success. That is however not certain proof nor even most likely proof to indict the instructor. – Jeffrey J Weimer May 2 at 19:17
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Also consider whether you are perhaps 'forcing' them to do the tasks - e.g. by grading whether all the tasks are done instead of their skill (which admittedly is hard) when they don't have enough time on their hands. As a CS student I usually had more tasks to do per week than could be done in the time of a week, so having to prioritize was a given.
One way to reduce the stress was to make sure all the "you must hand this in" were handed in in the quickest way possible, so I had time remaining to actually study instead of doing exercises that would have been nice to have completed, but were not efficient regarding how much time they took.

Disclaimer: I did not plagiarize and I do not defend plagiarizing. This answer is simply focusing on one aspect of how you could possibly have caused or at least enhanced the likelihood of students cheating.

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As a tertiary educator it is absolutely not your fault. All your students would have been taught not to plagiarise when they were in high school, perhaps even in primary or middle school. Your university or college would have a student handbook which would say that plagiarism is a serious academic offence.

I personally wouldn't think it is even necessary to say once in your lectures that your students are not to plagiarise. Of course it's not a problem to say that if you do want to. If you're not sure, you could consult with other staff or your head of school.

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