Plagiarism and the Death of Competency

How would you like to change pass rates from 30% to 70%.  Well you can as my research colleague Dr. Heiko Rudolph and myself found out – simply by eliminating copying.

To be blunt,  if you are a lecturer,  and you are giving take home assignments,  its highly probable you are being a mug and your course is being ruined by copying. Even tutor marking in a lab is a serious problem.

Like most academics I did not worry much about plagiarism,  it was pretty minor I thought.  I then got a serious shock when we tried to measure how much engineering students had actually learned in one semester of introductory programming. The students had undertaken a highly regarded course in engineering software with a well designed curriculum, solid project and lab work, very good student reviews and good examination results. In the following course we used an automated marking tool in week 3 which required students to write a very simple program under conditions which made copying of other’s work virtually impossible.  It should be pointed out that the problem statement was publicized weeks beforehand and that students were seriously encouraged to practice the problem at home and in earlier laboratory sessions. The task was simple and drew on standard skills.

The shocking result was that only 30% of the class managed to pass!

What caused this horrendous result?  After quite  a few focus groups we found it – copying other student’s work in that first year course meant students did not develop skills.  If a student can copy other student’s lab work,  and limp through the exam,  then its easy to get a  pass but understand almost nothing and be able to achieve almost nothing.

My objection to plagiarism is not the moral issue but the horribly reduction in student competency.

So what could we do?  The problem was serious and something had to be done.  Dr. Heiko Rudolph and I developed a novel approach we have called Secure Individual Testing for labs.  The basics are as follows-

  • Optionally the problem statement can be made public before the test.  This can be good as it ensures students practice the skills needed.
  • Students come to a  lab session that is billed as a formal test with exam conditions.  No talking, no phones or other material,  and student card picture identification.  Cheating means automatic ejection and zero marks.
  • The computers in the lab run special software that limits access to just the allowed resources.  Typically email and web access is blocked as well as network access and some applications.
  • The student completes the problem using the approved software and resources on the computers and submits electronically.
  • We have developed an automatic tester for software which applies a large number of test vectors to each student’s code, evaluates the result and generates feedback,  emails the feedback to the students,  and then collates all marks into a  class list.

What was the result? The next year we used this Secure Individual Testing in first year.  When  these students entered 2nd year we re-ran the same test that got such poor results with the previous cohort  (under secure conditions of course).  The  result was startling: we had moved the pass rate from 30% to 70%.  The only change to first year was the secure testing method, the lecturer and topic material was all the same.  Because students knew they could not cheat,  and there was regular testing,  they did the work themselves to avoid failing.

Applicable elsewhere? From talking to many students from many universities, and reading the literature, we are certain that plagiarismn is very wide spread.  We are also pretty certain that student competency is severely reduced much as we found.
So  … the world is keen to use these methods you might expect … surprising no!  See the  following sections  to read more.

Read more …

  • To students :  why, at a  personal level,  it makes sense not to copy and some strategies to help you.
  • To academics : why,  at a personal level,  it makes sense to make the effort to eliminate plagiarism.
  • Tools : our tools and methods that solved our plagiarism problem.  These are free and we think very useful.

1 Comment

  1. Benny Hardjono said,

    July 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Great to know that we have the same view about plagiarism. I also use CBT (the system was developed over a few years by a few students and myself) the problems come from a bank of data (MS SQL) the questions will appear at random sequence (say 40 problems coming from a bank of 200) and the position of answers are random too – so after turning off the internet, no talking, no HP, they are forced to do the tests by themselves – I have improved the students motivation to study – marking is of-course automatic (plus stats I can know which questions appear how many times and what is the success rate, thus I can improve my teaching about certain topics). What makes me happy is I do not have to do manual marking & the students are happy to get to know problems and seeking to learn by themselves. The application is written in VB. For essay eg. programming – I make sure students save their program at his/her individual directory (no sharing files) ..more

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