Sunday, January 29, 2006

Some thoughts on exams and plagiarism

The Little Professor raised a couple of interesting questions about plagiarism today. In particular, her point #2 has some fascinating implications. She notes:

[w]e often expect students to regurgitate information on exams (most frequently, in short identifications), whereas we just as often expect them to think original thoughts in their papers

There are, however, a few fundamental differences between exams and essays that I think are relevant here.

The first difference is in what we are trying to measure. Presumably, the reason that many course conveners choose to use both exams and papers as assessment is that these are designed to measure different things. On the one hand, I want to test my students' ability to think independently and originally, and an essay is a good format for this, as coming up with original ideas and arguments requires time and access to other theoretical works so that the student can see how their ideas fit into the "conversation" that already exists about the concept in question.

On the other hand, I want to test how well the student has grasped the concepts and ideas that I have presented them with during the course. Obviously a student who regurgitates them word for word may not have understood them at all, but most students at least rephrase ideas from the lecture when they use them in an exam.

If the ability to apply skills (that may have been gained during the course but might equally well have been present beforehand) is considered a more important measure of success, then the essay(s) should be be given a higher weighting than the exam. But in this case, students who are naturally or as the result of previous studies more skilled at interpretation, problem-solving and/or criticism (depending on the discipline) will do well whether or not they have attended any of the lectures, which calls into question the point of the course. Perhaps that is why so many professors like to rely heavily on the "regurgitate my ideas" style of exam. At least then they can feel they have been instrumental in the top students' success.

Another major difference between exams and essays is that unless texts (primary and secondary) are allowed into the exam room, we do not usually expect students to reference anything as precisely in an exam as they do in an essay. That is simply the limitation of the genre, and students surely recognise that an exam answer does not equal a publishable paper.

This leads on to the final difference between exams and essays that I think is relevant here. Students who continue on to postgraduate work or life in academia will not, beyond a certain point, have to continue producing exam answers, while they will have to continue writing papers (for ever and ever, amen). Therefore it is not crucial that they learn appropriate conventions for exam answers (which is perhaps why there really aren't any), while it is essential that they learn not to plagiarize in essays. A student who plagiarizes heavily and regurgitates the professor's own ideas in exams will not necessarily continue to do this as a researcher. They may have understood the exam form as a genre in which this behaviour is acceptable, but are not likely to transfer this approach to a paper, simply because they don't see the two types of work as having anything in common.

Presumably this is one of the reasons why we, as teachers, come down so hard on essay plagiarizers and not exam plagiarizers: we instinctively feel that the former are likely, if unchecked, to continue on to a career based on idea theft, while the latter will not.

One problem, I suppose, is particular to disciplines where there is a fuzzy border between exams and essays, i.e. where exams are always in the form of an essay question. Then students may be fooled into believing that what is acceptable in these "three-hour-essays" is also appropriate for real pieces of work. In these cases, I think that the course convener should seriously consider (a) their reasons for giving an exam at all and (b) how clearly they have spelled out to the students what referencing conventions are expected in the exam, and if they are different, why.

A final danger in any discipline is that the ideas a student first hears as an undergraduate are often taken as gospel truth and end up buried deep among the concepts and facts that the student's rest of the knowledge of their field is built on. The student can easily come to believe that these ideas, when they accidentally access them in later years, are either their own, or part of a core foundation of the discipline that everyone takes for granted, and therefore do not need referencing. If the ideas were ultimately those of the student's undergraduate lecturer (whether published or not), then this is plagiarism, pure and simple.

The solution to this problem, in my opinion, does not lie in preventing students from regurgitating the lecturer's ideas in an exam, but in teaching them to recognise how many competing ideas there are on every topic in a field, and that nothing is unchallengable. Students need to learn to be deeply suspicious of any concept that appears to be an underlying tenet of the discipline and, in every such case, to find out (1) who proposed it, (2) why they proposed it, (3) who has challenged it, (4) why it has/hasn't been challenged, and (5) why the majority of researchers now accept it (if indeed they do). I believe that teaching undergraduate students to see their field like this is the greatest service we can do them.

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Plagiarism Checker creator said...

Thanks for the great entry. I'm glad that essay plagiarism is taken seriously by at least some people where you teach; this is not the case at every school.

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