Sunday, May 17, 2009

How I Catch Cheaters In Class (When I'm At Home In My Smoking Jacket)

In this post, I lament the lack of student writing ability and the temptation to cheat: "[t]hat’s why I have to tailor my essay questions so that you can’t simply Google or Wiki the answer —in fact, the last two plagiarism cases I’ve handled involved straight pasting from Wikipedia. "

That doesn't mean they don't try. It happened again just this past week. My final exam involves reading Killer Angels by Michael Sharaa and answering (among other things) the question, "Why was Robert E. Lee the wrong commander for the South at Gettysburg?" And lo, while I was reading some student's essay, I came across this sentence: "The battle proved the mettle of the Army of the Potomac while ruining the vaunted offensive potential of Lee's army."

The key word in the sentence is "mettle." It is not a word most college students use (correctly, at any rate). That's why most students screw up when they Google something: they fail to take into account their own use of language. I did a text search and saw that the sentence came from this article, which is actually a pretty good piece in and of itself.

However, the article did not directly address my question of why Lee was the wrong man in early July 1863 --a good answer would address the psychological and other factors at play in Sharaa's version. (Remember, I'm also seeing if the students actually did the assigned reading.) And there's the other big thing that usually tips me off when a student is Plooglarizing (plagiarizing using Google): when I see a well-written essay that only marginally answers the question that I ask, it's usually a hint that it came from someplace else.

Finally, I compared the article with the student's essay and concluded that the bulk of the student's essay was a verbatim cut/paste of the materials in the article --the very essence of plagiarism. Had the student done some careful tailoring --not just changing vocabulary but shortening sentences, doing summarization and editing for length --I might have been taken in. There's an expression for getting information, identifying the essential elements and putting the results into your own words: doing honest work.

And therein lies the irony. I wouldn't have said a mumbling word had the student jumped through that many hoops, because a) that's just as much work as starting from scratch, and b) the act of a student preparing an essay is an exercise of higher-order thinking, and if the student can pull all that off then such thinking has clearly been demonstrated and the material mastered so I've done my job on some level. Few students can do that without a hitch, and those who are smart enough to do it usually take the path of least resistance and actually write the pieces themselves.

I confronted the student personally. "The real tragedy here is that you are this close to passing the course honestly --or were, at any rate." And then I threw out a lifeline: "But I'm going to give you a sporting chance. Rewrite this entire piece in your own words, shortening it to five paragraphs, and answer the main parts of my question. Oh, and include two hundred handwritten lines of this sentence: 'I will not copy my essays word-for-word from Google.' Otherwise I bust you. And I will check to make sure that's your handwriting and not someone else's. See what cheating did to your reputation? I have to check every little thing you do --and so will every other prof you ever take if you don't do it and I have to record that you failed my course for cheating."

Yes, that very last part was a bluff. I know already that cheating isn't as serious as it used to be. But I got my new essay, plus some handwritten lines and a nice apology.

--and yes, I just now invented a new verb: to plooglarize. I claim credit, call dibs, and let fly my loudest YAWP! that I made this up this morning drinking coffee. [It's not showing up on Google, at any rate...]

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