Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is It Still Copying If We Use Different Pens? The Ballad of Missy and Maude.

I assign a number of out of class assignments, mainly questions that would make the little snowflakes melt if they were under the time constraint of an exam. Each semester I start by introducing these assignments and talking about the difference between collaboration and copying. My syllabus has a detailed discussion of academic honesty and specific examples of “cheating” (plus the consequences for such decisions). I even give them a pass on the first assignment and point out answers that are a little too similar between students, with a warning on their papers and a general warning to the class. All of this is to no avail as the second assignment always seems to bring out Maude and Missy.

Maude and Missy are best friends, who study together all of the time. I grade one of their papers and there is some weird turn of phrase that catches my attention. Somewhere down the pile I find that same phrase in the other’s paper. I take the time and put the papers down next to each other, highlighting the identities in the papers. In the end, the papers are probably more than eighty percent identical (some answers are 100%). I hand back the papers with a zero score (as outlined in the syllabus) and a note to see me.

The students always tell me how they worked together and that is why their answers are similar. I ask why the answers are not only similar, but identical (down to the spelling mistakes in some incidents), and they shuffle their feet about how they both came up with the answer. The conversation usually goes on for a few minutes and from the differences in protests I can figure out who most likely did the work, but both are guilty of cheating. In the end I ask them to “look on this as a learning experience, and move on.” They leave upset, but get over it, usually not repeating the mistake.

This semester the twist to my tale is that Maude (this semester’s likely copier) really wants to be a journalist.