Why do students plagiarize and cheat?
Let me begin with two over-simplified definitions.
Using the intellectual creations of others without acknowledging that they were the creators.
Unauthorized changing of circumstances to make a task easier than it was intended to be.
In academic settings, these are jointly called “academic dishonesty.” They both result in a misrepresentation of ones own ability: plagiarism makes it appear that the plagiarist created thoughts that were in fact created by others, while cheating makes it appear that the cheater solved a more difficult problem than was actually solved.
Some moral ills are self-evident, built-in to the basic outlook of almost all humans. Theft, abuse, murder: these are sins we all find repugnant unless we spend time and energy anesthetizing ourselves to them. Dishonesty is also inherently distasteful, but something almost all humans do become at least somewhat comfortable with early in life. In part this is because perfect honesty requires perfect communication, and perfect communication is simply not possible. We will all be misunderstood every day; to encourage a particular kind of misunderstanding is simple, natural, and a slippery slope toward straight-up false testimony.
As teacher, I find that academic honesty comes naturally to only a subset of my students. I have thus far identified two reasons why some seem not to understand it.
Some see the product as the goal; I ask “write a program that does X” and they hear “give me a program that does X” rather than “demonstrate to me that you have gained a particular set of knowledge and skills, a set I happen to know is sufficient to create a program that does X.” Seeing the product as the goal, they reason “I demonstrated my ability to provide that product;” and they are right, they did. But the product was never the goal.
In defense of these students, many of them have different objectives than I do in school overall. My goal is to educate, to help them learn, but their goal is to pass the gatekeeper to the employment they want. As manifest by the majority of my friends’ interactions with speed limits and coppers, if you don’t buy in to the purpose of a regulation then you will break it every chance you get and dislike those who try to enforce it.
The other main reason I find for academic dishonesty is lack of understanding. They find code in the textbook, on my slides, from the TAs, from their friends, and from the Internet. They don’t even pause to consider why the first three of these are fair game and the last two are not. This is a fairly extreme case, however; let me provide a more nuanced illustration.
Suppose I teach my students how to sort a list of numbers, and then I ask them to to two tasks: sort a list of numbers and short a list of points. These tasks measure very different things because they are not symmetric with the instruction I provided. If they sort the list of numbers I can tell that they paid attention and learned what I taught. If they sort the list of points I can tell that they were able to abstract that teaching and apply it in a different but similar situation. However, if they go find some source to teach them how to sort a list of points, they have changed the circumstances completely. It doesn’t matter if that source gives everything they need or just the high-level overview; its existence turns the sorting points task into the same exercise as the sorting numbers task. I never cared if they could sort points; I cared if they could generalize, and by finding the specific example I used they removed my ability to determine that.
There is a third reason to be academically dishonest. Some people are perfectly clear that it is wrong, but do it anyway. We are none of us perfect; some manifest their moral weakness in academic dishonesty. While this reason is the most troubling of the three, it is also one I do not plan to address much in this blog because it is so challenging to solve. Challenging because morality requires much more time to instill than I have at my disposal, and also because our culture is moving toward an institutionalized rejection of religions and philosophies that include absolute morality. The other two reasons I think we can address more systematically and at least in part from within the scope of an academic institution.