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How we teach our children to cheat, lie, and steal

Why do college students plagiarize? Why do they cheat on their assignments? This is something that has always bamboozled me.

After all, they cheat no one but themselves. When you pay to attend classes, it’s your money (or Mom and Dad’s) that you’re shelling out for the privilege. When you cheat to wangle yourself a grade you don’t deserve, you end up paying for something empty, a course that does not do for you what it is advertised to do: furnish your mind. It’s like going into a furniture store, buying a chair, and taking home one with rotten wood and no stuffing—on purpose!

Probably the main reason is the idiotic and corrupt grading system. Grades debase education. They function as a monetary system through which students are “paid” to perform. Grades are the currency of the classroom. And like money, they are the root of much evil.

Students are so greedy for high grades that, like a loan officer in an unscrupulous financial institution going after the gold, they readily compromise ethics and common sense to get them. They steal or buy content for their papers, present it as their own, and then are surprised that anyone cares when they get caught.

Once nabbed, these rip-off artists produce a fine array of predictable excuses. The most common is “it was inadvertent. I didn’t know I couldn’t just copy that and stick it in a paper with no acknowledgment.” The best is “what a coincidence!”

Yes. I actually had a student tell me, after she turned in a paper she had copied from a government pamphlet right down to the heads and subheads, that it was an amazing coincidence that her paper consisted of the same, exact words as some federal information specialist’s. Wonders never cease.

One reason I have students collaborate on group papers (in addition to the obscene overenrollment that makes it impossible to read papers from every individual) is to circumvent plagiarism. If you organize the group well—with at least one A student and at least one B or another A student—you usually end up with one or two people who are too smart to plagiarize and at least one who is too scared. Then of course you have to create an assignment that is so individual there’s no way to find an identical paper on a term paper site or in a fraternity’s file cabinet.

Didn’t work this semester, though. For the first time in recorded history, I received a plagiarized group effort. When I called the little darlings on it and asked why I shouldn’t flunk all six of them in the course, they wailed that they didn’t mean to do it.

Understand. These are university juniors and seniors who claim they don’t know any better than to cheat. To cheat themselves, let us say.

Hey, if it’s only themselves they cheat, why do we care? Why do we care, dear future employers of these fine folks?

Here’s my response to the young things:

You claim that the copy-and-paste effort you turned in was inadvertent (we didn’t mean to highlight, copy, and paste passages of someone else’s work, slap them together unacknowledged, and call it a paper). I suppose anything is possible. Some people don’t mean to get into their cars when they’re three sheets to the wind and weave off down the highway. Others don’t mean for a T-bone steak to leap off the Safeway’s meat counter into their purses. Many a mortgage lender didn’t mean to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars to borrowers who had no believable means to repay the loans and did not understand the concept of “variable rate.” Could be. I suppose.

It’s odd, though. Yours is one of thirteen collaborative groups in this course—eighty students. None of the twelve other groups had any problem with this issue. Where the other seventy-four students used source material, they cited it. Matter of fact, they seemed a bit smug about demonstrating that they’d gone to the trouble to google their subject and actually read something about it. It suggests that people who have reached the elevated rank of university junior or senior might be expected to know what plagiarism is (it’s a very simple concept, related to the idea that T-bone steaks ought not to be permitted to jump into your purse).

Then we have the nature of the paper itself. Six people are in your group. But the magnum opus is only five paragraphs long. This means we have six people who could not bring themselves to write one paragraph each. Whoever did manage to crank out a few words couldn’t quite work up enough energy to write her own words, or to acknowledge the source of the words she lifted somewhere else.

This suggests the paper probably does not represent the work of six people—possibly a couple of people said they would do this assignment and a couple more said they’d do the next one. That’s fine. However, the point of collaborative work is for everyone to at least look at the thing. If two people wrote it and four other people read it, then at least one of the four people should have noticed that it contained no documentation, that it is oddly brief, and that it goes nowhere. It contributes nothing to an argument: all it does is regurgitate. And since a proposal tries to persuade, well…leaving the argumentation to the last minute risks the possibility that no persuasion will ever appear and the proposal will end up being a report, not a proposal.

So, intention or no intention, much is wanting here.

Plagiarism is a reason to fail a student in a course. Not only can you fail the student, you can flag the grade so that it appears in the person’s transcript as a failure by reason of dishonesty.

However, if I try to flunk six students out of my course, I will wish I’d never thought of it. Failing even one student can lead to an enormous hassle. They appeal, they go to the dean, their parents go to the president or the board of regents. Failing six would create a hideous nightmare. I would end up in front of a committee explaining how I designed my course, how I built the assignment, what I expected, what they produced, what everyone else in the class produced, how I know they plagiarized, why the ripped-off passages are plagiarism (no joke!), why plagiarism is not a good thing, why all six of them should be held responsible for one plagiarized paper, and why I dare to think young adults who steal copy from the Internet deserve to fail the course.

For $3,500? Divided by four and one-half months: for $778 a month, less taxes, less deductions? For take-home pay of $440 a month, I should put myself through the tortures of the damned? Not bloody likely.

Instead, I proposed to forgive their crime if they shovel out the Augean stable: They’re to read five documents on plagiarism and on techniques of collaborative writing, editing, and revising-four of which have been posted on the site since the start of the semester-and create a 60-item exam on the material, with the correct answers.

This will get them out of my hair and, should my sanity ever lapse again to the extent that I agree to teach another online course at GDU, will provide a well of questions for an exam on the subject.

But trust me: that lapse will never happen. This incident reminds me why I burned out on teaching five years ago. It’s a good reason to seek another line of work.

Comments at iWeb site:


Mrs. Micah

Wow. I know Micah hates grading, especially freshman papers. And every year, there’s plagiarism (which is fascinating because he makes them write papers about a song or movie…depending on the semester and how it relates to specific course topics. secondary literature is optional and it’s really not writing a paper on hamlet or something common). Anyway, he hates it too, but has only failed one student for it. The rest he’ll just fail the paper, give a stern lecture, and make them write a new and non-plagiarized paper for the 2nd version (he always does a rewrite assignment).

Fortunately it’s something like 1 student per class.

Did I ever tell you my college mentor’s way of putting it? “Grading papers is like holding urine in your mouth.” Yeah.

Thursday, April 24, 2008 – 03:00 PM


There are ways to discourage the practice. Assigning group projects is one. Wily crafting of the assignment is another.

But nothing works 100 percent.

Some faculty no longer care. When the subject of plagiarism comes up in Faculty Senate meetings, many of those present argue that it’s not worth worrying about, and that threatening to flunk a student for this particular form of cheating is an overreaction.

I dunno. Personally, it leaves me thinking there’s just gotta be better ways to make a living.

Thursday, April 24, 2008 – 03:10 PM


How sad, for everyone.

It’s not hjust about the student, though.Thatstudent is going to be a (hopefully) contributing member of society.

Makes me wonder how deeply cheating really affects our society.Did the doctor about to perform my surgery cheat his way through med school?


Thursday, April 24, 2008 – 04:00 PM

Rachel @ Master Your card

I could never understand why students did this either. I guess they are just too lazy to do the work or leave it too late but surely no one gets satisfaction out of a grade that they did not earn themselves …or do they?

Friday, April 25, 2008 – 02:38 AM


If grades are money, why wouldn’t one get satisfaction out of an unearned grade? Aren’t we all thrilled when we win the lottery or wangle a bargain? There’s not much difference.

Many undergraduates are not in college for the learning experience. They’re jumping through the hoops we require of young people before they can get a decently paying job.

Universities, clinging to the outdated idea that they’re in the business of educating minds rather than providing vocational training, demand that students fulfill gen-ed requirements, courses in writing, math, and cultural literacy. Few students see much value in these courses, and many highly resent having to take them.

It’s only to be expected, under those circumstances, that students would try to get through the hoops with the least amount of effort possible. As a culture, we don’t do a universally good job of transmitting ethical values to young people, and that is reflected in their inability to see plagiarism as a very serious issue.

Friday, April 25, 2008 – 05:07 AM

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