Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Ctrl + C

The BBC did a report yesterday on the percieved lax reaction of universities to plagiarism. While I can't necessarily comment on the study in question, it did remind me of my own brush with the ever watchful university plagiarism checks:

Back in the middle of the first term of first year, I was in the midst of one of the least useful modules I have ever had to do. 'Maths By Computer' was meant to teach me how to use the power of a computer (and, more specifically, the power of MatLab) to solve complex mathematical problems simply and efficiently. In reality, it was a compulsory module in the first term of university, being taught once a week to a room of 300 students at 9am on a Wednesday morning. It was difficult to be interested in a subject that essentially consisted of a technical instruction manual for a product most of us would never use again. We were students, and tired from all the other productive, substantive activities we were doing (activities which, for the moment, escape my memory). Sleep was a precious commodity, and 9am on a Wednesday seemed like a perfect time to cash in.

In any case, the course was assessed on four or five assignments, which generally involved solving a problem on MatLab and handing in a printout of the calculations. The first point to note is that the correct solution to an assignment would be essentially identical between students. This isn't English or History, where putting your own style or spin on the assignment is necessary, this is maths, and there is a right and a wrong answer.

The second point to note is that this is first year, and so students are living in large groups. They are also, naturally, associating, travelling and working in large groups, defined, to a greater or lesser extent, by their choice of subject. Hence, you have a group of mathematicians, say four, working on the same assignment. Are these students meant to work independently, cut off from one another? Eschewing collaboration toward a common goal for personal struggle and achievement? To do so would be to go against a core ideal of mathematics. And that's not just me being facetious. All maths is built on previous work, and maths is only rendered valid by the checking and re-checking of work by peers. So the second point I'm trying to make is that expecting us to work separately was not reasonable, and in the long run, counterproductive.

So, take our "imaginary" group of four mathematicians. They work together and produce a correct solution to the problem. What now? Should they artificially try to alter the solution in a way that changes its appearance but not its content, simply in order to disguise the fact that they helped each other with it? Of course not, that would be a ludicrous thing to have to do. So they hand their work in, and get on with the next assignment. A couple of days later two of them (roommates, as it happens) get emails telling them that their work was unacceptably similar, and that they need to meet with someone to discuss it.

Ultimately, of course, our argument that we were room mates (oh, me and Joe were the two mathematicians, was that not clear?) and couldn't be expected to work on the same assignment totally independently was upheld. It took two missed meetings with a supervisor (we turned up, he didn't) and one angry email to the head of maths before our point of view prevailed, but prevail it did.

So, in terms of the BBC article, I suppose my experience of plagiarism could be one of those 9,000 or so cases that didn't get the full punishment. I believed at the time, and still believe, that any punishment would have been grossly unfair in our situation, and that a lot of the "inconsistencies" in punishment will be down to the particular situation of the offence. It's a hugely difficult area to police, and given that a harsh punishment can cost the student a huge amount of money and time, erring on the side of caution seems like a good idea in general.

In the end we got zero for the assignment in question and were advised to submit all future pieces of work with the names of all those who helped on them.

Not that we did. Who ever got better marks doing that kind of thing?


James said...

I remember being told at the start of our maths course that the best way to learn maths (and in fact any subject) was to try and tackle all the problems together, learning from each other.

We didn't actually do this, but if we had we would have surely had pretty similar work too.

That said I can see it's important when actually giving out certificates that supposedly demonstrate understanding and ability in the holder that said holder should have been properly tested to have said abilities, rather than to have a friend who has them.

TheTelf said...

True. Hooray for totally unworkable education structures.

immedia reaction said...

Well, presumably not unworkable.. as long as you didn't confer in the exam room..

TheTelf said...

You're surely not suggesting that exams are a good measure of understanding?

The Big LeBamski said...

Why does the holder of a qualification have to have been "tested" in order for it to be validated? Why not trust the judgement of someone who has much greater knwoledge in the field, has been trained to teach others in that field and evaluate their knowledge, skills and understanding? What does a relatively small moment in a person's life where they have to put down everything they know about something on pieces of paper have over the expertise of other people? The only problem I can see with trusting the judgement of people is that people form relationships with other people. This however is not a problem with the system but a fault by an individual, and individual fault comes into any form of measurement.

James said...

I think it is unfair to say that the result is based on a few hours in an exam room. The result will be massively dependent on the work you have done over the year and how that's developed your understanding and on the level of revision done for the exam, cementing your understanding. Assuming that the exam is well written it will then be a good reflection of your understanding of your course. Trying to get a lecturer who deals with a 100 students to give a fair analysis of their understanding of a course seems far less likely to be fair or accurate.

TheTelf said...

@Bambi: Because having a system based on trust leaves it more open to abuse? You'd clearly have to have some sort of validation check going on to stop a down-on-their-luck professor giving out qualifications for money.

@James: I maintain that my getting a maths degree was largely based on my ability to do maths exams rather than my ability to do maths. Maybe that means that the exams I took were not well written, but I think any sort of generalised test like that (as opposed to a one-on-one interview) is going to have some level at which you can excel at it without excelling at the subject.

The Big LeBamski said...

@James: I still think that exams are a poor reflection of your abilities. What if you had spent ample time preparing for an exam and knew your stuff, but then woke up on the morning of the exam with a really bad cold? I'm pretty certain you wouldn't do as well as you were able to in that circumstance, and there wouldn't be a huge amount you would be able to do about it.

@Telf: I don't think the system is any more open to corruption than the exam system. Also, apologies if it came across this way, but I didn't mean that one person provide a hundred percent of the basis upon which people receive grades and qualifications. Coursework allows them to do that very well and allows for human understanding, whereas an exam is a cold moment in time marked by somebody who has never met you and no doubt has marked five hundred papers before yours and will mark another five hundred after.

The Big LeBamski said...

Regarding the last point I made - those numbders are clearly based on the GCSE and A Level exam systems. At degree level the numbers go down but the anonymity remains the same.

James said...

@Telf, I'm not sure you can do well at something just through being good at exams, you need some understanding. But it's true exam technique can make a big difference; being able to tell what the best answer to give for this question would be, understanding what the examiners are looking for, etc.
@Bambi, yes, it's true that a cold / exam stress / can affect your performance. I just think the idea of having people judge your performance over the year is either going to have to take the form of a continuous exam (boxes being ticked for understanding) or is going to highly subjective from teacher to teacher and school to school. Tests offer a fairly simple and practical way of judging students abilities across the country.
Also, surely the fact that the examiner has never met you is better for an objective assessment of your work and understanding.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

I generally suck at exams as I don't have a very good memory, thus making revision frustrating and exams even more so. I did manage to do relatively well in some of my exams at uni but more to do with good initial teaching and assignments and revision just topping up my understanding. But my course was predominantly assignments and presentations etc. which I think gives a better idea of your progress, but does depend on the course.

Anyway, I hate exams!

immedia reaction said...

In conclusion, can we say that a number of different assessment methods are necessary and they are all flawed and they are all flawed to a certain extent?

If one person manages to do reasonably well in all the methods, isn't it fair to say they are reasonably competent at that subject? And if we take averages, that are skewed by extreme results in the different areas of assessment, the result will not reflect a truth that isn't there. It just will be the best way of coming up with some sort of measure of ability.

And in answer to Patrick's question about whether exams are a good measure of understanding, I would have to say it depends entirely on the exam. And the subject. And the person sitting it. I've sat some that I thought were, but they were usually English or History exams, that I happened to have revised particularly well and had some interesting and connected thoughts and theories about the subject matter thereof.

So yes, in that instance, exams are a good measure of understanding, if you understand what you're being examined on. And if you don't, you're screwed. Which is, I think, entirely the point...