Students plagiarize in every facet of education. My dad left his corporate career in 1991 to teach computer programming at our local university. Teaching was fine, but grading was a royal pain for him. The worst pain was when a student cheated by plagiarizing a computer program.
Unlike writing an essay, writing a computer program has very little room for creativity. When I started teaching composition, my dad and I had long talks about what writing meant to each of us. His students needed to learn about writing using mostly imperatives in a specific order. They had to learn vocabulary and syntax. My students had a good grip on vocabulary and a decent sense of syntax, usually, and we got to focus on incorporating the ideas of others and preventing plagiarism. Dad was teaching a somewhat foreign language of English for Computers to inexperienced students; I was teaching Standard Academic English to students with high school experience.
Plagiarism is a slippery snake for writing teachers, as we have discussed in a previous post on how plagiarism can be a teaching opportunity. Composition students can get their hands on pre-written essays from paper mills and custom paper-writing businesses. For the computer programming teacher, plagiarism looks slightly different. Students typically have to cheat the old-fashioned way, by copying directly from a classmate.
Last semester, Dad came across a plagiarized program written in Java. I asked him how he detects plagiarism. After all, there is no Turn It In for programming instructors. He said:
I detect plagiarism just by noticing that a program looks like another one I’ve seen. Often the copies are sent in close together in time so I see one soon after seeing the other. […] When I taught COBOL I actually wrote a program that compared every student’s program with every other student’s program and I could adjust the ‘similarity level’ that I wanted to use. Due to the nature of Java code it’s very difficult to create a similar program for Java programs and I don’t think a TurnItIn for programs is feasible …
A computer programming class is like a mixture of mathematics and language. There are clearer language errors, fewer shades of grey, among written programs as opposed to a written essay. Since students must use specific settings to write their programs, there is an extremely low chance for programs to be shared among students outside of a particular class. Thankfully, that limits the pool of possible plagiarists in a given case.
Despite all the differences between computer science and composition courses, there are some similarities for instructors when faced with a case of plagiarism. As invested teachers, we get emotional, feeling angry and hurt, sometimes literally being sickened by the academic dishonesty. We are suddenly given an immediate priority that trumps the dozens of other duties we have in conducting a class. Find the evidence of plagiarism, identify the guilty students, and take the proper actions. That usually means documenting the evidence, contacting the appropriate faculty member to assist in moving forward in the plagiarism charges, and finally notifying the student(s). If possible, we try to move on with the rest of the semester. Plagiarism is a problem throughout higher education, and connecting with each other through conversations across the curriculum can lead us to strong solutions.
Kaplan University Writing Center