Tips from the McMaster Community

When I give problem sets to my students, they often confer so that the work they submit is not their own.
Alan Harrison, Economics

Students learn in a variety of ways, and this often includes learning from each other. This sort of collusion is often very beneficial and our rigid strictures on plagiarism may lead to the suppression of these benefits. When I distribute problem sets to students, I explicitly encourage them to get together in groups to work on them. In other words, instead of telling students this behaviour is inappropriate, I encourage it!

I insist on only one condition: the final product a student hands in to be graded must be prepared alone. This way, each student is attempting a personal interpretation of what he or she has learned from working with fellow students. Admittedly, I cannot be certain this has occurred. Students may find ways of simply copying one another's work and modifying it sufficiently to escape detection. To combat this I make sure that the final mark based on the problem sets is positive but not large; that the work does not directly contribute too much to the final grade. I say "directly" because I have found that students who participate in a group derive considerable indirect benefit from the experience. They have increased understanding and have less difficulty in subsequent tests and examinations than those students who do not participate in a group.

Some might respond by asking why assignments should contribute anything towards the final grade. They might argue that in this case the only benefit would be the indirect one. This would surely be preferable. My limited experience suggests, however, that students need the extra incentive of the direct benefit.

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