Students copy and plagiarize the work of others because they can pass by doing so. They copy because it allows them to appear to understand a subject that is in reality beyond their understanding. They copy because of insecurity about saying what they actually think or feel and to avoid being made fun of or embarrassed if they make mistakes or if they don’t have the same view as their professor. Students copy because they feel bored, underappreciated, or when they are not stimulated or intellectually challenged and feel that their time is being wasted with irrelevant or burdensome assignments. Students copy because they have weaknesses or a lack of motivation when it comes to school work. They copy because if there is not any appreciable connection or good working relationship between teacher and student it therefore does not bother them to display a lack of seriousness towards their work. They copy because they are afraid that they are not capable of achieving the desired results or because they fear the consequences (embarrassment, punishments) of poor results. Students copy when they believe that the ultimate goal of their studies is to obtain good grades or to be ranked or compared to others as a result of their grades. In general, copying and plagiarizing the work of others is a simple way for students to cope with a number of painful or disheartening scholastic realities. Yet, school authorities continue to treat this activity as derelict or immoral.

Just as the transgression of committing a foul in a soccer game is to be sanctioned but not to be considered immoral, copying during an exam or while working on an assignment is something that deserves a reprimand but it is highly arguable that it should be considered an indication of immorality.

Much more immoral than copying the work of another student during an exam would be, for example, when a teacher with a strong faith in God forces this faith upon all of his or her students as infallible and unquestionable doctrine. Modern pedagogy must not allow for this type of systematic aggression towards the human mind that comes from forcing children to turn their minds into simple hard discs with the sole purpose of storing information without even the requisite software needed to make this information profitable.

In “Who’s Cheating Whom?” (Phi Delta Kappan, October 2007), Alfie Kohn maintains that beyond just blaming students for copying or plagiarizing, it would be useful to ask the question as to why so many students do things that they are not supposed to be doing, and what these transgressions tell us about scholastic pedagogy. Sometimes we give so much attention to personality traits and the conduct of individuals that we lose sight of how social context affects what we do and who we are. We tend to treat each transgression or academic difficulty as if it was the result of incompetence or the impure intentions of the students. We do so without giving attention to the context in which these attitudes occur. In doing so, we blame the student that copies, without considering that the act being committed by the student is nothing more than a reaction to the often intellectually counterproductive pressure under which he or she is working.

To summarize, it should be understood that students do not copy because they are bad people. The habit of copying can be better understood as a symptom of the faulty priorities or pedagogical foci of the school itself rather than merely a premeditated and reproachable misconduct of the students.

The type of reflection needed regarding this topic is the following: If copying is an infraction against the rules of the game of some scholastic activity refereed by pedagogical authorities, how should we assess the ethics of school authorities and professors who through their attitudes, methodologies, and demands induce their students to copy? Is it not immoral to lead others, especially those that are minors, to commit infractions? If we do not want students to copy, we should avoid putting them in situations that tempt them to do so in order to avoid boredom, overwhelming workloads, memorization, pain, competition, or the obsession with achieving good grades as the supreme goal of learning. If we are not thinking on the same levels as the students learning underneath us, we must retrain ourselves or search for other professions, but we must not unload the responsibility for our faults on the victims themselves.

León Trahtemberg
Invited Editor