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IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 51, NO.

2, MAY 2008

157

On Students Strategy-Preferences for


Managing Difficult Course Work
Hua-Li Jian, Frode Eika Sandnes, Yo-Ping Huang, Senior Member, IEEE, Li Cai, and Kris M. Y. Law

AbstractCourse work plagiarism among university students is


often attributed to ignorance about plagiarism or an assignments
level of difficulty. Students submit other peoples work when they
are unable to solve an assignment themselves. This study, based
on 233 student responses from four cultural regions, investigates
three aspects of academic dishonesty. First, the study identifies students preferred strategies for managing perceptually too difficult
course work. Second, students preferences for responding to help
from fellow students are investigated. Finally, the study measures
students preferences for choosing side in ethical conflicts. Seven
strategies for managing difficult course work, six strategies for responding to requests for help, and five key parties in ethical conflicts are studied using a pair-wise comparison method. The results
show that students prefer to collaborate and use the Internet. The
impact of the teacher is smaller than expected. Factors including
cultural origin, gender, level of study, and field of study have limited impact.
Index TermsCourse work plagiarism, ethics, pair-wise comparison method, student collaboration, student cooperation.

I. INTRODUCTION

ELL-DESIGNED course work stimulates students


learning processes (learning by doing) [1]. Teachers
have to carefully adjust the course work difficulty level. Students need challenges of sufficient difficulty for academic
development to occur. Still, the course work must not be so
difficult that it can be completed only by the upper quartile of
students. Course work perceived by students to be too difficult
is more likely to push students into pursuing undesirable strategies for reaching their goals, compared to course work where
students perceive they are in control.
This study investigates how students respond to assignments
and course work that are too difficult. In particular, which strategies do they choose for overcoming the problem? Seven strategies are studied, namely, to seek legitimate help from the teacher
or teaching assistants, questionable practices such as posting
questions on Internet discussion forums or collaborating with

Manuscript received December 31, 2006; revised July 16, 2007. This work
was supported in part by HiO-KLOK Grant Media Research in Norway-China
and Norwegian Science Council BILAT Grant 180717.
H.-L. Jian is with the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, National Cheng Kung University, Tainan 701, Taiwan, R.O.C.
F. E. Sandnes is with the Faculty of Engineering, Oslo University College,
N-0130 Oslo, Norway (e-mail: frodes@hio.no).
Y.-P. Huang is with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering,
Tatung University, Taipei 104, Taiwan, R.O.C.
L. Cai is with the Computer School, Communications University of China,
Chaoyang District, 100024 Beijing, China.
K. M. Y. Law is with the Department of Manufacturing Engineering and Engineering Management, City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon Tong, Hong
Kong.
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TE.2007.906278

fellow students to solve the problem, and totally unacceptable


practices such as copying the assignments from fellow students,
dividing the workload, searching for and adopting assignments
on the Internet, or unjustifiably asking for extension based on
a false doctors note. Insight into how students rank various
practices for handling difficult assignments is important when
one wishes to deploy countermeasures to eliminate unacceptable practices and promote ethical practices.
Furthermore, the problem is also inspected from the reverse
anglenamely, how do students who have completed their
course work respond to requests for help from fellow students?
Six strategies for managing requests for help are studied,
namely, to point the students in the right direction, let the
students look at their own course work, let the students copy
their course work, inform the teacher of the students, ignore
the students altogether, or provide the students with erroneous
advice. Insight into how students respond to requests for help
from other students is, therefore, important when establishing
ethical guidelines and working practices for an educational
program.
Another important issue is how students rank the various
stakeholders in the educational environment. Are the teacher
and the university really at the top of this hierarchy, or do
students have a different perspective on who is more important? Students, just as all other people, are occasionally faced
with ethical dilemmas. In particular, they may be drawn into
a problematic situation where they have to make a choice.
Should they take the side of the student with whom they may
feel empathy or the teacher who enforces class justice and
ensures overall fairness? To shed light on this issue, the final
part of this study addresses how students choose sides in a
situation of conflict. The five most distinctive stakeholders in
the educational environment are included, namely, the students
themselves, their friends, their parents, their teachers, and their
institution.
Data acquired through a questionnaire issued to students
were analyzed using a pair-wise comparison method. This robust method allows the overall student preferences to be ranked
statistically. Data, based on the responses of 233 students, is
drawn from student populations in four cultural regions across
two continents, including both undergraduate and postgraduate
students, to get a more global perspective. Most of the participants were engineering students. In addition, 57 humanities
students were included for reference.
II. BACKGROUND
The attention plagiarism received in the literature [2][10]
suggests that academic dishonesty is a significant problem in

0018-9359/$25.00 2008 IEEE

158

higher education, especially in programming-oriented computer science courses [11][17]. Academic writing is also a
subject where educators have to struggle with plagiarism [2],
[5], [18][20]. The Internet has been named as one of the
factors making course work plagiarism easier [3]. Teachers
often receive submissions that have not been authored by the
students themselves.
The nature of plagiarism is closely linked to the specific subject areas. An essay is just a sequence of words, and students are,
therefore, usually able to submit something. The difficulty of
teaching programming to first-year computer science students
has received a substantial focus [21], [22]. A computer program
will either work or not work. If students are unable to write a
computer program, then the students are left with few choices.
One option is to collaborate with other students. Group work can
involve everything from plain copying to genuine learning-stimulating collaboration [4]. Based on a set of interviews, Carter [4]
identified three types of studentsthe loners that do not seek
collaboration, the cooperators, and the collaborators who conduct genuine joint work. The patterns found for each of these
groups were that the loners adopt one of three strategies, i.e.,
they manage to complete the work on their own, copy the work
from someone else, or seek help from the teacher. Cooperators behaved according to the following patterns. First, they discuss the problem and possible solutions, and then work independently to produce a first version. Next, they discuss their respective approaches, exchange ideas, and potentially seek help from
the teacher collectively. Finally, they work independently on the
final version. Collaborators would either work together on the
problem throughout the project or divide the work between the
group members, especially if short of time.
Sheard et al. [23] conducted a survey to identify students
attitudes toward cheating and plagiarism. They identified 12
problem areas, namely, multiple students collaborating on an independent assignment, posting questions on Internet discussion
groups, asking teachers for help, reusing previous course work,
borrowing projects from previous years, getting someone else to
do the assignment, copying a classmates work with or without
their permission, failing to report instances where a teacher has
made a mistake in giving the student a too-high score, borrowing
a project from a submission box and copying it, having someone
else taking an examination, using a hidden sheet of paper during
an examination, getting an extension based on a doctors note
although not sick, copying material from a textbook, and dividing assignments with classmates so each person does less.
Sheards study reveals that questionable practices, such as division of labor where a set of assignments are distributed among
several students, is commonplace, while more severe practices,
such as cheating in examinations or stealing course work, is less
common. A study by McGregor and Williamson [24] documents
the connections between plagiarism and learning. In particular,
they found that students who are more likely to resort to plagiarism also are less engaged in their subjects. Furthermore, these
students remember less of the work one month later, are less
curious, and are less capable of recognizing plagiarism, when
compared to students who plagiarize less.
Many students struggle using sources and including content
in their own writing. Common mistakes include lack of quota-

IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 51, NO. 2, MAY 2008

tion marks when students cite text verbatim and lack of citations
to the originating source. Furthermore, many students have difficulties in paraphrasing text when writing literature reviews, etc.
Paraphrasing difficulties have been attributed to the authority of
the source text [2] or that the students may not completely understand the source text they are paraphrasing. The most common
problems in essay writing are paraphrasing by substituting synonyms, repeating selected sentences from the source texts and
alternating between borrowed text and the students own text
[19]. Critical voices also point out that the notion of plagiarism
is not valid across cultural barriers [25], [26]. Chinese heritage
culture (CHC) students learn from the notion of imitating the
master to become like the master [27], [28]. From this perspective, imitation is a positive attribute, and individualism is a less
desirable characteristic. However, learning through imitation is
less prominent in modern Chinese societies, such as Taiwan and
Hong Kong [29].
Many papers address the detection of plagiarism, especially
the automatic detection of plagiarism in computer programs
[12], [14][16], [30][33] and texts such as literature surveys
and essays [18], [20], [34], [35]. Some of these strategies were
proposed nearly 30 years ago [36]. Similar approaches include
tracing how a programming assignment passes among students
by using watermarks [6] and authentication of authorship of student assignments [37]. Assessing the real effectiveness of these
strategies is difficult, but automatic detection tools are unlikely
to hold the complete key to the eradication of plagiarism. A good
system may be able to detect a large percentage of plagiarized
work, especially cases where students copy or adapt their classmates assignments, or assignments from previous years. However, students are likely to adapt and discover ways to outsmart
the system, obscuring their copies so that the system is unable
to match their copies with the original. One computer security
principle is that no systems are foolproof. Furthermore, course
work acquired on the Internet is difficult to detect if the material
is taken from a closed source not directly accessible by search
engines or plagiarism detection software.
Another challenge is what to do about plagiarism once a case
of plagiarism is detected. Expelling students may sometimes be
more difficult than believed. Dealing with cases of plagiarism is
time-consuming, unpleasant, and troublesome. Educators often
ignore the problem altogether [17], [38], or as Zobel [10] puts it,
Our experience in the mytutor case shows that a
case of plagiarism can become much more complex. This
instance ultimately involved around thirty students who
submitted work we believed to be authored by mytutor,
four expulsions, several dropouts, around ten staff actively
participating in the investigation, a prolonged police enquiry, court proceedings, and extensive media interest; and
a break-in [which] may have been connected. Resolution
of the case took over two years.
Ignoring the problem is tempting in countries, such as Norway,
where the public university income is related to the number of
passing students.
Several voices in the literature suggest that the most practical
way of reducing plagiarism is to educate students about plagiarism and how to avoid academic misconduct [7], [9], [39],

JIAN et al.: ON STUDENTS STRATEGY-PREFERENCES FOR MANAGING DIFFICULT COURSE WORK

159

TABLE I
PARTICIPANT DEMOGRAPHICS. THE TABLE LISTS THE TOTAL NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS , THE NUMBER OF FEMALES, THE MEAN AGE, AND THE AGE
STANDARD DEVIATION. UG = UNDERGRADUATES, PG = POSTGRADUATES

and to indoctrinate the students on the institutions no-acceptance policy on plagiarism [40]. Hwang and Gibson [41] suggested that plagiarism can be prevented by adopting suitable
grading strategies. Students may sometimes plagiarize work unintentionally [2], [19] or in pure ignorance [8]. From this viewpoint, instruction is a better remedy than punishment. One needs
to discriminate between undergraduate freshmen, postgraduate
students, and academic staff. Plagiarism is under no circumstances acceptable among postgraduate students and academic
staff where the impact of plagiarism is severe, such as public displays of retraction of papers and editorial apologies [42]. However, undergraduates need to be trained explicitly in proper academic conduct and ethical behavior before they can be expected
to understand plagiarism.
Nonnative English speakers have been shown to adopt various plagiary strategies to overcome their language deficiencies when writing literature reviews [43]. Similarly, this study
is based on the assumption that most cases of plagiarism are the
result of students being left with few other options when they
perceive course work as too difficult to complete within a given
deadline.
III. METHOD
A. Participants
A total of 233 students from five universities in four different
cultural regions across two continents, responded to this study.
The study includes 131 undergraduate students, 71 postgraduate students, and 31 mixed-category students. Respondents included students from both engineering (176) and the human. In Taiwan, students from both the National
ities
Cheng Kung University (NCKU), Tainan, Taiwan, and Tatung
University. Taipei, Taiwan, participated, where NCKU is a national university and Tatung is a private university. In addition, students from City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon
Tong, Communication University of China (formerly Beijing
Broadcasting University), Beijing, and Oslo University College,
Oslo, Norway, took part in the study. The majority of the engineering students were men (138 out of 176), and the majority
of the humanities students were female (42 out of 57). Most
of the students were in their early 20s, with a mean age of 22.3
. Overall, the postgraduate students were a few years
older (mean 26.7,
) than the undergraduate students
).
(mean 20.2,
Table I lists a summary of the demographics for the participants, including the total number of students for each group (and

university), the number of females, the mean age, and standard


deviation.
B. Statistical Approach
A pair-wise comparison method [44] was employed as the
basis for the experimental design. In the pair-wise comparison
method a set of issues is ranked by the respondents. Each pair
of issues is presented to the subject who has to make a decision
about which issue he or she prefers. The pair-wise comparison
method employed is described in the Appendix.
C. Materials
The questionnaires were comprised of four parts. The first
part asked for demographic information (gender and age).
The second part addressed seven strategies for handling difficult course work. Six of these strategies were inspired by the
categories used by Sheard et al. [23], namely, to ask a teacher
for help, to solve the problem with a friend, to post a question
on an Internet discussion group, to search for solutions to similar assignments on the Internet, to copy and change a friends
assignment, to ask for a deadline extension by showing a false
doctors note, and to divide the work among friends. Difficult
course work is a perceived entity that could refer to situations
where students are given insufficient time or information to
complete the course work, the required knowledge exceeds the
knowledge of the student, or students for personal reasons have
fallen behind in their studies. Homework in this context refers
to work that students solve independently in their own time,
i.e., not as part of a supervised tutorial or class. The questions
are based on the assumptions that the teacher consultations do
not incur any negative repercussions and that the teacher is
available to provide assistance, either in person or electronically. The assumption is that the teacher has no knowledge
about the Internet discussion groups used by the students in
this context.
Of these strategies, asking a teacher is a legitimate approach;
posting a question on the Internet and solving an individual
piece of course work in collaboration with classmates are questionable practices; while searching for similar assignments on
the Internet, dividing the labor between friends, copying and
changing a friends assignment, and asking for a deadline using
a false doctors note are unacceptable practices. Two of these
categories involve new media, the Internet, and three of the categories are reliant on social interactions among the students. The
seven categories resulted in 21 pair-wise comparisons.

160

IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 51, NO. 2, MAY 2008

TABLE II
STUDENTS PREFERENCES FOR MANAGING DIFFICULT COURSE WORK ARE LISTED IN TERMS OF THEIR NORMALIZED RANKING COEFFICIENT WITH THE
ACTUAL RANK IN PARENTHESIS. LISTED IS ALSO THE AGREEMENTS U AMONG THE RESPONDENTS, THE  STATISTICS, AND THE CORRESPONDING p-VALUES
(df = 21). UG = UNDERGRADUATES, PG = POSTGRADUATES

Part three addressed six strategies for handling requests for


help from fellow students, namely, to ignore the request, to
point the student in the right direction, to let the student look
at ones course work, to allow the student to copy ones course
work, to notify the teacher about the student, and to give erroneous advice with the intention to better ones own chances.
Ignoring the student, pointing the student in the right direction,
and notifying the teacher are all acceptable practices. However,
to let the student look at course work is questionable, and to
let the student copy course work is unacceptable. Giving false
advice is pure evil. The six categories resulted in 15 pair-wise
comparisons.
The fourth part addressed how the students perceive their
loyalty towards five key stakeholders in their educational environment, namely, themselves, their teacher, their university,
their classmates, and their parents. In other words, if the students were faced with a conflict between stakeholders, principally which side would they choose to support? The five categories required 10 pair-wise comparisons.
Each comparison was listed on a separate line with one option
on the left and the other on the right. The sheet asked the subjects to select, by ticking,1 the preferred choice for each pair.
If they thought both issues were equally important, they were
instructed to select both. The pairs for each part were shuffled
into a random order so that each issue appeared on both the left
and the right side of the questionnaire. The text was printed on
A4 paper, and only one side of the paper was used. The English
and the Norwegian questionnaires required three sheets of papers, and the Chinese questionnaires required only two pages.
The sheets were stapled together in the top left corner.
The original questionnaires were first authored in English so
that they could more easily be discussed among the authors,
and then later translated into Norwegian by the Norwegian author and into traditional Chinese2 by a teaching assistant of the
first author. To check the integrity of the translation, a second
1Subjects were asked to tick and not to cross as crosses can be interpreted
negatively in Chinese culture.
2Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

teaching assistant was used to translate the Chinese questionnaire back into English. An online tool was used to convert the
traditional Chinese version of the questionnaire into simplified
Chinese3 that was then checked and edited by the fourth author.
D. Procedure
The questionnaires for the Taiwanese students were distributed in classs and yielded a return rate of 100%. The
students were given about 10 minutes to complete the questionnaires. The students in China, Hong Kong, and Norway
were contacted via e-mail, and the form was submitted electronically. The data was manually entered into Microsoft Excel
spreadsheets and analyzed using a custom-designed analysis
tool kit.
IV. RESULTS
The results of the study are presented in Tables IIV. Table I
shows a summary of the students demographic information.
Table II lists the results of the first part of the questionnaire,
namely, the normalized ranking coefficients for each of the
seven issues together with the actual rank, the agreement ,
statistics, and their p-values with 21 degrees of freedom.
the
Table III lists the results of the second part of the experiment
where the subjects were asked to rate strategies for handling requests from other students. Note that the p-values are provided
with 15 degrees of freedom. Finally, Table IV lists the results
from the third part of the experiment where students were asked
to indicate their loyalty in a situation of conflict. The p-values
are provided with 10 degrees of freedom.
The data show a strong agreement in the measurements with
values in the range of 0.240.68. The lowest agreement of 0.24
is found among the Chinese postgraduate students when ranking
whose side they will take during a conflict. The strongest agreement of 0.68 was recorded for the Norwegian students ranking
of how to handle requests from other students. The measure.
ments are significantly nonrandom
3Simplified

Chinese characters are used in Mainland China.

JIAN et al.: ON STUDENTS STRATEGY-PREFERENCES FOR MANAGING DIFFICULT COURSE WORK

161

TABLE III
STUDENTS PREFERENCES HANDLING REQUESTS FROM FELLOW STUDENTS LISTED IN TERMS OF THEIR NORMALIZED RANKING COEFFICIENT WITH THE
ACTUAL RANK IN PARENTHESIS. LISTED IS ALSO THE AGREEMENTS U AMONG THE RESPONDENTS, THE  STATISTICS, AND THE CORRESPONDING p-VALUES
(df = 15). UG = UNDERGRADUATES, PG = POSTGRADUATES

TABLE IV
STUDENTS PREFERENCES CHOOSING A SITE DURING A CONFLICT ARE LISTED IN TERMS OF THEIR NORMALIZED RANKING COEFFICIENT WITH THE ACTUAL
RANK IN PARENTHESIS. ALSO LISTED IS THE AGREEMENTS U AMONG THE RESPONDENTS, THE  STATISTICS, AND THE CORRESPONDING p-VALUES (df = 10).
UG = UNDERGRADUATES, PG = POSTGRADUATES

V. DISCUSSION
A. Strategies for Handling Difficult Course Work
The students seem to have similar preferences for handling
difficult course work irrespective of geographical origin, level
of study, and field of study (Table II). All groups prefer to ask
0.24, rank
a friend for help if they have difficulties (
1/7), with the exception of the Mainland Chinese postgraduates and the Taiwanese humanities postgraduates who prefer to
, rank 1/7).
search for a solution on the Internet (
To ask a friend for help can be an acceptable solution. Surprisingly, all groups prefer other alternatives than actually asking
the teacher for help. Four groups rank the teacher second last
0.11, rank 6/7), and four groups rank help from the
(
0.15, rank 4/7). Why are the
teacher in fourth place (
teachers ranked this low, especially as teachers chief purpose
is to supervise and guide students? Perhaps teachers perception of their own supervisory value is overrated? Teachers often
complain about the effort involved when supervising students.
Usually, just a fraction of students actually seek help from the

teacher. These students often demand considerable help, and the


teachers may perceive from their effort that they have done their
part adequately. However, what happens to all the others, i.e.,
the majority, who do not seek help from the teacher? Do they
not have any difficulties? They may be trying other alternatives
instead.
Most groups, with the exception of the humanities students
and the Mainland Chinese postgraduates, rank searching for
0.23,
solutions on the Internet in second place (
rank 2/7). Searching for a solution on the Internet is not an
acceptable strategy unless the students only seek out additional
information that will help them understand the problem and
consequently solve the assignment. Clearly, the Internet has
greatly changed students working habits and approach to
problem solving compared to 15 years ago, since most universities then did not use the Internet for much besides e-mail
and newsgroups. Teaching practices and views of the learning
processes have perhaps not changed at the same pace. Many
students are likely to resort to Internet search engines for any
research and referencing need. Therefore, students need to be

162

trained in ethical Internet working practices because the Internet is also an important tool in their subsequent professional
careers.
The third preference on most groups list was to divide the
0.20, rank 3/7), undeniably
work among friends (
an unacceptable, but common practice. These quantitative findings are consistent with Carters [4] qualitative findings. Students pressed for time divide assignments among themselves
so that, for instance, a student good at mathematics will do
the mathematics assignment, the computer-wiz will do the programming assignments, and so on. They then share the results
afterwards. Unfortunately, the students who are weak in mathematics will not gain any training and lose their chance to improve their mathematics since their assignments have been done
for them. Strong pedagogical reasons exist for hitting down
hard on this malpractice. Division of labor may be a common,
and even essential, practice in industry; but when one receives
credit for work that one has not done, then that credit is a form
of plagiarism. The Mainland Chinese postgraduates and Taiwanese humanities undergraduates deviated from this pattern
since the Mainland Chinese postgraduates ranked division of
, rank 4/7), while the Taiwanese
labor in fourth place (
humanities undergraduates ranked division of labor in second
, rank 2/7).
place (
The practices of copying and changing a friends assignment
and asking for an extension using a false doctors note are for
0.09, rank 6/7)
most groups ranked in second to last (
and last (
0.06, rank 7/7) place, respectively. Both of
these practices are highly unethical. The low rank is a positive
sign that students view these practices as a last resort. Perhaps
asking for a doctors note is too troublesome, may incur some
expense, and may not always be possible (depending on the particular patientdoctor relationship and national practices). Most
teachers receive doctors notes that they suspect are not legitimate. Furthermore, copying a friends assignment is also humiliating for a student, especially if he or she has to ask. The only
exception was the Taiwanese humanities students who ranked
,
using a false doctors note in second to last place (
rank 6/7). The low rankings of false doctors notes are consistent with Sheards [23] findings.
The current study does not reveal why students perceive course
work as being difficult. Some students may have problems managing time and, therefore, struggle to complete assignments on
time. Other students may be distracted by extracurricular activities and, consequently, fall behind in their studies. The teacher
may also be the cause of the problem. For instance, a disparity
may exist between the given course work and the taught material,
or the course work may be poorly designed. Therefore, an open
question is whether the type of problem affects the choice of
strategy for overcoming the difficulty.
B. How Students Help Their Peers
The results in Table III show that the different groups generally agree regarding students preferences for responding
to other students requests for help. All groups declared that
they first would try to point the student in the right direction
0.32, rank 1/6), followed by letting the students
(
look at their own course work (
0.27, rank 2/6).

IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 51, NO. 2, MAY 2008

Students helping each other is a valuable attribute when carried


out cooperatively [4]. Cooperation is even viewed an important
part of learning according to the sociocultural perspective on
pedagogy. However, the students must be aware of the ethical
boundaries.
The groups seem to be divided on whether the request should
be ignored or whether they should allow their course work to
be copied. The students with Western traditions, i.e., the Hong
Kong students, Norwegian students, and most of the Taiwanese
0.19, rank 3/6),
students prefer to ignore a request (
while the Mainland Chinese students prefer to let their course
18, rank 3/6); and they place igwork be copied (
0.12, rank 4/6).
noring the student in fourth place (
This difference can probably be attributed to Mainland China
still being a collectivist society, where the group, i.e., classmates, is in focus rather than the individual; while the Western
and Western-influenced countries have individualistic societies
where everyone is for themselves [27], [28].
Most groups rank informing the teacher about the student
and giving the student erroneous information second last and
last, respectively. Fortunately, most students reject the practice
of spreading ill advice, although this practice is understandable from the students perspective in very competitive environments. In some countries, such as Norway, government policy
states that the grades must follow the normal distribution over
a given window of time, where only 10% of the students are
to receive As, etc. Consequently, the students may adopt the
spreading of ill advice as a survival practice since this strategy
will increase their own chances of obtaining good grades. In
fact, both the Taiwanese engineering sophomore and master
students indicated a preference for giving bad advice to stu0.08, rank 5/6) rather than informing the
dents (
0.06, rank 6/6). Surprisingly, informing
teacher (
the teacher is ranked in second to last place by most students
0.11, rank 5/6). From the teachers perspective,
(
knowing about students who struggle is beneficial. Some do not
initiate contact because of shyness or shame. The informing student will be viewed by the teacher as a caring student if the information is seemingly delivered in a caring way. However, this
view may not be shared by the students. To tell on other students
can be considered treacherous, and students do not wish to have
such a reputation. Others may hold the view that other students
business is not their own.
C. Loyalty
The results suggest that students share preferences for which
side they choose in times of conflict (Table IV). All groups provide the same ranking besides the Mainland Chinese students
who show a small deviation. The institution, i.e., the university,
is ranked the lowest in all categories (
0.10, rank
5/5). Therefore, all other stakeholders will be protected or supported in a potential conflict. As expected, self is the most highly
0.39,
ranked stakeholder among the respondents (
rank 1/5). Self-centeredness is a characteristic of modern society. Only the Mainland Chinese undergraduates ranked par, rank 1/5), and thements higher than themselves (
, rank 2/5). This deviation
selves in second place (
is consistent with the literature which states that CHC students,

JIAN et al.: ON STUDENTS STRATEGY-PREFERENCES FOR MANAGING DIFFICULT COURSE WORK

with the Confucius-oriented background, follow strict power hierarchies, where older is above younger, teacher is above student, and parents are above their children [27], [28]. However,
this effect was not present among the Chinese postgraduate stu, rank 1/5 and
, rank 2/5). One
dents (
possible explanation is that the undergraduates are younger than
their postgraduate peers and are less independent. Their decision
to go to university is likely to be a family matter rather than an
individual endeavor. Therefore, students feel strong links and
loyalty towards their families. Postgraduates, on the other hand,
are more independent and have gained the understanding that
ultimately they must rely on themselves to succeed.
However, all groups rank their parents in second or first place,
even the more Western-oriented students and Western students.
Family is fortunately still an important stakeholder in peoples
lives.
0.23, rank 3/5) and
Next come classmates (
23, rank 4/5) in third and fourth place,
teachers (
respectively. Classmates are ranked higher than teachers.
Therefore, students will protect the interest of themselves, their
family, and their friends before abiding by the interests of the
teacher or the university. Clearly, teachers are ranked higher
than the university, and this rank is probably a result of their
natural social binding to teachers. Students know the teacher,
but the university is an anonymous entity for which the students
feel no empathy. The group of Chinese postgraduates is the only
category that deviates from this pattern. Chinese postgraduates
, rank 3/5),
actually rank their teachers in third place (
, rank
higher than their classmates, in fourth place (
4/5). The teacher is a figure of authority in traditional Chinese
culture. The teacher is an expert with absolute knowledge
which the students should imitate so that they can become like
the teacher [27], [28]. Perhaps this traditional view manifests
itself among the postgraduate students who have to work more
independently than undergraduates who often are taught en
masse. These students perhaps know that they have to rely on
their teacher rather than their fellow students.
D. Differences Attributed to Locale, Subject, Gender, and Age
The responses were also sorted into groups of locale, subject,
gender, and age, and the pair-wise analysis method was repeated
for each group. The results show one small gender-related difference. Males are more likely to post a question in an Internet
discussion forum (
, rank 4/7) than to ask a teacher
, rank 5/7), while females are more likely to ask the
(
teacher (
, rank 4/7) rather than post a question in an
, rank 5/7).
Internet discussion forum (
Furthermore, age seems to be a factor determining whether a
student is going to discuss a problem with a colleague or search
for a solution on the Internet. Younger students aged 22 or less
,
preferred to discuss a problem with a classmate (
rank 1/7) rather than to search for a solution on the Internet
, rank 2/7). Older students aged 23 or more preferred
(
to search for a solution on the Internet (
, rank 1/7)
,
over solving a problem together with a classmate (
rank 2/7).
Moreover, one difference related to locale was found. Unlike
Norway, Taiwan and Hong Kong students prefer to ignore a stu-

163

, rank 3/6) rather than to let


dents request for help (
, rank 4/6); students in
them copy an assignment (
, rank 3/6)
China preferred to let a student copy work (
rather than ignore the request for help (
, rank 4/6).
Finally, the largest differences were observed between the engineering and humanities students. The issues of whether to ask
the teacher, post the question on a discussion group, copy the
assignment, or use a false doctors note were given the ranks
, rank 6/7), (
, rank 4/7), (
, rank
(
, rank 7/7). The humanities students ranked
5/7) and (
, rank
the same issues slightly differently, namely, (
4/7), (
, rank 5/7), (
, rank 7/7), and (
, rank 6/7). Engineering and humanities students also have
different preferences for responding to requests for help. Engineering students prefer to let students copy their assignments
, rank 3/6), ignore the request (
, rank
(
, rank 5/6). Humani4/6), and then tell the teacher (
, rank 3/6),
ties students prefer to ignore the student (
, rank 4/6), and copy the assignment
tell the teacher (
(
, rank 6/6). Verbatim copying is perhaps less relevant for humanities students whose course work is more often
based on individual essays.
VI. CONCLUSION
This study addressed students preferences for managing difficult course work, students preferences for handling requests
from other students, and students preferences for choosing sides
in situations of ethical conflicts. The results show that students
prefer to solve problems together with friends and that searching
for solutions on the Internet comes second. Next, students will divide the labor (third). The supervisory role of the teacher comes
only fourth. Posting questions on Internet discussion forums is
ranked fifth, and copying assignments and using a false doctors
note are ranked sixth and seventh, respectively.
Next, the study shows that when students are asked for help
by fellow students, the first choice is to point the students in the
right direction, followed by letting the students have a look at
their solution. Ignoring the students is in third place followed
by letting the students plagiarize their work, notify the teacher,
and finally provide erroneous advice.
Furthermore, when students are faced with an ethical
dilemma, they are more likely to protect themselves, their parents, their classmates, their teacher, and finally their university.
Clearly, the teacher is not ranked very high, suggesting that the
moral influence of the teacher may be limited.
The results are relatively uniform besides a few minor differences related to geographical or cultural locale, gender, level of
study, and age and field of study. The results suggest that students attitudes toward plagiarism and strategies for handling
difficult situations vary little across different cultural regions.
Therefore, these results do not support the notion of plagiarism
not being transferable across cultural boundaries [25], [26].
In summary, the results show that students tend to collaborate and use the Internet, while the distance between the student
and the teacher is increasing. The implications are that educators need to put emphasis on ethical practices for cooperating in
groups and the use of the Internet to prevent dishonest behavior,
such as plagiarism.

164

IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 51, NO. 2, MAY 2008

APPENDIX

REFERENCES

A. Ranking With Pair-Wise Comparisons


If an issue is preferred over another issue , then issue
is given a score of 1.0, and is given a score of 0.0. Ties are
resolved by giving both issues a score of 0.5. A set of issues
requires
pair-wise comparisons to be fully resolved.
Based on the scores assigned to the issue pairs, the preference
weights for the issues are computed such that the relationship
in (1) is satisfied
(1)
An issue with a large weight is more preferred than one with
a small weight. The weights are computed by summing the
number of times an issue has been preferred over or equal to
other issues and then normalized so that the relationship in (1)
holds.

(2)

where
is an element in a square matrix that represents the
number of times issue was preferred over or found to be equally
preferred to issue for the participants.
Agreement is another useful measure that can be computed
based on the observations. Seip et al. [44] recommend the following definition of agreement, denoted by

(3)

Only elements above or below the diagonal are summed. The


measure of agreement falls in the range from 1.0 to 1, where
a value of 1.0 indicates complete agreement among the subjects,
and a value of 1.0 indicates total disagreement. A value close
to 0.0 indicates that the responses are random. A -test was
used to assess the null hypothesis
that the measurements are
against the hypothesis
that they are not
random
using
random
(4)
The number of degrees of freedom is
were compared to critical values of the

. These values
distribution.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT
The authors would like to thank Prof. K. Seip for proposing
to use the pair-wise comparison method, O. Talberg for valuable proofreading assistance, and Dr. R. W. Waagan for his encouragement and enthusiasm towards the project. The authors
are also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful
comments.

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165

Hua-Li Jian received the M.A. degree in teaching English to speakers of other
languages (TESOL) from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle
upon Tyne, U.K., and the Ph.D. degree in linguistic science from the University
of Reading, Reading, U.K.
She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan. Her
research interests include English language learning, computer-assisted pedagogy, Western and Oriental phonetics, and phonology.

Frode Eika Sandnes received the B.Sc. degree in computer science from the
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., and the Ph.D.
degree in computer science from the University of Reading, Reading, U.K.
He is currently a Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Oslo
University College, Oslo, Norway. His research interests include parallel processing, error-correction, human computer interaction, and university level pedagogy. He is the International Coordinator in the Faculty of Engineering.

Yo-Ping Huang (S88M92SM04) received the Ph.D. degree in electrical


engineering from Texas Tech University, Lubbock, in 1992.
He is currently a Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Tatung University, Taipei, Taiwan. His research interests include intelligent information retrieval, data mining, artificial intelligence, and application
systems for handheld devices.

Li Cai received the Ph.D degree in computer science from Beijing University
of Science and Technology, Beijing, China, and the M.Sc. degree in computer
science from Agriculture University of China, Beijing.
She is currently an Associate Professor and the International Coordinator in
the Computer School at the Communications University of China, Beijing. Her
research interests include artificial neural networks and information security.

Kris M. Y. Law received the B.Eng. degree in manufacturing engineering, the


M.Phil. degree in engineering, and the Ph.D. degree in organizational learning
from City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, in 1995, 1998, and 2007,
respectively.
She is currently a Member of the teaching staff in the Department of Manufacturing Engineering and Engineering Management, City University of Hong
Kong, Kowloon Tong, and a Researcher in the field of organizational learning
and engineering education. Her research interests include action and cooperative learning, Chinese values, learning motivation in organizations, and team
performance management. She has several years experience in the commercial
sector before joining academia.