Most undergraduates have taken the maxim, “There is nothing new under the sun” too far. To them, research is a game of copy-paste or pay-and–get-it-done kind of thing.
Most of them show up for defense ill prepared and utterly devoid of the content of their paper, not to mention their inability to clearly articulate their research problem. If everyone copies someone else’ work, it becomes impossible to advance as a society!
While a number of factors are responsible for this despicable trend of events, lecturers top the list. Sorry if I am overstepping my bounds here but this needs to be said. Usually, students are assigned to various lecturers for supervision. If you truly guide each step of a student’s work, even the most elusive of the students would be scared to cheat. What this means is that the assigned supervisor is obliged to ensure that the end result is reliable, so if the opposite is true, we should be able to point a finger in the right direction.
The problem is that most lecturers are usually too busy to read through student’s work or feel less motivated to and often, the responsibility is relegated to a teaching assistant whose experience and skill is questionable, to say the least. Secondly, most lecturers are quick to admonish students not to plagiarise but spend no second teaching them how to avoid it. Further still, very few lecturers take time to advice students against the off-putting spoon-feeding mentality students have.
Lest we forget, academic work is very specialised, and scholars build theories and thoughts based on the knowledge and ideas that they have studied. In practical terms, this means that ideas evolve slowly, and every an original idea doesn’t have to be as ground-breaking as Newton’s law of motion or Archimedes’ principle. While hoping to discover a new element to add to the periodic table or figuring out the true identity of Shakespeare may seem a little ambitious, it is still necessary to dream big.
Consequently, students must be taught that the real value is in discovering an idea, selecting the best evidence to support it, and taking the necessary steps to argue for/against it. They must be informed that this process not only allows them to show that they are capable of sophisticated thought, but also helps them learn how to think through a problem or set of problems. This kind of thinking is necessary preparation for the longer projects they’ll do later.
Whether working on short assignments or semester-long projects, students must be firmly reminded that even in the context of all the thinking that has come before theirs, they are always capable of injecting their own unique point of view into a paper. If anything, they do their own thinking all the time, long before they begin writing —in class discussion or conversations. Let them know that when they bring sources into the equation, they’re able to go beyond their gut reactions and feelings (“capitalism is good”) to develop more nuanced ideas (“capitalism does a better job of creating incentives for innovation than other systems” or “a capitalist society protects human rights better than other societies”). Sources also allow them to gain access to competing arguments and interpretations, and help to lay the groundwork for their own thinking.
Research is a very important pillar in education and must be nurtured with at most diligence. We as educators must do our part in helping students come up with well researched papers as a lot is at stake.
The writer is a lecturer at The Adventist University of Central Africa