Column originally published on E-Learn Magazine on October 19, 2017.
By Kyoungah Lee, International Programming Coordinator & Advisor, University of Pittsburgh
My brother graduated from high school in South Korea and came to the United States to study engineering. In his first English class, he was very excited to receive his first homework assignment, which was to write sentences using a given set of vocabulary words. He confidently looked up the words in an online dictionary and copied the sample sentences he found there, which is, generally, what students do to complete homework in South Korea — students mainly copy and paste the necessary material. However, his teacher wrote “no plagiarism” on his paper, so my brother asked me what “plagiarism” meant, as his plagiarism was not intentional. It was then that he realized that the education system was different here.
Unfortunately, my brother’s experience is fairly common among international students. Many new international students, in particular from Asia, are not familiar with what constitutes an infraction of academic integrity. Given that students behave rationally based on how they have grown up — how they were trained and educated for more than 10 years — international students often are not aware that certain actions have negative effects in American institutions due to cultural differences.1 As a result, it is possible to see how one’s perception of plagiarism can be based on historical and cultural assumptions.2
Colleges and universities in the United States have increased their efforts to recruit international students, and the number of international students has increased year over year to 1,043,839 in the 2015-2016 academic year. More than 60% of international students come from Asian countries, mostly from China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.3 The education systems in those countries vary from the American system, and this may cause students to commit unintentional academic misconduct in America by not understanding the negative effects and consequences of their actions.
When international students think about academic integrity, they more likely think about cheating during an exam, but not really about proper citation, helping out classmates, or sharing their answers on an assignment or a take-home exam. Copying someone’s homework may not be a big deal in other countries because the role and purpose of homework can be very different, and homework tends not to have a big impact on the final grade. An example of a homework assignment in South Korea would be teachers collecting the students’ class notes, including what teachers wrote on the blackboard, and giving full points homework completion. Another example from a history class would be to write about World War II. In such cases, students tend to copy word for word from Wikipedia or blogs. Teachers spend time writing difficult exam questions in order to differentiate students from one another in the class ranking, rather than spend time carefully checking homework content, because class ranking is what really matters for students to get into a good college. Also, teachers do not warn students about copying homework from the internet or from friends, although they know students will do so because “copying” is not a negative concept in South Korea. Students may submit homework without any citations or references, and they get full points for it. Even though some teachers might not like to see everything copied from an online source, the consequences for doing so are minimal. For instance, teachers may just deduct 5 points off a homework assignment. Due to the competitive study environment in other countries, taking time to do homework might be viewed as wasting time that you could have spent studying for the national exams. Students are not taught about proper citation or APA/MLA format throughout K-12; in contrast, citation is a very important concept that is taught early on in America to prevent plagiarism.
Many students in Asian countries are accustomed to a learning style of memorizing concepts and others’ work, and reproducing them. For instance, in English class, I used to memorize paragraphs and was asked to reproduce the exact words in the same order as proof that I studied. We were educated to have strong memorization skills. There was a famous AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Account) exam prep center in South Korea and many students attended those review sections. Many of those students studied hard and took an AICPA exam in English. After a month, investigators from America flew to Korea because they suspected cheating since a large group of students had the same answers in a writing section. In fact, there was no cheating or dishonesty; students just memorized the same sample answers to the same questions and then wrote them down on the exam. This happens in the writing or speaking portion of the English proficiency tests such as TOEIC and TOEFL, as students tend to memorize answers word by word and reproduce them on exams.
Students in other countries may not hesitate to ask another student for class notes and homework assignments. Also, most will not mind sharing them because class notes and homework assignments do not play a big role in determining students’ final grade. Students from other countries tend to be more collectivistic than American students. In Korean culture, if anyone refuses to share, he/she may be viewed as mean and treated as a social outcast. Because we have a competitive study environment and class ranking really matters in South Korea, some students may worry that a friend might get a higher grade using his or her notes, since tests are based on what the teacher said in class. In that case, they will not want to share their class notes, but will still be generous to the other students if they could not take notes because of a family emergency or sickness.
This education system has worked well in South Korea to help students learn many subject areas in a short amount of time, and be able to understand concepts well and thoroughly. In fact, this is one of the main factors that has helped transform the country and rapidly grow its economy over the past 60 years. This is not to say that one system is better than the others, but rather, that they are different. International students in America should not be excused just because they are not used to the system, nor should institutions change their policies and expectations - it is the student’s responsibility not to violate any academic codes of conduct. Nevertheless, institutes are responsible for educating students properly to support their needs, as having international students simply come over is not enough for them to succeed academically and to pursue their academic dream. In order to provide proper training, it is helpful for staff and faculty to understand cultural differences in academia and to know how to communicate expectations and policies effectively to international students.
1 Thomas, D. A. (2004). How educators can more effectively understand and combat the plagiarism epidemic. Brigham Young University Education & Law Journal, (2), 421–430.
2 Duff, A. H., Rogers, D. P., & Harris, M. B. (2006). International Engineering Students--Avoiding Plagiarism through Understanding the Western Academic Context of Scholarship. European Journal Of Engineering Education, 31(6), 673-681.
3 Institute of International Education. (2016). "Top 25 Places of Origin of International Students, 2014/15-2015/16." Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors