The end of the quarter is coming up, and as things have eased up a bit I’ve been trying to take some time off to do things I enjoy. This week a new book in one of my favorite series came out, and I binged on it yesterday. In the book they mention the principle of least effort, that is, that people will generally put the minimal amount of effort into things to achieve the goal they wish to reach. It’s a perfectly logical principle, and certainly one that I find myself applying regularly.

As I was grading today I encountered some “magical” solutions from students, by which I mean sophisticated solutions from students who have been doing fairly poorly in the class. Normally these magical solutions contain some sort of syntax that we haven’t used yet, which is a dead giveaway that I have an Academic Integrity case on my hands. But these just used things we had done in class, and a search to find the code online didn’t turn anything up. I spent a few minutes sitting there being aggravated about what I believe to be a plagiarism case that I can’t do anything about before I posted the grades.

And then suddenly I realized that the aggravation I’m feeling is because the students who I believe copied code don’t have the same goals I imagine for them. I always assume that students are in my class to learn, and copying code doesn’t help them learn. But I think that the reality of the situation is that students who submit magical solutions aren’t trying to learn: they’re trying to pass the class. And submitting a solution taken from some place else is the last effort thing to do to reach that goal. So while this doesn’t make me feel any better about what they’re doing, it does make it easier to understand. Somehow that helps a bit.

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