Monthly Archives: July 2015

When Students Cheat (And When They Don’t)

Academic cheating is not my favorite topic to think, talk, or write about. Too negative. But when cheating surfaces in our schools and classrooms, we’re better off if we know how to approach it and respond.

This blog post was jump-started by a Chicago Tribune article that quoted my distaste for sites like Turnitin.com, so I’ll begin there. I’m not a big believer in Turnitin.com – a subscription web site that some schools use to prevent plagiarism. Schools that use Turnitin.com require students to upload their work to the site before submitting it to the teacher with a “receipt” indicating that it has cleared Turnitin.com’s plagiarism detectors.

Why should we base our schools’ cheating policies on such a presumption of guilt? When we use procedures to prevent cheating that impact non-cheaters, we contaminate their attitudes toward learning. Schools requiring students to submit their work to Turnitin.com before it will be accepted by a teacher are saying to kids, “We don’t trust you, not a single one of you. We can’t catch you cheating, but we don’t trust you.” None of us would want that kind of presumptive attitude applied to our work, and students feel the same way. Using Turnitin.com has enormous implications for student morale in our schools.

I’m sure the corporate honchos at Turnitin.com have their legal ducks in a row, but there are still some ethical ducks quacking when we require students to provide their academic work to a for-profit company before we will evaluate it. Consider that Turnitin.com uses our students’ work to enhance its database, which they then sell to other schools. When we require students to use Turnitin.com, we’re pimping our students’ writing and their intellectual efforts. It may be legal but it’s not right.

Some educators cite technology as the reason for an increase in student cheating. I can’t agree. I don’t think there are more cheaters today. Cheaters are going to cheat, or at least try to cheat. A certain percentage of people are amoral, and technology doesn’t make that number go up or down. It might change the mode of cheating, but it doesn’t change the percentage.

On the contrary, technology is the biggest accelerator of learning in generations. Prohibiting technology in schools because of concerns about cheating is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. After all, students used to use crib notes for cheating but we never considered prohibiting paper! The problem is the behavior, not the devices. If we deal with the unethical behavior, the devices will be a benefit and not a problem.

As I said in the Trib article, the best way to prevent plagiarism and cheating is to design learning experiences that cannot be accomplished through cheating. If we ask students to report learning that can be looked up on or copied from an online source, we haven’t really asked them to learn anything. Many schools, classes, and teachers are moving toward the “flipped” model of instruction where technology allows students to spend more time discovering and synthesizing information in ways that are uniquely relevant to them rather than taking in information from a teacher and then regurgitating it on a test. When students report on that kind of learning, it’s highly individualized but still covers the curricular objectives, and is therefore less likely to be the result of cheating. (Or if their reporting is copied from someone else, it’s painfully obvious.) This is the kind of learning that prepares our students for living in a technology-filled 21st century. Teaching students to use technology effectively and ethically is one of our responsibilities.

So what should happen when a student cheats? Cheating is not an academic problem; cheating is a disciplinary problem. A cheater makes a behavioral choice to cheat, and that behavior needs to have some clear disciplinary consequences. Schools are places of learning, and students need to learn that choosing to cheat is not OK. Schools have a cultural obligation to promote ethical behavior.

One of the most uncomfortable situations for a teacher is when we suspect a student is cheating, but we can’t catch her or him, and we can’t prove that cheating is going on. How do we punish cheaters that we can’t catch? My answer is you can’t punish someone without proof. It’s hard to do, but my advice is to let it go if you don’t have proof.

But when you have the proof, that student needs to have consequences that will help her or him learn that cheating is wrong. If you are a teacher with the authority to apply disciplinary measures, do it when you have the proof. If you work in a school where administration needs to be involved, insist on consequences and follow-up with those administrators to make sure that the consequences have been applied.

If you are an administrator reading this, please consider that it’s almost always easier for a teacher to look the other way on cheating situations and just avoid all the unpleasantness that goes with it. So when a teacher comes to you with cheating concerns, please take the situation seriously. If a teacher brings you suspicions of cheating, please listen and provide your best counsel. But if a teacher brings you proof of cheating, punish the cheaters and make it hurt. Don’t play “good cop” and give second chances. Don’t hide behind IEPs or 504 Plans and say your hands are tied. No valid IEP or 504 can consider cheating as acceptable behavior. If your school becomes a cesspool of cheating, good kids will get the message that cheating is accepted and even expected at your school. Authentic learning will stop at your school if cheating becomes the norm.

So, the best way to approach cheating is to prevent, prevent, prevent. We can do this by fostering environments in our schools and classrooms that emphasize learning over grades. We can preclude plagiarism and other forms of cheating by designing creative learning experiences that only work when students report their own individual learning experiences. We can make cheating less likely by modeling openness, honesty and ethical behavior in our dealings with students. If we model respect in our classes, students are more likely to act respectfully and less likely to cheat.

But cheating will still happen on occasion, and each of us is likely to deal with at least a handful of nasty cheating episodes in our teaching careers. When students cheat, we need to keep our emotions in check, maintain our professionalism, and apply consequences to that behavior that make the student more likely to choose different behaviors in the future.

Please don’t let plagiarism and cheating concerns become your primary focus at work. That’s not healthy. Enjoy your work. Now let’s talk about something else.

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How Do We Teach Style in Research Writing?

research_0“And this needs to be in MLA format.”

Those of us who teach in the humanities frequently ask our students to use MLA format when writing research documentation. Because a lot of research writing tends to come through English classes, especially in high school, students are most often exposed to MLA rules for citing sources.

Although there is nothing wrong with that, teachers should know that APA style is also alive and well on college campuses. Focusing exclusively on MLA might cause problems for students when they step foot on a college campus. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for teaching research writing in high school and introductory college writing classes.

Let’s take a step back. MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association, an organization focused on the use and study of language, primarily in academic settings associated with the humanities. APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association, an organization focused on all aspects of psychology that has developed a set of rules and standards for scientific writing used across many disciplines. Although MLA and APA are the most common formats used on college campuses, there are some professors who require papers written in other formats: Turabian, Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Because college students are likely to encounter multiple documentation formats in their classes, introducing students to research writing by requiring them to memorize the specifics of a particular documentation format is less important than helping them know how to find the right format. After all, the formatting rules change from time to time rendering obsolete those memorized specifics. If a student knows MLA and only MLA, confusion can arise when college professors require other formats.

Although I work with many humanities students using MLA format for documentation, one of my biggest eye-openers from working in our college’s writing center is the depth involved in the term “APA style.” Papers written in “APA style” for a nursing, psychology, or sociology class look very different from interpretive papers for an English class or a narrative for a child development class.

In other words, an individual college student is required to write in widely varying styles as he goes from class to class, so as we prepare students for college writing, we need to make them aware of these different expectations.

For example, in addition to documentation and page layout, APA style actually includes a rhetorical stance that emphasizes precision, clarity, and objectivity, which is consistent with APA’s scientific orientation.

apa pub manWhile more expressive writing may strive for variety by using synonyms, the APA Publication Manual suggests that using synonyms is risky in scientific writing: “The intention is commendable, but by using synonyms you may unintentionally suggest a subtle difference. Therefore, choose synonyms with care. The discreet use of pronouns can often relieve the monotonous repetition of a term without introducing ambiguity.”

APA style also prefers “economy of expression”: “Say only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” (“Publication” as used here clearly refers to academic or technical journals.)

For precision and clarity, APA suggests avoiding colloquial expressions and jargon, and being careful when using pronouns or comparisons.

APA style also has no use for what the Publication Manual calls “linguistic devices”: “Devices that attract attention to words, sounds, or other embellishments instead of to ideas are inappropriate in scientific writing. Avoid heavy alliteration, rhyming, poetic expressions, and clichés. Use metaphors sparingly … Use figurative expressions with restraint and colorful expressions with care.”

Perhaps the most important element of writing in APA style is the issue of bias. The APA Publication Manual devotes seven pages to guidelines for reducing bias in language relevant to gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and “historical and interpretive inaccuracies.” Objectivity is obviously important in scientific writing: “If your writing reflects respect for your participants and your readers and if you write with appropriate specificity and precision, you will be contributing to the goal of accurate, unbiased communication.”

So, if we want students to be college-ready writers when it comes to research, here are some suggestions:

1. Provide students with practice in a variety of rhetorical stances, including those without traces of subjectivity or bias. In an earlier post, I wrote about how students think they are not supposed to use “I” in their writing, although they frequently misunderstand the intention of that rule. Be the teacher who helps writers understand how to adapt their writing to all kinds of situations.

2. Provide students with practice in following in detail at least one specific documentation format, but make sure they are aware of the existence of others.

3. Help students understand the mechanics and purposes of documentation. Be aware of the existence of automatic citation generators such as EasyBib, BibMe (my favorite), and Citation Machine. These are amazing time-savers, but they work more smoothly for those who understand what is being created. Although students are responsible for the results of their work, those who use these sites are not cheating.. In fact, many databases and college libraries now provide citations in a variety of formats alongside the entries so that users can simply cut-and-paste them.

expository_books4. Help students understand the dichotomy of research writing. Research is not writing, and writing is not research. They are two separate activities. As we said in Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, “Good writers can create sloppy, meaningless research projects, and good researchers can write research papers that are dreadful to read.”

Of course, research writing is just one element of a healthy writing curriculum. In addition to the research writing discussed here, young writers need opportunities to practice narrative, analytical, expository, personal, and creative writing. Students who are comfortable and competent in all of those modes are ready to face not only academic writing challenges but can also embrace writing as a vital, fulfilling means of expression.

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