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.