Protection, Prevention, or Prosecution?

UPDATE:  I Stand Corrected

In a previous post and this one, I made the assertion that most students do not cheat, but this story about Stanford University freshmen students as well as this information put out by ETS that references statistical data about students and cheating calls that “most” into question. Although, I will stand by my point that those students who do cheat usually fall into one of the first three categories I’ve written about here, rather than the more troubling 4th and 5th categories.

Original post begins here:

In my previous post, I discussed the issue of academic integrity or lack thereof. In this post, I’d like to explore the role of the individual teacher as it relates to academic dishonesty.

Let’s start with two premises.

  1. There will always be some students who cheat at schoolwork.
  2. Prosecuting (for lack of a better word) students who cheat at schoolwork is (increasingly) difficult, and in some cases, impossible.

Do you agree with these premises? I think they are incontrovertible, but let me just add a bit to each premise.

First, there will always be some students who cheat at schoolwork. As I said in the last post, human beings are flawed creatures who make mistakes, even the best of them. History tells us as much. History also tells us that some societies and institutions suffer from more corruption than others, and a given society or institution can see the level of corruption within it fluctuate over time. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but they are not really the subject of this post. Schools can spend as much time on character development as they wish and can have an Honor Council and all of that good stuff, but students come into school with a large part of their character already formed elsewhere, and a school can’t fight all the battles. So back to the premise: there will always be some students who cheat at schoolwork.

Second, prosecuting students who cheat at schoolwork is difficult or impossible, now more so than ever. In any given classroom, there is one teacher for every 15+ students, two eyes to keep track of 30+ possibly wandering ones. Then, when a teacher suspects a student of cheating, she really needs some very strong proof (like a cheat sheet), otherwise it’s one person’s word against another. Technology has made cheating even more challenging to monitor as the ways of cheating have been multiplied exponentially. And this is only the kinds of cheating taking place right in front of the teacher in the classroom. Students sharing information, copying work, or engaging in other dishonest behaviors outside the classroom are even more difficult to monitor. Added to this, students who know there is cheating going on and who might be inclined to report it usually don’t for fear of retaliation. In private schools, especially, “prosecuting” cheaters becomes complicated when paying customers (i.e. parents) become involved. All this combined, and one can see that actually catching the cheating and then holding students accountable is an uphill battle.

If you accept my first two premises, then the question you are probably asking is what is a teacher to do then? The answer is not to throw up one’s hands and say, “Well, then I don’t care. I wash my hands of the matter.” This is incredibly tempting and makes the teacher’s life a lot easier, but it is not the answer. The answer is to shift the focus, and ask oneself, “Who is harmed by cheating in the moment?” Some people will answer that the cheater is harming himself, but while this is a lovely thought and in an ideal world would be true, we live in reality. Reality tells us that in the immediate moment, the cheater – so long as he is not caught – is not harming himself. He gets a better grade, an easier ride. (He may be harming himself in the long run, but this post is about the teacher’s role, remember? The teacher cannot be solely responsible for what happens to that student 5 and 10 years down the line.) In the immediate moment the cheating is harming other students in the classroom and course. Those students are not getting a fair shake, the teacher is not able to gauge accurately the learning of all students and plan accordingly because the assessment results are tainted, and the teacher begins to distrust all students to a certain degree when she suspects foul play. Thus, it’s not the cheaters who are harmed by cheating in the moment, but everyone else around the cheaters.

So my third premise: Students who cheat harm students who do not cheat in the immediate moment.

Now, if you accept my third premise, that should lead you to one last question: How do I, the teacher, protect the non-cheaters? Notice I did not ask, “How do I stop students from cheating?” Now, the answer may end up being the same to both of those questions, and spoiler alert, it does. But the focus of the question is different and that difference is key. Instead of focusing on the cheater, my question is focusing on those students who do not cheat. I’m taking the cheater out of the equation as much as possible.

How do I protect the non-cheaters? I do so through more work, unfortunately. I make different tests and assignments for different class periods, I revise those tests and assignments from year to year, and I do as much as I can to prevent cheating in order to protect the non-cheaters.

So to recap:

  1. There will always be some students who cheat at schoolwork.
  2. Prosecuting (for lack of a better word) students who cheat at schoolwork is (increasingly) difficult, and in some cases, impossible.
  3. Students who cheat harm students who do not cheat in the immediate moment.
  4. The teacher’s role is to protect to the best of his or her ability the non-cheaters.

Falling Through the Looking Glass: A Tale of 4 Cheaters

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was 8 years old who forgot to do her homework.   Let’s call her – oh, I don’t know – Donna. Little Donna failed to do her homework. Being that it was second grade, her homework consisted of the intellectually taxing task of finding a picture of nature – any picture – for a class bulletin board at school. Alas, the little girl forgot to cut a picture from a magazine the night before. Luckily, her friend offered to tear her picture of a field of wildflowers in half (- purple and yellow wildflowers, if Donna remembers correctly.) Donna felt this probably wasn’t quite right. Something in her stomach did a little flip and then a flop when she thought about taking half the picture, but she ignored that little nagging feeling. She took the picture, walked up to her teacher’s desk, and turned the picture in as her own. The teacher smiled and moved on to the next student in line. Donna then walked back to her own smaller desk, feeling quite sick the whole time, and then, what did Donna do? Donna proceeded to succumb slowly but surely to the guilt, and tears followed soon after. Her teacher, probably both confused and bemused, took her kindly into the hall to have a little chat. Immediately, Donna unburdened herself and explained the whole sad truth. The teacher thanked her for her honesty, told her it was okay, and sent her to get a drink of water. Donna returned to class still knowing she did something wrong, still feeling a little queasy from the close call, but generally a bit lighter in spirit.

As you’ve surely guessed by now, that little girl was I. And that incident was the first of 3 times I’ve cheated at schoolwork in my 20+ years as a student.

The second time I cheated was in 8th grade. I allowed a cute boy named Craig to copy my vocabulary homework. (Shoutout to Craig, wherever you are.) I knew it was wrong, but I was in that middle school phase of wanting to be accepted by my peers and wanting to look “cool,” and I chose to ignore that familiar flip of my stomach as I handed over my vocabulary book. Craig, as it turns out, was not very good at hiding two vocabulary books from our teacher. Neither of us thought through the fact that he sat right in front of her desk. She caught him copying, and we both received zeros. This time, instead of breaking down in tears, I played it off as nonchalantly as possible. “Who cares? I can afford the zero,” I told my friends. But inwardly I was ashamed and secretly glad that I had received the zero. I did something wrong, knowingly, and deserved what I got. Receiving the zero didn’t absolve me, but it made the burden of cheating sit just a little lighter on my shoulders.

The third time I cheated was in college. I was home for a long weekend, and I had put off writing a paper in one of my history courses. I planned to do it that weekend, but then my family planned a little day trip, and I, of course, wanted to go. A plan was hatched. You see, my sister went to the same college as I five years earlier, and as luck would have it, she too majored in history. And wouldn’t you know it, but she took the same class from the same professor and received the same assignment. There, on her computer, sat her own paper from just a few years ago. I think you can guess what happened. I took the paper, swapped a few phrases here and there, and typed “Donna” instead of “Tina” at the top. (This was long before Turnitin.com and the like, by the way.) I turned the paper in as my own work, received lovely comments from my professor in return, and received an A- for my efforts. Did I go back and tell him later the work was not my own as I had done so long ago in second grade? No. Did he ferret out my deception and give me a zero as my 8th grade English teacher did? No. No, this time I got away with it.

Except I didn’t. Not really. Dr. Thurston was one of my favorite professors. I took every single class the man offered because I respected him and enjoyed his classes so much. He was a great teacher and always had time for his undergraduate students. There was no reason for me to cheat. I could have probably asked for an extension and gotten one. Or I could have taken a late grade on that one assignment. Or I most likely could have whipped out a paper, maybe not a stellar paper, but a paper to turn in on time. I did none of those things. Instead, I took the “easy” way out and cheated and lied. It’s fifteen years later and I still think about it despite the fact that this was one incident in a long school career that saw me refuse to cheat or refuse to help others cheat relatively often. So no, I didn’t really get away with it after all. I think about how I lied. I feel shame and guilt, especially now that I am a teacher myself. I suppose the one good thing to come out of it was that it was the last time I cheated on my schoolwork despite several more years of undergraduate and graduate work.

Within those three stories, you can see three different kinds of cheaters, I think: The cheater who gives himself up to the authorities. The cheater who gets caught and takes her punishment willingly. The cheater who never gets caught, never gives herself up, but who still feels guilt and shame and who changes her behavior as a result. Honestly, I would love to have any of those cheaters in my classroom, and I know I have had some of at least the first two. I’ve had the student who comes to me and admits he copied. I’ve had the student who gets caught by me or another teacher and willingly accepts a just punishment for her crimes. Hopefully, I have had some of the last kind of cheater as well, although who would know? I don’t want students to cheat, and I certainly don’t believe all students do cheat, but we humans are by nature sinful creatures. Cheating happens, even amongst the best students. So if they are going to cheat, my hope would be that they would fall within one of these categories.

Here’s my fear, however. My fear is that we are facing a generation full of a growing number of the fourth kind of cheater.* This cheater is one who cheats fairly regularly and who sees no ethical or moral problems with such cheating. This cheater openly and without shame admits to cheating, and believes it is just a part of life that everyone should (and must, in their minds) accept, even if not everyone takes part in the behavior. This cheater, in fact, feels justified in cheating and believes those who do not cheat only have themselves to blame since everyone has the option of cheating.   This cheater is actually offended when someone questions his integrity or character as a result of his cheating or suggests that by cheating he is harming others. Read that last sentence again.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait….This cheater is actually offended. At least in the past, when a cheater was caught, 9 times out of 10 he or she had the good sense to at least look sorry for what they had done. These days these fourth kind of cheaters will take you to task for pointing out the error of their ways. We have really fallen through the looking-glass, haven’t we?

I probably am starting to sound too “gloom and doom,” too curmudgeonly for some of you. Rest assured, I know that most students do not cheat, and I know that most students that do cheat do not fall into this last category. I do think, however, that we have more and more students falling into this last category than we did one or two generations ago. That should concern us as parents, teachers, and citizens.  And if it does concern us, what are we going to do about it?

*There’s a fifth kind of cheater. The cheater who does not even recognize what they are doing as cheating. While this may be deeply unsettling, in some ways, the fourth kind of cheating is still worse since they knowingly choose to do wrong.

I Hope My Students Fail and Other Random Thoughts

It’s been a long time since I’ve published a post, and at this time of the year, with the end just in sight, it’s hard to marshal my thoughts for a coherent post about a single topic. Instead I thought I’d get back into the swing of this blog thing by using my first post in a very long while to just list a few things that have been on my mind lately.  Maybe one or all of these will become their own post at a later date, but for now….

  • The title of this post is not an error.  I really did mean to write that I hope my students fail.  I don’t mean I hope they fail an entire course or anything that drastic, but I do hope they fail a test or two along the way.  Whether they fail the test because they didn’t prepare or whether they fail because they just aren’t intellectually “there” yet, I hope they fail something before leaving high school.  It’s healthy for them.  It teaches them how to move on and get it together, how to ask for help, how to adjust.  It teaches them that it’s not the end of the world.  Too many students are coming to their junior and senior years of high school having never failed.  Too many students are leaving high school having never failed.
  • I miss being in a 1:1 classroom.  You get used to the perks of working in an environment where the kids can Google an image of the incident at Tiananmen Square when you forget to put one in your slideshow rather than stop everything and go search for one yourself.  Seems like a small thing, but actually that kind of thing can payoff big time.  Can’t wait until next year when the kids all have computers again….
  • Having said that, I’ve learned from past experience that closing the laptops is important, too.  I’m glad I already went through the transition into a 1:1 environment once.  The experience and wisdom I gained that first time around will be used to great advantage next year.
  • Cheating is demeaning to all involved but getting students to see this is incredibly difficult these days.  I had a student who brazenly admitted that he told students in other classes what was on a test he’d taken earlier in the day and would continue to do so in the future because he knew he might need their help in return.  No shame, no guilt, just an acceptance that that’s the way the world works, that’s the way you get ahead apparently.  Two days later he had no problem signing his name to the school honor’s pledge on a test in my own class.  Anyone want to help me tackle this issue?  I’m all ears.
  • Every now and then you need to remind yourself why you do what you do, especially at this time of the year.  I’m rereading Why Teach? by Mark Edmundson (who also wrote the very thoughtful Why Read?).  If you haven’t read either, give them a try.
  • The way to a student’s brain is through his stomach…or so I’ve been considering.  I was reading a lot of historical fiction over spring break, and I was thinking about why I like historical fiction so much.  It’s because reading historical fiction makes me feel like I can see, taste, and smell the past.  And then I thought, I need to do more to bring the sights and tastes (but probably not the smells) of the past alive in my own classroom.  I’ve been researching historical recipes ever since.  My goal is to make, or have my students make, at least one historical recipe per quarter next year.  I also want to bring in more guest speakers and more historical artifacts when possible so that students have a chance to have a personal and tactile experience with the past, respectively.
  • Teacher recommendations are powerful tools.  I have had students tell me that my letter of recommendation was mentioned by their college admissions office as a key factor in gaining entrance or getting a scholarship, especially at those smaller, more elite institutions.  The recommendation helped set them apart.  Maybe that’s one key in curbing the cheating epidemic.  For instance, you can bet I will not write a recommendation for a student who cheats in my classroom and then shows no sign of remorse after the fact.  Maybe once a student burns this bridge, especially those highly competitive students who cheat because of the pressure to get into the tier one schools, he will think a little more.  Maybe?  (Obviously, if they show remorse, this is a different matter altogether.)
  • I love seeing and hearing from former students.  It reminds me on rough days why I do what I do.  Shoutout to Hannah for our recent visit.  Rita’s Italian Ice is good at any time of the day.  Shoutout to Fox for always recommending good movies and tunes.  I’m actually not one of those people who naturally keeps in touch with people. I wish I was better at it, and it’s not because I don’t love and miss people when I’m not with them.  It’s really just a matter of being rather absentminded most of the time. So I always appreciate it when former students remind me to keep in touch.