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.
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