On Cheating

A recent New York Times article presented a disturbing story about cheating at one of New York's premier high schools, Stuyvesant. More than half of high school students admitted to cheating on a test in the past year and nearly all to cheating on homework. As the article describes the culture of cheating, it's not just the students who are at fault.  There's plenty of blame to go around -- from colleges that overemphasize test scores and GPA numbers to teachers who look the other way or give second chances.

In a career in high schools, I have seen much the same problem, with the worst offenses often from the more accomplished students.  The pervasiveness of smart phones and the internet certainly exacerbates the problem but has not created it. I caught students cheating plenty in the 1980s as well but have observed a shift in student attitudes.  In the 1980s, students who got caught were horrified, as were their parents.  Today, many shrug it off.

In fact, parents can be part of the problem.  Last year my son shared a photograph of his daughter's school project.  All of the students' projects were displayed at open house.  My granddaughter had worked hard on hers and had done good work for a five year old.  Too many of the others were obviously parent designed and executed -- slick professional-looking constructions not at all from the hands of kindergarteners. 

Cheating on homework is taken for granted.  We emphasize getting it done over learning the material, particularly in our grading policies.  (See The Problem with Grades)  Perhaps our accommodations for group work and take home tests have blurred the lines for kids.  Few teachers take the time (or have the time perhaps) to pour over daily homework looking for evidence of copying.  Some simply check off that the work was done, without ever personally examining students' work.  The message to students is that homework is merely a hoop to jump through, not an important learning activity.

Are we assigning homework that is perfunctory?  If so, we need to stop it.  Homework should be an important part of instruction.  The teacher should be able to specifically articulate what students will gain from doing the assignment.  By themselves.  It should challenge, require students to apply newly learned skills, to extend classroom learning to the home environment or reinforce new skills.  And it should not be copiable.  Consider the following possible assignment types:

  • Crossword puzzle with vocabulary from a unit of study
  • Fill in the blank sentences
  • Math problems to solve, with or without showing your work
  • Terms to define from the dictionary

How often would you expect these assignments to be copied?  In my experience, more often than not.  I've assigned them all at some time or other.  And then spent hours uncovering the evidence of copying -- particularly sloppy copying, where one person copies, then another copies him and so on.  Eventually the P in the crossword evolves into a D and the 2 in the math problems into a 7.

But then what?  How should a teacher react?  The teacher's reaction should be precisely as laid out in the first week of school.  From the start, students and parents need a copy of a cheating policy to sign.  Mine let them know that both the copier and the one who shared his work would be held equally responsible, that it was not my job to sort them out.  Offenders would receive a zero on the assignment (that could not be made up) and an F for their quarter grade.  Parents would be notified and a conference arranged.  Sound harsh?  The quarter grade didn't actually get averaged in for the "real" semester grade; it was symbolic but always got everyone's attention.

Just as importantly though, I eventually learned to create more meaningful assignments.  If it could be copied, it probably wasn't worth sending home.   Assignments like these were more likely to require individual effort and, if copied, would be more obvious:

  • Summarize the reading in 25 words, including at least 5 key points.
  • Identify terms used in your reading that are new to you (or used in unfamiliar ways), look them up but write your definitions in your own words.
  • Write at least two questions inspired by the reading but that were not answered there.
These three short activities were part of a Reading Response exercise for social studies classes.  There are many ways to encourage students to do original thinking about content and skills. Good teachers have tool boxes full of them.

Which brings us to the final and not very tactful observation about cheating:  students will cheat most in classes where they have little respect for the instructor and the learning.  If the teacher doesn't bother to check student work, if students are not convinced they can learn from him, there will be more cheating.  We need to ensure that work is meaningful, that it's monitored and that consequences of cheating are known.

We also need to define cheating for a generation that grew up on group work and sharing.  We need to talk about integrity and pride and make sure they understand that we assign homework not to test their compliance, but to challenge their minds.  At our school, some teachers required that essays and term papers be submitted through turnitin.com, a website that scours the web -- and previous work from the school -- for copied material.

There is a certain urgency here.  A society where originality, integrity and personal accomplishment are not valued will fall behind.  If we are assigning work students need to do to learn and they don't endure the challenges of doing it on their own, learning doesn't happen.  Schools that don't address the cheating epidemic are squandering their opportunity to teach.