Published Online: May 8, 2012

Grade the Work, Not the Behavior

"You can't give a student a zero for cheating. You have to separate behavior from academics." That's what my principal said. Still early in my career, I looked at him as though he'd lost his mind. Memories danced in my head: teachers ripping papers in half or wadding up a student's test and aiming for the trash can.

How could I, as a teacher, ever give a student credit after a stunt like cheating? I took that kind of thing personally. That student needed to be punished. And the best way to punish most students is by giving a bad grade, right?

But I respected my principal. And, after some reflection, I realized that I really do want grades to reflect what my students know, not what behavioral choices they make. So I began to change my philosophy on assessment.

Logging Zeroes Doesn't Help

I've had to deal with cheaters often in my middle school, even though you'd think "borrowing" work from others is more of a high school skill. I discover wandering eyes, hands surreptitiously texting, cell phone cameras capturing the image of the test, and homework copied word-for-word from someone else.

I now respond by reassigning the work or re-administering the test by making it different and, if possible, more rigorous. For example, what was at first a multiple-choice quiz may become an essay when I retest the student. Yes, it's more time-consuming than ripping up the original work and giving a zero—but it's worth it to me to actually be able to assess whether or not my students have met my learning goals. I can't determine that if they never do the work.

When it comes to "doing the work," I do whatever it takes to get students to complete assignments. Compiling a grading log full of zeroes for missing homework isn't an option for me.

One trick I began using once grades were calculated on the computer (instead of by hand from my grade book) is to show the student how a grade changes when there's a missing assignment. "Look, Michael," I might say. "There's a zero here for that homework you're missing. Look how your grade changes if I calculate a 50, or half the assignment, in. Now look how it changes with 100."

It's also important for students to know where they stand. I frequently share progress reports so that they don't get so far behind on missing work. Sometimes I print out the reports—but, to save resources, I often simply call a student to my desk for a "grade conference" and have them look at my computer.

My mantra of "I just want them to do the work" has to be balanced with "I can't grade 97 late assignments, some from the first week of the grading period, the night before my grades are due." Determining how much late work to accept is, of course, a personal choice driven by individual teaching philosophies (and in some cases, schoolwide policies). But it is important that makeup work requirements are communicated early and often to students and parents.

Responding to Cheating

None of this is to say that we shouldn't deal with the refusal to turn in work. I handle such situations just as I do any other type of behavior problems. I include parents in the conversation and ask for support from them. I also take away rewards or privileges so that students can (and will) complete missing work. It's amazing how quickly students will turn in assignments if they think they'll miss talking with their friends at lunch. After all, who wants to sit with me, completing work that should've been done three days ago, when they could be solving middle school dramas with their friends?

When it comes to cheating, I make parents aware of the situation, of course. But I never expect the student to admit anything to mom and dad. I've found it's best to merely describe what I saw, or what I have determined by evidence (two papers with the same answers, for example). I give the parents all the details I have, then tell them that I'll be reassigning the work or re-administering the test.

Unless I have solid evidence (security camera footage of a student taking someone else's work out of a locker, for example—which I did see once), I "stick with the facts" and try not to sound accusatory and unyielding.

Of course, when it comes to serious infractions, like physically "stealing" another student's work or using cell phones to distribute images of tests, it's important to follow any relevant school policies. My approach, even in these cases, is to address the behavior, but not in a way that affects the grade.

Cheating is usually symptomatic of a much bigger problem that I can address with the student and the parents. Did he not understand the work? Was there no time to study because of some problems at home (or is the kid just overscheduled with extracurricular activities)? Is peer pressure involved? I treat cheating like any other behavior problem at school, and continue to focus on ensuring that the student is learning in my class.

What About the Future?

I don't want my students to think that just because I badger them until they submit work, and I retest cheaters, that the real world out there will treat them with the same courtesy. I have explicit conversations with them, repeatedly, about what happens to cheaters in college, not to mention what will happen in the workplace if someone steals another's work.

I let them know that it is my job to assess whether or not they're learning in my class, and that these practices work only for me … at this time … in this class. Another teacher down the hallway (or reading this essay!) may have another philosophy.

But for me, the days of ripping up student work are over. And I have a wise principal to thank for helping me see that it's better to "harass them 'til they pass."

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