Education Opinion

Who’s Cheating Whom?

By Susan Graham — March 30, 2011 3 min read
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I’m sitting at my desk and it’s almost 5 and I want to go home, but I can’t until I work this out. In sixth period, half of my kids were in the lab making pizza- the “how” of learning. The other half had a written assignment analyzing grocery ads identifying food groups and comparing unit prices to determine good food selection choices--the “what” and “why” part. Tomorrow they will flip--today’s appliers will be tomorrow’s analyzers. But in the meantime, I notice that there seems to be a pattern of wrong answers on these papers.

Why are so many kids missing the same questions?
Were the questions confusing?
Did yesterday’s exercises on unit pricing not sink in?
Did I make a mistake when I was creating the tables and working the problems myself?

I sort the papers again looking for patterns and I don’t like the pattern I see. The clusters of wrong answers have a lot to do with proximity. They’re copying.

What to do? It’s not a test. It’s a daily assignment, but I did remind them that they were expected to work independently.
I ask myself, “Was it my fault for not seeing this happen or foreseeing that it would happen?”

Myself justifies, “I’m managing twenty-two kids in three kitchens and at four tables and I’m not the warden. I don’t expect them to work in total silence without looking up. That’s not how the real world works. At the same time, does the distraction of classmates in the kitchen, seating at tables rather than desks, and the smell of hot homemade pizza contribute to contribute a distracting atmosphere that somehow makes the rules seem different in my room? And is that an entirely bad thing?”

I ask myself, “Was it the assignment?”

Myself replies, “I know that they’d all like to be in the kitchen cooking, but they can do that at home more effectively if they understand the why part. The point was to extract the information and apply it to scenarios. As much as 14-year-olds prefer doing, they still need to make meaning of that doing.”

I ask myself, “Is it important that they copied?”

Myself vacillates, “Yes, and no. Yes, because they broke trust and if they didn’t solve the problem for themselves they didn’t learn much. No, because if they were working things out together, they were still learning.

I ask myself, “Should I have made it a group project?”
Myself speculates, “Maybe, but sometimes group work requires more teacher monitoring than independent work because one person does all the work and the rest just write down the answers. It makes it easier for kids who may most need to learn to extract information for themselves to coast on the work of worker bee in the group and creates a lot of pressure on the worker to supply the others with answers.”

I ask myself, “Does this really matter so much?”

Myself replies, “Based on that TM article last week, yes. It matters a lot.”

What did it say?

While most academic interest in cheating has focused on how students cheat and how to stop them, the Harvard-Duke study adds to emerging research suggesting that the mental hoops that students must leap through to justify or distance themselves from cheating can cause long-term damage to their professional and academic habits.

And from Jason M. Stephens, who studies cheating among secondary school students at the University of Connecticut,

We see that the effect of cheating is, the more we engage in dishonest acts, the more we develop these cognitive distortions--ways in which we neutralize the act and almost forget how much we are doing it....Students are more likely to cheat when they are under pressure to get high grades, uncertain about their own ability, unengaged in the material, or some combination of the three. In addition, students are better able to justify cheating in classes where they feel the teacher is unfair or does not attempt to engage them in learning.

I ask myself, “So what are my options?”

Myself says, “Well we could always punish them, but that might just make them better cheaters next time. We could shame them, but if they are insecure or under enormous pressure, or think I’m unfair, is that treating the problem or the symptoms? We could require that they attest to an honor code statement on every assignment, but doesn’t requiring them to write “On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment/exam.” imply “This time I didn’t cheat, but the presumption was that I might have, “imply a lack of faith in the student?”

I ask myself, “But what are you going to do about this tomorrow?”

Myself sighs deeply and replies, “I’m not sure and maybe it’s not my decision to make. Maybe I’ll ask twenty-two 14-year-olds what they think I should do and get them to justify their answer.”

This is not an easy job some days.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.