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Don’t Take Cheating Personally

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We spend hours and hours planning lessons, coming up with useful and interesting assignments, and we spend huge amounts of energy directly working with students to help them not only understand those assignments but to actually succeed on them. And after all that, this little bastard turns in an obviously plagiarized piece of writing! How dare they! Do they have THAT little respect for me and my work?! How infuriating!

Every teacher has been there, and even most of us long-timers still once in a while have to deal with a student who cheated. One of the hardest things to do in all of teaching is to not take cheating personally

Whether we like it or not, students’ lives do not revolve around us and our classroom. In fact, when it comes to students who cheat, their teacher is almost certainly the LAST thing on their minds.

Why Do Students Cheat?

There are some cheating scandals that are just shocking. Students paying others to sit for a standardized exam FOR them. Students purchasing a pre-written paper or paying outright for someone else to write a paper customized to a specific prompt. Parents paying agents to scam their children’s ways into elite, competitive schools and colleges. These are pre-meditated crimes intended to defraud an entire system. These high-level cheats are not what I’m talking about.

I am talking about the kind of cheating that happens in a particular class by a single student. 

Usually students cheat because at the last minute they panicked and made a bad decision. Sweating a deadline, facing exhaustion, and imagining horrible scenarios that will play out if the student doesn’t meet the deadline, the student throws a hail mary pass just to find something to turn in. And for a few blessed moments, the student feels relief having made a deadline.

But the relief doesn’t last. 

“Nervous face” by goldberg is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What was panic about a deadline quickly becomes fear of being caught cheating. New imagined scenarios of disaster appear, and the student either can’t take it anymore and admits the cheat, or they learn to compartmentalize the fear and live with it. Neither of these cases is good. The case of the former student usually works out better–assuming they are treated with care and compassion–but in the case of the latter, the student potentially becomes a master at fraud.

It’s Not About You

When students cheat, it is almost never about the teacher. Instead it is the student’s internal battle. So the right question for a compassionate teacher to ask is, How did the student end up in the position of having to deal with panic? Procrastination is the usual answer. Why do people procrastinate? That’s an age-old question about which there have been many hypotheses. But it is never to spite the teacher.

Of course, even when I say never, there are exceptions. I remember a high school teaching colleague who would assign ridiculously lengthy assignments on a broad topic, such as, “Write 25 pages on why The Pentagon Papers are important.” It was well known among students that this teacher NEVER READ the papers. He’d flip through them and assign a grade. Students knew this with such confidence that they would routinely put sentences into the paper that called the teacher names or insulted his teaching style or clothes or his lack of, let’s say, sex appeal. How did I know this? Because students we had in common would show me what they wrote and the “A” and “Good Job!” the teacher wrote on the last page. 

Who did this teacher think they were fooling?!

For the most part, though, students who cheat are not trying to insult the teacher. Their teacher’s feelings are the furthest things from their minds. In fact, cheating might even be a sign that the student doesn’t have a good enough relationship with the teacher. Or, it could mean that the teacher has such a close connection with the student, that the student feels extra pressure not to disappoint and ends up psyching themselves out of the ability to write a paper at all.

What Can Teachers Do?

When teachers discover someone cheated–or they suspect someone of cheating–the should first do their research. Make sure the student did, in fact, cheat. Make sure the student didn’t plagiarize without realizing it (which is remarkably easy to do). Maybe the student engaged in patchwriting, which happens when students aren’t clear about the conventions of academic honesty. 

In a case of patchwriting or some other problem caused by simple and unwillful ignorance, the teacher should meet with the student and ask, “How did you come up with this paragraph?” “Are these your ideas?” In most cases, students will explain what they did, and this becomes an opportunity for a teachable moment. The teacher should then give the student more time to revise the paper, so it is academically honest. I think the student should get full credit for the final effort, but if a teacher thinks that student should get a reduction in points for it, I wouldn’t quibble with that.

What should we do if the student blatantly cheated? The exact same thing.

“Mentor” by Half Chinese is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hopefully the student will acknowledge their missteps, and then another kind of teachable moment can occur. Sometimes I give students an opportunity to redo the paper, sometimes with a penalty. Other times, I report the student to the committee on academic standards (I teach at the college level), and the student is required to take a course on academic honesty, time management, and study skills. I LOVE this because it doesn’t treat the student like a criminal, but as a student who needs help, so they don’t find themselves panicked at a deadline with not enough time to complete the assignment honestly. Once the student completes that course, the entire situation is expunged from their record. If it happens a second time, punitive measures are started.

At the high school level, more discussion with the student is appropriate as is a talk with a guidance counselor and, if it continues, a conversation with the parents.

The Best Strategy is to Prevent the Need to Cheat

There are steps good teachers take that virtually eliminate cheating:

  • Make sure students understand what academic honesty is and why it matters. Most students only know that plagiarism is an “academic crime” and that they should avoid it at all costs. But they don’t know that academic honesty is not really about avoiding crime. It’s about joining a community of thinkers. I find that even many graduate students aren’t clear about this. For more on teaching academic honesty, see “Don’t Teach against Plagiarism, Teach for Academic Honesty.”
  • Design original assignments that make it difficult for students to find work that will fit your assignment. Don’t ask typical questions–except for those god-awful standardized exam prompts for practice. And please don’t do too many of those. They don’t help much.
  • Give students time to write and to study in class, and help them when they get stuck. These skills will be far more valuable to your students than passing any exam or other assignment will be. Students will also learn resilience, cooperation, and their successes will increase their intrinsic motivation.
  • Collect drafts of assignments from students. You don’t even necessarily need to respond to the drafts, but if you look them over, you will quickly see who is doing fine and who needs some help. By doing this, you are also scaffolding the students’ efforts, helping them learn to work according to a schedule, so there is no last-minute panic.
  • Finally, and this is the most important, give the students the ability to get an extension easily and without judgment. For the last year, during the pandemic, I have basically eliminated deadlines. I assign a deadline, but the students can get an extension by simply asking me for it before the stated deadline; they don’t even need to give a reason for it. I discuss this in more detail in a post called “How I Handle Deadline.” So far, no students have taken an extension on every assignment, and I’ve gotten all the assignments to me before I finished grading the whole batch. So it’s been win-win. When/if a problem situation arises, I’ll deal with it then.

Make Your Class about the Students

When students cheat, it is almost always a sign of panic and bad decision-making, sometimes even motivated by respect for the teacher. By working hard to not take cheating personally, teachers can be smarter about what is encouraging the student to cheat and can make it much easier for the teacher to use the ethical breach as a means to a meaningful and lasting teachable moment.

Finding that a student cheated may be the beginning of the best lesson that student has ever learned. When teachers respond with compassion and empathy (not resentment or anger), they can truly change a student’s life and help them truly become a better student and a more successful person for years to come. 

Finding that someone has cheated is really an amazing opportunity to make someone’s world better. Don’t lose that opportunity by making it all about yourself.

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