Cheating and Plagiarizing

Ben reads below grade level, and knows that if he whines about how unfair school is, his dad will cave in and do most of the work for him.

Jacqueline knows how to do the math, but she doesn’t think she should have to prove it to the teacher repeatedly via tonight’s homework assignment, so she asks to copy her friend’s homework.

Short on time, Alex finds someone else’s answers to classwork in an open file on the school server, so he cuts and pastes those answers into his own file and submits them as his own.

Jarrel forgets to determine his individual media project for the proposals due today, but he overhears a classmate describing his idea to a friend, then races to the teacher to register the idea before he can.

Darby can’t help glancing at her classmate’s test paper during the test, I mean, it’s right next to her in plain view, and she just needs a hint.

There are a lot of ways to cheat in school, and it’s tempting to do so for students who are impulsive, worried about what peers think of them, anxious about keeping up with school, sleep deprived, under heavy parent pressure, overly scheduled, inconsistent in their own growing morals and time management, and who don’t perceive the bigger picture and consequences of their actions. You know, middle schoolers.

So Why Do Students Cheat?

A quick look at the claims of websites and news reports dedicated to student cheating in the last 10 years finds the majority of students cheat in some fashion in middle and high school. Both boys and girls cheat fairly evenly, as do both struggling students and high achieving students. Here are some reasons:

  1. Limited development of executive function in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, particularly in students’ capacity for time management, decision-making, impulse control, moral reasoning, and awareness of the consequences of one’s actions and how others see them.
  2. School and community beliefs that grades supersede all else. “When students cheat on exams it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.” – Scientist/author Neil DeGrasse Tyson, April 14, 2013 tweet.
  3. Increased competition in fewer academic slots in grade levels above, or for sports or extra-curricular teams chosen because of sincere student interest or because participation in these activities will look good on the student’s academic profile that require high academic standing.
  4. Exhaustion. Young adolescents need 8 to 11 hours of sleep per night, but they rarely get it. Sleep deprived individuals are not attentive to details, nor do they care about high quality work; they just want to get the job done so they can rest.
  5. Increasing high stakes and politicization of state and provincial exams. This is exacerbated by obsessive focus via pep rallies urging students to get passing scores on those exams, or class parties celebrating those students who do get passing scores.
  6. Anxious parents who over-assist students on projects and papers.
  7. Frequency (to the point of normalizing) of adults in local and national culture that cheat in relationships, finances, music, politics, and celebrity.
  8. Panic. Students are blindsided by the test, or project day sneaks up on them suddenly, and no one reminded them of it. They are worried others will discover that they are not as proficient as they profess to be, which could affect their status among peers or in academia.
  9. Lack of personal confidence. Students don’t believe they are capable in the skill or content demonstration: “How can I say it better than the author did?” “I never really got this math,” “I don’t know how this thing works; this is stupid.”
  10. Lack of real skills in citing the work of others.
  11. Poor note-taking skills. They don’t put quotation marks around verbatim quotes when doing research, and later forget what was from the text and what was their own paraphrasing.
  12. Student perception of teachers as adversaries, not advocates. They don’t think teachers “have their back” and will keep them from humiliating themselves or being humiliated. This is especially true for students with poor reading skills. Reading below grade level can be embarrassing. If Daryll responds unsuccessfully to assignments with extended, on-grade-level reading, classmates may find out he doesn’t read as well as they do, so he masks his poor reading skills by getting answers from others.
  13. Disconnected content running through their still-developing minds, some of it pruned and some of it elevated to prominence, but little of it maintaining its clear provenance. Referring to university students, but applicable to young adolescents as well, Associate Professor Michelle Navarre Cleary at DePaul University writes,
    “…[A] student last quarter told me that when she really is involved in a project her brain just picks up word [sic] verbatim so that a week or two later she is not sure whose words they are. She is not alone. A study of English university students reported that ‘It was considered [by the students] highly feasible for a phrase or sentence from a text to lodge in one’s subconscious and be reproduced word-for-word in an assignment'” (Ashworth and Bannister).”
    — From “Top Ten Reasons Students Plagiarize & What You Can Do About It,” 2012,

Constructive Responses to Cheating, including Plagiarism

When a student cheats on a test, record a zero or F in the gradebook for the test, and inform his parents of the cheating. If it will help, inform all of his teachers of the cheating as well. Students will not be happy with the adults in his life knowing about the incident, but these are reasonable responses.

And what is the best course of action? Make it recoverable in full. Ask yourself what your goal is with your cheating student. Hopefully, it’s personal maturation and learning the content and skills of your class. If so, then remember that most often it’s recovery from mistakes that matures students, not being labeled permanently. It’s a false assumption that Fs and zeroes help students build moral fiber or learn self-discipline. Study any research on how to do both of these: Not one study will advise using Fs and zeroes to achieve these goals. So, keep hope alive if you want students to mature and choose not to cheat in the future.

Receiving an F for plagiarizing or cheating without hope of recovery assures students won’t learn the required content. Think about this: When did curriculum incompetence become the proper response to student immaturity and poor judgement? It never did. When teachers make Fs for cheating unrecoverable, they are caving in to students’ immaturity, abdicating their adult role just when it’s needed most.

Let’s not let a students’ immaturity dictate his destiny. Instead, let’s get in his face, so to speak, and require him to do the whole learning and assessment all over again from the beginning, but this time, ethically. And because he broke the trust, ask him to rebuild what has been broken: Tell him he will not be trusted for a finite period of time (six weeks, for example), which means he will not be allowed to work at home on tasks unless he’s in the presence of the teacher’s designee, nor will he be allowed to run errands anywhere in the building by himself, work at a computer without a partner, or be granted deadline extensions. If possible, ask parents to come sit beside their child when the test is re-administered. Students crave trust, this will bother them significantly. The relief they feel when the no-trust policy is lifted is palpable.

To rebuild trust, they will also have to write letters of apology to the class or teacher and to their families, and they may have to do service to the school as a form of restitution. They may need to submit themselves to the school’s restorative justice program, too, but once they have completed the tasks and justice is restored as judged by the community offended, they are reinstated in full, and their earlier indiscretion and cheating is not held against them.

Students learn quickly that they are going to eventually have to complete assignments and assessments ethically, so they might as well do them properly the first time around. An unrecoverable F doesn’t force students through this process of maturation, however. It simply boils in their stomachs, breeding resentment. Invoking the ego’s need for self-preservation doesn’t help students think critically or own their behavior. Excuses—not personal responsibility—grow, and academics wane.

In his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Karon at the University of South Florida describes a powerful mindset for teachers in middle and high school courses, not just for the university level:

“My goal should be to help inculcate honor and integrity rather than build a culture of fear and accusation. …[W]e can develop … guidelines for an effective response: The solution should be positive; that is, show students how to act as responsible scholars and writers. The same tone should be reflected in the syllabus. I have seen many syllabi in which the penalties for plagiarism are laid out in excruciating detail, with no positive models or behavior mentioned … It should help students avoid plagiarism rather than focus on our catching it. The solution should objectively strengthen both students and teachers …. It should also make students and teachers feel as though they are stronger.”

— “A Positive Solution for Plagiarism,”
The Chronicle of Higher Education,
September 18, 2012

Minimizing the Likelihood of Cheating

The goal, of course, is to be proactive and help students avoid cheating and plagiarism completely. To minimize, if not remove, the chance of students’ cheating, including plagiarizing, consider putting several of these elements in place:

  1. Construct assessments that require creative, responses not easily traded among students, classes, and schools. Recall questions, simplistic or common essay prompts, and assignments requiring students to merely find information and include it in presentations without applying it lend themselves to cheating. Instead of defining terms, roots, and prefixes, ask students to coin 10 new words incorporating at least three of these in each term. Instead of solving the math problem, ask students to build a working model of the math concept. Instead of explaining a scientific process, explain how the process is comparable to another domain, such as qualitative and quantitative analysis applied to poetry, diffusion/osmosis applied to cultural trends, or how entropy happens in languages, music, or technology.
  2. It may seem obvious, but let’s declare it nonetheless: Teach students in a developmentally responsive manner, focusing on what works well for middle level students. When students learn well, they grow competent in our disciplines, which reduces the need to cheat. Sometimes students are with teachers who do not teach in an effective manner, and they cheat occasionally just to survive. If your school is not implementing the 16 This We Believe principles from AMLE, that may contribute to student cheating.
  3. In her article, “What Can We Do to Curb Student Cheating?,” Sharon Cromwell quotes middle school science teacher, LeRon Ware, who says,“I try to prevent cheating in my classes from the very beginning of the school year by discussing personal integrity and then going over expectations and logical consequences for failure to abide by class policy concerning cheating … Defining cheating to students needs to be done with great care. If an activity is a cooperative group effort, answers by group consensus might be encouraged. I try to inform my students beforehand what is expected—group work or totally individual work.”
  4. Cromwell quotes teacher, David Summergard, as well, in his 2004 Education Week essay in which he called on teachers to reframe cheating with new urgency. She writes,“Tell students caught cheating that they are liars. Students tend to shrug off cheating by saying, ‘It’s no big deal—everyone does it!’ said Summergard. ‘Connecting cheating with lying unmasks the ‘sleight of mind’ that allows students to think of cheating as a justifiable way to act. While not a perfect solution, the notion of ‘cheating as lying’ helps cast the moral argument more clearly. Students get it. Calling someone a liar may seem harsh, but that’s precisely the point. For students to acknowledge that cheating is a problem, they must feel it as something which is truly wrong.”
    — Sharon Cromwell, 2006, Education World,
  5. Take students on a tour of websites teachers can use to check student work for plagiarism so they see that you take cheating seriously and have the tools to act on that solemn responsibility. In addition, it may be helpful to take students on a tour of a website that sells finished essays students can download and submit as their own. Walk them through the lack of ethics employed when choosing this route, how it undermines real learning and ruins their reputation for years to come.
  6. Teach students executive function skills so they can better manage their studying and preparation, avoid impulsive decisions, appreciate the consequences of their actions, reason morally, and self-regulate. Admonishing or expelling students who have not yet developed these skills is as silly and inappropriate as scolding a baby for not walking in the sixth month of his life.
  7. Stop holding pep rallies focused on state or provincial exam performance, and do not promise students they will have a class party if everyone scores above a certain mark on those exams. Instead, use that time for high quality teaching and student engagement in course curriculum.
  8. Teach proper paraphrasing and summarizing techniques. For more ideas on this, see my book, Summarization in any Subject (ASCD, 2005).
  9. Teach note-taking skills and how to keep track of quotes, gathered information, and citations.
  10. Analyze samples of students’ work that have and have not been plagiarized. Talk about your feelings as you discover the cheating in students’ work, and how they would feel if some of their cultural and sports heroes cheated in their fields.
  11. Use multiple assessments in varied formats, not just one, to determine a student’s true proficiency. It’s far more difficult to cheat across multiple formats and on multiple occasions. The larger pattern of evidence over time and formats yields more accurate reports of student competence.
  12. Outline the class and school rules on cheating and plagiarism. Describe the consequences for infractions.
  13. Show students the test or quiz ahead of time. If we choose questions without easily memorized answers, we’re beginning with the end in mind, as Steven Covey advises, thereby providing clear expectations. With no surprises, students are more confident going into the exam, reducing anxiety and the panicked moment of cheating.
  14. For long-term projects, ask students to periodically submit sub-sections. These status checks are more “organic,” unique to the student, and hard to copy.
  15. Cultivate positive relationships with students. This way they know they can be honest with you, trusting that, if they come to you admitting they are not prepared for the exam, you will find a way for them to learn the material, obtain credit at a later date, and save face.
  16. Allow relearning and reassessing for full credit. Make Fs and zeroes recoverable in full. There’s hope, students reason, so there’s no need to panic and cheat their way to a more acceptable grade. For practical tips on the relearning and redo process, see the second edition of Fair Isn’t Always Equal, being released in November 2017.

The way we deal with conflict and stresses in our 40s, 50s and 60s, including acts of cheating, can be traced to specific learning experiences when we were 10 to 15 years old. We can’t remain indifferent towards students who cheat, but we must be constructive. Help students experience the moral weight of cheating and betrayal: Show students Robert Redford’s compelling movie, Quiz Show, let them read about Lance Armstrong’s doping, and relate the music industry’s dilemma over illegal downloads.

Middle school students have a heightened sense of fairness, hoping the world is ethical, but afraid that it’s not. Assure them that they have the tools to deal with whatever life brings, ethical or not, including adult advocates who demand nothing but honesty, commitment, and morality, and who will walk with them just as assuredly when they wander off the path.