Motivating Students Not to Fake It

Last month, my husband and I watched a CNBC ‘documentary’ called “Faking the Grade: Classroom Cheaters.” For a full hour (or was it two? – it was too long, regardless), we watched this sensationalist pseudo-journalism, complete with ominous music and images of dark alley homework exchanges and the fuzzed-out faces of youngsters gone wrong. Parents are blamed, electronics are blamed, the media is blamed – a lot of things are blamed for one major problem – apparently, cheating is an epidemic in this country (sort of like AIDS in Africa) – academia is referred to as “ground zero in the war against cheating.” Even worse, if you cheat when you’re young, it’s pretty much your destiny to cheat and lie your entire life. Look at your neighbor’s paper in fourth grade – deadbeat dad by twelfth.

The program goes on to show demonstrations of tools that can help teachers catch young cheaters red handed. A common tool is anti-plagiarism software, such as Turnitin. Teachers can submit student work (or have students do the submission) and TurnItIn will show how much of the paper is plagiarized, if any. Another tool demonstrated on the program included a pen that a teacher could place in his/her pocket; while walking around the classroom, the pen will alert the teacher if a student has a phone or electronic device currently in use. I’m not saying that students don’t cheat; but sometimes I wonder if all of these tools out there to ‘catch’ them might actually be, in part, helping to sustain the problem.

Neil Genzlinger also critiques the piece in the NYT, but his concern is more with the “lack of historical perspective” – this didn’t just start happening. As an educator, my concern is more with the messages that teachers give to students that might actually be motivating them to cheat . I’m concerned about the culture of mistrust that’s created when teachers assume students are going to cheat, and rather than try to create environments in which students want to learn rather than cheat, teachers spend their energy coming up with ways of trying to catch students in the act.

The problem with our educational culture is not that students are inherently evil liars and cheaters. The problem is when teachers design their classes around ‘catching’ students and policing their activity. Here’s an example. A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague about his frustration with students and quizzes. He gave pop quizzes after every reading assignment, and students always failed. When I asked him why he doesn’t announce the quizzes to motivate the students to do the reading, he said, “Then how am I supposed to catch them not doing the reading?” I think there are some teachers out there who feel it is part of their job to show their students that they (the teacher) will always have one up on them (the students). Here’s another example:

Barbara Christe, program director of biomedical engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, says she usually catches three or four students a year with her Web “honey pots.” She sets up phony Web pages that specifically answer questions in her homework assignments and tests with blatantly out-of-date or inaccurate information. Because they are tailored for her course material, her sites typically show up first in Google searches. It’s easy then for Christe to snag those students who took the bait and simply cut and pasted information. Instead of automatically flunking the guilty students (who are typically freshmen), in most cases she tries to use the incidents as a chance to teach how to correctly vet a source. (usnews.com)

Although Professor Christe uses her ‘honey pots’ as teaching moments, I have to wonder a little bit about an educator who purposely sets traps for students to fall into, a person who tempts people to do the wrong thing. Why not just teach about source evaluation at the onset?

Here are some ways to avoid scenarios in which students feel like they should/can/need/want to cheat in classes that incorporate writing assignments:

(1) I only give open-notebook announced quizzes. Why? Because what I want is for students to do the reading and take some notes. I don’t want to catch them not doing the reading. The quiz then serves to reward those who took the time to do the work and as an additional review of what they learned, instead of serving as a penal tool. They learn from the reading, from the note-taking, from taking the quiz, from reviewing the quiz. That’s four times they’ve reviewed the material, instead of one time being caught and learning nothing.

(2) My students do a lot of the writing in class. This way, they have access to me for questions. They have access to each other for consultation. They turn in brainstorming and drafts. I become familiar with their written voices. I know when something isn’t theirs, and they know I will recognize it.

(3) I craft assignments that are nearly impossible to purchase online. My assignments are situated, local, and always ask students to engage their own thinking along with sources they use; they also ask students to write to a very specific audience (and it’s almost never me). A student cannot simply turn in an encyclopedic report on a topic. In this type of assignment, it is more work for the student to figure out a way to cheat than it is to simply do their own writing.

(4) I re-write my assignments and change the requirements every semester. Yes, it’s a little bit of work for me, but it means students can’t recycle work from others. Also, it keeps the reading fresh for me.

(5) I give a lot of low stakes work – assignments that are worth 5 or 10% of the grade. This sends the message that doing poorly on one of these assignments isn’t the end of the world – the stakes aren’t so high that a student panics and plagiarizes. When I was a freshman in high school, there was a huge controversy when several seniors at my school were caught cheating on the SATs (it was on the cover of the Wall Street Journal); these seniors were all headed to ivy league universities. Putting too much pressure on students causes panic, and panic causes bad decision making. It’s easy to make your class a place where panic does not ensue by providing lots of low stakes opportunities for students to succeed and fail without too much consequence.

I’m not saying I don’t have students who cheat. I do. But it is extremely rare. Because I follow these steps above, I rarely even think about it. It doesn’t even become a conversation in the classroom. This way, my students know I’m not out to get them – I’m only there to provide them opportunities to learn.

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