Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is Cheating Bad Anymore?

That was a silly student-created video on cheating, but the rest of this blog is serious.

One of the assistant principals at the high school sent around this article from the San Francisco Chronicle. It's a long article, but worth reading if you are interested. There were a few statements that really stood out to me, though.

Drugs for Studying
Pope says use of stimulants is on the rise in high school, and more and more kids are using them to take the SAT. As in the debate over the use of steroids in sports, some students don't feel it's morally wrong - because it's still your brain at work - and are ignoring the health risks of taking a drug not meant for them, with no monitoring of dosage or side effects by a doctor. Pope says when she wrote "Doing School" (published in 2001), "it was No-Doz and caffeine. Now, especially in the past five years, it has switched to Adderall, Ritalin and illegal stimulants."

I knew plenty of classmates in college who used Adderall, Ritalin, etc. that wasn't prescribed to them for studying purposes. The would pull all-nighters, take the exam, and then crash. Often the results were actually pretty good. When the payoff a student is seeking is actually achieved, what is to stop her from taking the drugs again for the same purpose? I'm saddened that this practice has spread to high schools; saddened, but not surprised.

Splitting Up the Work Isn't Cheating
"We call it the morning scramble," says Pope. "In the morning at a high school, you see a ton of kids sitting around copying each other's homework. Because a percentage of their grade is based on their turning in their homework. And a lot of these kids are doing so many classes and after-school activities that there's no way they could possibly do all the work required of them. So kids don't even count that as cheating. That's just sort of survival for them: divvying up the work. That's why they're IM-ing (instant messaging) all the time while they're doing homework. It's another way of divvying up the work. It's a way of ensuring that you get it done. It doesn't matter how you do it, just get it done and get it in."

This actually happened to me earlier in the school year. I gave a quiz for which students could bring their notes. I let them type the notes with the caveat that I would check them to ensure they hadn't shared with one another or copied and pasted from the text. I discovered, after everyone had taken the quiz, a group of 5 students who had split up the work. When I confronted them, they were shocked that I considered it cheating. Even several of the parents blatantly told me that they did not consider their children's actions something that would qualify as cheating. After more discussion and research, I found out that many many more students had done the same thing. Rather than ask the kids to tell on each other (and create a culture of distrust among the students), I decided to throw out the entire quiz. Yup, I was willing to be the bad guy in order to send a clear message. My decision was only made after much consultation with other teachers. More controversy erupted from that decision. Once again, I heard from many parents who didn't see the cheating as a good enough reason to justify throwing out the quiz, even though they admitted that, overall, it was not a valid assessment of the students' knowledge or skills under the circumstances. Each parent's argument was based on the concept that his/her child would lose points toward the overall grade. It is all about grades. Integrity seems to take a back seat to the grades.

It's the GOOD Kids Who are Doing It
It used to be that cheating was done by the few, and most often they were the weaker students who couldn't get good grades on their own. There was fear of reprisal and shame if apprehended. Today, there is no stigma left. It is accepted as a normal part of school life, and is more likely to be done by the good students, who are fully capable of getting high marks without cheating. "It's not the dumb kids who cheat," one Bay Area prep school student told me. "It's the kids with a 4.6 grade-point average who are under so much pressure to keep their grades up and get into the best colleges. They're the ones who are smart enough to figure out how to cheat without getting caught."

The anecdote from my own teaching is based on an honors level class. I know that they are the ones under the most pressure and likely to do whatever it takes to succeed, even if it means cheating. On the other hand, there is a little part of me that is proud of them for working together and taking care of one another. Some students feel like they are living their lives in a pressure cooker. If a friend can help release some of the steam and relieve a little pressure, isn't that person a good friend?

Technology Has Taken Cheating to a New Level
Technology has made cheating easier and more sophisticated. But Pirouz says it's not causing the rise in cheating. "Cheaters are causing the rise. Technology is a catalyst, but text-message cheating is big because the cheaters are sending out the message. Some people keep their integrity, but some fall into the trap when it's suggested."

The Internet has provided all sorts of shortcuts for cheaters. They have Wikipedia at their fingertips, and thousands of ready-made term papers available for downloading from sites like Cheaters. com, and

The role technology plays in cheating is HUGE! The conflict I feel is that I love technology and what it makes possible for me to do in my classroom and for my students to learn. Networking tools make it possible for my students to do group projects without ever meeting face to face. They also make it possible for them to text answers to each other during tests. How do we strike a balance?

How do we help students to understand why cheating is wrong when society rewards them based on results, not methodology?

How can we punish kids who are just trying to help each other out when they recognize a friend at the brink of a breakdown?

Tough questions.