To Err is Human, To Cheat is a Cry for Help?

A colleague of mine recently put out a survey to some of us “humanities-type” educators on whether or not we wanted to invest into some anti-plagiarism software. What ensued was a conversation between another colleague of mine, Mark Duncan, and I on how and why people cheat and what our role is, as educators, throughout it all.

Mark is a really cool customer, a brilliant English teacher, an amazing writer, and fountain of knowledge when it comes to music produced in the last 1000 years, and a mentor. He has been at our school for 35 years and is essentially the institutional memory of the joint. My point is that I respect him deeply and our chat raised some pretty important things to think about in terms of assessment. He was willing to allow his words to be used here.

The conversation began with a question from the English Department Head:

To others: What do you think about this?

I responded, like a smart alec and whilst putting my kids to bed in the dark via a mobile device with one hand:

I might suggest changing how we assess as a means of curbing plagiarism. I don’t just mean in terms of changing the assignments from year to year, but also the tools.

Gratefully, Mark called me on my comment and demanded greater clarification:

Don’t follow you, Matt. Can you say more?

Oh dear. Now I had to put my money where my mouth was:

If we offer the same assignments each year, then some kids will cheat. If we offer the same assignments like everyone else at every other school, some kids will cheat.

The key is not to have kids simply right a reflection piece on Fifth Business or on the causes of Confederation (for which I am guilty), for example, but to have them think and communicate about ideas that are specific to their experience. For example, one essay Heather and I assigned this year asked students to speak to how the Indian Act may have located to the two main characters of Three Day Road in the middle of a European war. It was fundamentally impossible for kids to cheat. 


We also might want to consider different forms of evaluation – oral evaluation, evaluation whereby students have to interact with peers, with authors, experts, etc. If the assessment is authentic and meaningful, then I have found there is little room and desire to cheat.


Rather than trying to catch kids at cheating, I think we should offer them opportunities to be original. I wonder how many kids cheat in art class? I would bet that there is a sizeable market for Grade 12 major papers out there. What if you changed it up? What if students had to interview an author and then read his or her book? What if Grade 12 students were assigned mentors? What of their essay wasn’t an essay at all? What if, what if?!


Just my ramblings. By no means do I suggest that I have the answers, but the issue was dangled out there and I had to take the bait. I have cced a few folks in the case that my message was equally unclear for them.


Would love to hear your thoughts as this is an important issue that needs many voices.
Peace out,
Mark came back with fundamental issues related to morality and the human condition:
I differ in my assessment of why kids cheat. You seem to be suggesting that the fault is actually with us, since we don’t offer them enough opportunities to be original, our assessments are not “authentic and meaningful”, we aren’t original enough ourselves to come up with new topics every year, etc. This seems to me to be putting the shoe on the wrong foot. There’s this thing called human nature that sometimes gets in the way of making good choices, and the last time I looked adolescents were human. (Well, most of the time.) C. S. Lewis said that there are two indisputable facts about the moral life: 1. We all know, at least past the age of 13, what the right thing is to do, unless we possess no conscience 2. We all know that quite often we don’t do that thing. Kids – like adults – are lazy. They are also – again, like adults – easily tempted. Then they sometimes make poor choices.
I am all for original approaches to assessment, and I try my hardest every year to come up with plagiarism defeating topics. The subject matter we deal with in English, however, often makes that a difficult task. There are a number of factors that contribute to the downfall of the tragic figure, for example – an important topic in the study of literature. I cannot change what Shakespeare or Sophocles wrote. How much literary criticism, now available online, has been written on how those factors operate in, let’s say, King Lear? The mind boggles. This is a different situation, it seems to me, than what prevails in a Visual Arts class. (I don’t even know what a plagiarized art assignment would look like.
One way around this would be to set assignments on writers who are not exactly in the mainstream. I think this idea has merit, but it cannot stymie human nature. Two years ago, I set a topic on an incredibly obscure story, and two of my Grade 12 students plagiarized from the one online source that my exhaustive search for criticism could uncover.
Speaking personally, I never nail kids for plagiarism unless I am 100% convinced that they have taken the easy way out by copying and pasting blocks of words from online sources, copied someone else’s homework or, more rarely, appropriated ideas that are clearly not their own. Turn It In would make it easier to catch kids who decide to do that. That’s all. If we don’t decide to get plagiarism detection software, so be it – we will just continue to do the aggravating detective work ourselves. But I think it is important to recognize that this is not our problem – it belongs to those who make bad decisions, and we have to insist that they own them.
Hmmm… Perhaps this was more complex than I had originally thought, but I was still convinced that as educators we needed to create learning environments whereby cheating was next to impossible or not desirable:
I am not suggesting that student cheating is the fault of teachers. I agree that students who cheat are responsible for cheating. I am also not suggesting that anyone’s assessment practices are not meaningful or authentic. I am just responding to a general malaise communicated to me concerning the regurgitation of major paper topics, sources, and ideas.
I think my main point is that we, as teachers, can only fundamentally control one variable when it comes to the issue of plagiarism: That is the learning experience. I guess my argument would be that we would be better served putting resources into the design of learning experiences, as opposed to trying to catch kids cheating via a software program. This might prove a more fruitful endeavour for everyone and it might elicit the critical thinking and communication we/I claim happens at our school.
I agree that plagiarism is the fault of those who commit the offence, but adults need to help those who feel that they have little choice and we also need to create environments where by the thought never crosses their minds. These notions are perhaps Utopian, but I would prefer to prance around on this side of the issue than become a member of the Plagiarism Police. 
Mark, again, points out that my writing and thinking are not always as clear as mean them to be:
You raise some good points here. Thanks for taking the time to do so.
My sense that you were putting part of the blame for plagiarism on teachers came from your sentence, “If the assessment is authentic and meaningful, then I have found there is little room and desire to cheat.” Since we do have students who cheat …
Your idea that some students feel they have “little choice” but to cheat is an interesting one and deserves further discussion. I agree that creating an environment in which the thought to cheat never crosses a student’s mind would be a Utopian project – one worthy of Swift’s projectors. But I hope this doesn’t make me a happy member of the “Plagiarism Police”, as you put it. That would be a strange badge – no pun intended – of honour. Few things make me more crestfallen than a plagiarized assignment, and I always mete out justice with a heavy heart.
So, here we are – two educators concerned about plagiarism, but looking at it from two different perspectives. I suspect, as Mark and I are finding, that there is some middle ground – room for the cheaters not to cheat and also for educators to create assessment tools that inspire, include, scaffold, nudge, and fundamentally promote the creativity and critical thought we demand.
Thoughts, World?

One thought on “To Err is Human, To Cheat is a Cry for Help?

  1. I would agree with Lewis’s assessment. Plagiarism, cheating is in fact a piece of one’s moral character. With students it certainly is important that we use opportunities to teach and reinforce positive behaviours and when someone takes the easy way out and plagiarises we need to give them the opportunity to do it the right way to understand the task they may have thought they couldn’t do they can. Help the experience and feel success and what rewards come both intrinsically and extrinsically from doing the ‘right thing’.

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