Students have cheated before; they will cheat again. Unfortunately, this statement is not news to any educator. It is up to you, the teacher, to control this situation in your own classroom. The use of the Internet has taken the plague of plagiarism to epidemic proportions. The phrase "copy and paste" has become the motto of teen-aged researchers everywhere. Instant messaging, text messaging, camera phones, two-way pagers, and PDA’s have brought cheating into the 21st century with a vengeance. Cheating and plagiarism is certainly not new, but technology-savvy students are younger than they used to be. Middle school students now often have more computer know-how than their teachers and parents, making it easier for cheating at a younger age. The disease is spreading. What can we, as educators, do to immunize against cheating and plagiarism in our classrooms?
Understanding the symptoms of cheating is a good beginning. As a teacher, I have regular discussions with my students about the subject of honesty in the classroom. These discussions strongly tie into my views that character education should be the basis of all classroom instruction (see my previously written column, Character Education - The Backbone of Your Classroom). I have found that children feel great pressure from their parents to "get an A." Even honest kids make dishonest judgments in order to make their parents happy. Now add the students’ own internal pressures to keep up with others in the same class, and the stress can become intense. No one likes the feeling of being left behind; cheating to the top can prevent that backward descent.
"Giving credit where credit is due" is a phrase not easily understood when talking about information on the Internet. Some plagiarism occurs because students do not even realize they are cheating. Other students feel they have not been taught the skills to research properly, so they resort to cheating because they do not have confidence in their own abilities. Then there are the disorganized students, who leave homework and projects until the last minute, making them feel it is necessary to cheat to get the work in on time. Finally, the Internet makes cheating so very easy to do. From online encyclopedias and magazines, to novel note sites; from web research paper mills to information sites that actually explain how to cheat; the information is at their fingertips. Furthermore, searching for it is a breeze! It is tempting for even the most honest of students.
If teachers were to survey a group of anonymous students on the subject of academic integrity, they might be surprised to find the number of students who do cheat on tests and projects. There is a fine line between what is considered honest and dishonest behavior. Students discuss test questions and answers in the hallway between periods, yet they do not seem to have any guilt for doing so. Is it possible that there is confusion between what is considered ethical and unethical behavior? In this day and age, when public officials sometimes stretch the truth, has academic integrity become a topic that needs to be thoroughly discussed rather than just assumed?
Educating students during this computer-reliant century requires teachers to consider new strategies for success. This step can begin very simply by modeling what we expect. The next time you "borrow" a worksheet or lesson plan off the Internet, include a work-cited line at the bottom of your page. This form of modeling gives your students the advantage of seeing this research skill in action. It also shows students that it is acceptable to use others’ materials if you have permission to do so, and you give credit to those who originated the idea. Better yet, it shows your students that you are aware of how to use the Internet. This knowledge alone can be a cheating and plagiarism deterrent. If a colleague gives you a great idea for a unit, let the class know which teacher helped you out. Collaboration with contemporaries, at any level, should be encouraged and not concealed. If we model what we expect, we will get better results.
Teaching research skills can be accomplished in many different formats and academic disciplines. It should not be the work of the English teacher alone. This request for collaboration can easily be a discussion within a professional learning community. If educators work in collaboration, skills can be split among the disciplines and taught throughout the course of a year. Interdisciplinary projects can be planned as an assessment for these skills. Many school districts now have laptop carts or computer labs, so skills likes note-taking, outlining, paraphrasing, and proper Internet research can be taught during a class unit. Instead of having students do their research at home, have students bring needed information to class and assist them in taking notes on those research materials. Formulating a personal hypothesis based on a variety of readings takes time. Students needs to learn that turning the written words of others and merging them into their own thoughts does not necessarily mean taking the thesaurus and rearranging each important word in a written piece. Students need to be taught the cognitive process. These research modifications can produce life-long skills that may be as important to the student as the curriculum knowledge itself.
When elementary and middle school students begin learning the research process, it is more secure for teachers to provide specific links to gather information. If you subscribe to a homework website or have a district website, have students use your own site as a home base and provide them with links directly to the research sites. Students will no longer need to surf the net. The added advantage here is that teachers are perceived as Internet-savvy. As a teacher, you know what material is on those pages, so students will not likely plagiarize because they can easily be caught. It might also be helpful for the younger students to have varied due dates for different sections of the assignment. This step makes the workload more manageable for the student and enables the teacher to intervene before the final product appears in class.
At the upper middle school and high school levels, teachers must be aware of what information is available to students on the Net. Before assigning a topic, research it yourself using a number of different search phrases. Once you become familiar with the easily-obtainable Internet information, it becomes fairly straightforward to design a research topic or project that is impracticable for students to plagiarize. Being clear and specific with your assignment expectations is also a necessity. Rubrics and checklists can play a big role in the precision of each assignment. This clarity will help students to recognize what is expected of them and will set in motion the process of having students do their own work.
Projects and reports may need to take on new directions. No longer can teachers simply ask their students to write a biography on a particular president. A report of this nature is practically asking a student to plagiarize. However, to change the biographical nature of a project, by asking students to imagine that they are the parents of a particular president will shine a whole new light on the expectations of the teacher. For example, students can be instructed that they, as parents, will be interviewed by a local newspaper and the reporter (teacher) will be asking, "Of which of your son’s presidency achievements are you the most proud?" This new approach to biographical information allows students to examine, explore, synthesize, and reflect on the information presented on the Internet in order to prepare their final product.
Another methodology to a biographical assignment might be to include a more creative or artistic approach. How might students artistically represent the lives of their favorite president? Then, have students present and explain their artistic impressions to their classmates using the facts gathered in the investigative process. Using the Jigsaw method, which allows students to work together, but each student is responsible for a different part of the research, forces the student to do the research and bring it back to his or her peers. Upon compiling the separate research, students can be asked to work as a group to put together a newsletter or a PowerPoint presentation on the given subject. Do not forget to make a work-cited page a necessary part of the individual grade. Teach students to use the online citation-maker sites like www.easybib.com or www.citationmachine.net. It makes the entire process much less cumbersome, and more user-friendly – which helps to encourage students to do the work properly and stop taking short-cuts. As teachers, with these project-based ideas and online tools, we can now assess the research in a less traditional manner and based on student strengths within various learning styles.
Getting parents on the side of the teacher can also help in the process of preventing cheating and plagiarism in the classroom. For the most part, parents want their children to succeed and to do so honestly. A Home and School workshop on this subject can be of great help to the entire student body. Parents can be taught the methods their children may use to cheat, and in doing so, can learn what to watch for at home. Explaining the district’s policy regarding academic integrity will help parents to understand in advance their child’s consequences for cheating.
The Internet is here to stay. Technology is also here to stay. There is a wealth of knowledge out there, and teachers should provide students the opportunity to tap into it. Students do not necessarily want to cheat to get the job done, but a great number of factors come into play which pressures them. By and large, the majority of students want to do the right thing. With each assignment that is completed in an ethical fashion, students will gain confidence in their research skills. This next statement may be overly optimistic, but some might actually grow to enjoy the research process. If parents, administrators, and teachers join forces, in the best interest of the students, we can inoculate against the epidemic of cheating. Combating the plague of plagiarism and cheating can be successful. This endeavor will produce children who can become talented, ethical, and educated members of society.