Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Student Cheating

I read an article in the paper recently about the state of cheating in schools today. The worst for dishonest practices apparently are business students; a survey showed that 74% indulged in dishonest academic behaviour, followed closely by engineering students. A myriad of devices are now available for high tech cheating, including the Internet, cellphones, Blackberrys, and some of the traditional methods persist as well (writing on hands, bathroom visits, speaking to students who wrote the test earlier, etc.)

In my years as a high school English teacher, very few semesters passed without my apprehending one or two students guilty of the most common form of academic dishonesty, plagiarism; while most of my students were honest and hardworking, the few that weren’t deeply affected me. It was no lie when I would tell my charges that each case of dishonesty I uncovered took a tremendous toll on me emotionally, I think because I always took such acts quite personally, and I was also deeply offended over the disrespect that it showed for the collective, i.e., the rest of the class. For me academic dishonesty usually meant two things: laziness as well as a certain contempt for me, the assumption being that I either wouldn’t detect it or would simply overlook it.

Both were incorrect assumptions. I used to warn the kids that I was something of a pit bull when it came to cheating. Once I suspected it, I wouldn’t let it go. Sometimes I would spend upwards of 2 or more hours trying to ferret out suspected plagiarism in order to uphold academic integrity.

Just as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her seminal work, On Death and Dying, identified 5 stages of grief that dying people experience (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance), I found that there were corresponding levels experienced by those caught in plagiarism:

Denial – the student initially responded with wide-eyed innocence, his/her physiognomy simultaneously displaying both disbelief and deep suspicions about the sanity of her/his accuser.

Anger – the more experienced cheater often had impressive acting talents, frequently expressing indignation, outrage, and/or sorrow that such an unworthy suspicion had taken hold of my mind. It was usually at this point I would ask the student if she/he had a mirror. “A mirror?” they would ask. “Yes,” I would say, “because I want to see if I look as stupid as you obviously think I am.”

Ignorance – when confronted with the proof of the plagiarism, the usual response was to profess ignorance that the action violated academic rules. Usually this was accompanied by a ‘mitigating circumstance defence,’ consisting either of, “I put most of it in my own words,” or, “I was only looking for additional ideas,” or variations thereof. Occasionally I was blamed, as the student feared he/she “couldn’t meet my high standards.”

Bargaining – depending upon the student, this stage could involve angling to be given the opportunity to do a make-up assignment or pleading that the parents not be informed. Unfortunately, these otherwise callow youths failed to realize that bargaining is possible only when both sides have something the other wants.

Remorse/Acceptance – if the student was a first-time offender, he/she would sometimes experience remorse over the transgression, and promise never to do it again. Veterans of the experience would often just shrug their shoulders at this point, probably uncontrite but realizing nothing more could be done to salvage the situation.

In a future post I will discuss how the guilty parties’ parents responded to notification of their progeny’s delinquent behaviour.


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