Late one night in the beginning of winter break, while reviewing student reflections for which I offered more credit towards lower than average test scores, I detected a case of flagrant plagiarism. I dashed off the following in an email to the students.
I wanted each of them to understand they were caught and to think about the seriousness of the situation. However, I did not want them to stress over the holiday, which was the intent of my last two sentences [emphasis added]. While I could have waited for school to resume to tell them, I believe it is important to discuss situations as soon as possible while memories are fresh.
Since my wife serves as a teacher, I spoke with her about it the next day, Christmas Eve. She read my email and thought that my students might worry excessively about the situation. As an older male, i.e., the generational gender not exactly expert on the more sensitive side of things, although I would argue that point, I initially disagreed with her. After a few minutes though, I wrote the following and sent it along, hoping to ease any real worry, but not overly lessen the seriousness of the situation.
They have not replied to my email, which is fine. They may not even have seen either of them yet. We will address the issue when school resumes. However, if they do see it, they can prepare themselves for an honest discussion, which I believe is the main benefit of communicating with them right when I detected the issue.
Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, cheating, in one form or the other, pervades our world, and our classrooms. No sector escapes its blight: business (legal or criminal), sports, politics, government, religion, or academics. In some ways, the simple act of living involves small acts of cheating almost on a daily basis, such as exceeding the speed limit, driving through a red light, not declaring something to officials, avoiding serving on a jury, not exercising when we should, eating too much when we should not, or some other act which is either outright illegal, against institutional policies, contrary to our declared intentions, or violating long-held social norms. Regardless, most of us strive to conduct our lives as ethically as possible, ideally teaching our children, students, and others to do so as well. At the same time, competitive pressures, often rationalized in “survival of the fittest” terms, lead many to act in less than desirable ways.
In a perfect world, any form of cheating is intolerable. Yet, if that were true, and harsh punishments always meted out, we all would walk around with a scarlet C emblazoned on our chests. Hence, when confronted with issues of academic dishonesty by our students, in whatever form, we need to consider the larger context for their actions. Rigid adherence to honor codes present a dilemma, in my opinion. For while the razor sharpness of the code appeals to some due to its simplicity, our world is not black and white, but shades of grey, which no code, policy, or legislation can rightfully capture.
Hence, with any instance of cheating I encounter with my students, I see the silver lining in the dark cloud, where I speak to the student, or students, about living life with integrity, as well as concern for their reputation; their brand, as marketeers would say.
In my three years of full-time teaching, I have discovered cheating every semester, mostly by my AP students, as they are under the most intense academic pressures. My algebra students cheat more often when I am absent and a substitute proctors an assessment. Each time I detect cheating, I am saddened initially; followed by surprise at how cheating may have occurred, especially when I oversaw testing; and, ending in a decision either to speak with the student(s) solely, usually for first offenses, or with an administrator for repeated offenses.
My punishments are never unduly harsh; I often allow retakes or re-submissions. Yet, I always speak with the offender(s) about the gravity of their act, and how it could damage their reputation. I often require a written reflection by the student as well, in hopes that taking the time to think about their action and to commit it to writing will make them think twice the next time temptation presents itself.
Whether my approach is the best or not is in the eye of the beholder. Some will react negatively to it, some positively, most not at all.
In many ways, there truly is no best approach to complex social phenomena such as cheating, or education for that matter. Just opportunities for consultants to lull the gullible.
As with most things in life, our life experiences and beliefs color are actions. We do what we believe to be best, which is all I ask of my students, my children, and myself.