George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Curb Academic Dishonesty

April 19, 2016 Updated April 17, 2016

I’m growing increasingly uneasy over and frightened by the escalating pervasiveness of academic dishonesty. Statistics fluctuate and are difficult to come by, but according to one 1998 study, conducted by the Ad Council and The Educational Testing Service, upward of 98% of college students report having cheated in high school.

A 2011 study conducted by the Josephson Institute surveyed 43,000 high school students in public and private schools. “Rampant cheating in school continues,” the report reads. “A majority of students (59 percent) admitted cheating on a test during the last year, with 34 percent doing it more than two times. One in three admitted they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment.”

It’s possible that these findings are deceptive, and that today’s students are simply more forthcoming than those who went to school several decades ago. But I tend to doubt it, especially as teachers (and society at large) place increasing emphasis on grades and high-stakes testing.

For deeper insight, last week I reached out to Prof. Earl Babbie, author of the short but insightful paper, “Avoiding Plagiarism: And Avoiding the Dean’s Office.” Babbie tells me, “The thing that worries me most is that a culture starts to develop around that where ‘everyone’s [plagiarizing].’ Everyone isn’t doing it, but as long as that’s the perception, then it makes it that much easier to do it. That’s true for any kind of deviance.”

Students need to know that plagiarism, or academic dishonesty of any kind, isn’t at all akin to a minor offense like jaywalking. It’s a serious academic breach, and unlike jaywalking, everybody isn’t committing it. I don’t mean for teachers to scare their charges into obedience, but at the same time, students need to know the seriousness of cheating, and what can come from such behavior.

Certainly, students shoulder much of the blame for any sort of academic dishonesty. Still, it’s helpful to consider how teachers should respond to this problem. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Do a superior job of explaining and modeling character and moral behavior. Yesterday, I received an email from Jonathan Lamb, Assistant Head of School and Dean of Academics at The Storm King School in New York. “If we understand [students] are not intellectually complete when they arrive, we should not somehow expect them to be morally complete,” he writes. “We need to teach lessons that develop honesty, tenacity, fair play and other such virtues as well.” Lamb also writes that over the course of the year, schools need to constantly and meaningfully reiterate the importance of honesty, trust, and integrity. One assembly the first week of school just doesn’t cut it.
  2. Report acts of academic dishonesty, Babbie tells me. He says, “I think professors and perhaps high school teachers are reluctant to put it in the student’s record. They think, ‘maybe I’m damaging them by doing this.’ But I think it’s important to do it, not to damage them but to allow the system to catch up with them.” Embarrassingly, for that same reason, my first year of teaching I didn’t report a blatant act of plagiarism, instead just giving that student a zero. I later learned that student had also acted dishonestly in several other courses, and that by not informing the dean, I had contributed (however indirectly) to her continued unfortunate lapse in judgment.
  3. Teach what constitutes plagiarism, how to avoid it, as well as how and when to cite. Digital natives are accustomed to instant gratification, and, in my experience, many students have difficulty understanding how or even why they need to internalize information, rather than reword or lift it from a site. To address this issue, I frequently show students examples of what I consider plagiarism, and how the author might have avoided the offense.
  4. Guide students away from temptation. One way to do that, Lamb writes, is to help students “personalize or develop their own ideas in response to raw information.” Babbie offers an example of a teacher conducting a course on marriage and the family, and asking students to research their own background. Not only will more students likely feel a great affinity to this assignment, making shortcuts less enticing, but it’s much more difficult to plagiarize. Of course, this might not prevent devious students from simply writing falsehoods, but it’s certainly a possible deterrent.
  5. Another way to keep students honest, Babbie tells me, is to organize research papers or projects into several stages. As a first step, students provide a topic and maybe an introductory paragraph. Later, they submit sources, followed by an outline and a draft. Babbie says, “What I’ve found happening in my own experience is that’ll be going along just fine, and three days before the term paper is due, the student says, ‘Oh, I changed my mind. I found a much more interesting topic that I wanted to write about and here it is. Here’s the paper.’ Well, you kind of think that maybe they bought it or copied it.”
  6. Before a test, collect phones and have students remove their bags from the desks. Some students are quite talented at seeming to write something down, when they are in fact checking something with their phone in their lap. If a bag is on the table, impeding the teacher’s line of site, students are more likely to get away with looking at not just their phones, but also other notes and cheating materials.
  7. Most importantly, teachers, administrators and policy-makers need to rethink the unethical and amoral behavior that grades and high-stakes testing promote. Yesterday, I received an email from Alden Bloget, advisor to the head of school at Long Trail School in Vermont. Somewhat sarcastically, he writes, “Grades are the coin of the realm, and everything about school, particularly most independent schools, stresses the importance of getting good grades for college admissions. Kids cheat to get good grades because grades are infinitely more important than the learning that they are meant to stand for.”

How can teachers help keep students honest? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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