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Curb Cheating on Writing Assignments

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It’s no secret that cheating and academic dishonesty are rampant in schools across the country. In a recent Edutopia article by Prof. Denise Pope–Academic Integrity: Cheat or Be Cheated? –the Senior Lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education paints the sobering picture.

“Several studies indicate that 80 to 95 percent of high school students admit to engaging in some form of cheating. Kids still cheat in familiar ways–copying from another kid’s paper or sneaking in a cheat sheet on exam day–but students are also cheating in new ways, using technology to plagiarize essays or text test answers,” she writes.

On that latter front, a year ago, I wrote about BuyEssay.org, one of the most unethical, vile pieces of website trash I’ve ever visited. A glance at the homepage boils my blood, and I have nothing but spite for this company, and others like it, that use fear and intimidation to induce wholly unethical behavior.

“Have you ever considered using an online essay writing service?” the website says. “If you are a straight A student, and never fail your exams, you would probably like to keep up your reputation now that you have found a well-paid part time job. You can buy an essay or any other paper from our service. Our custom writing service is so simple to use–you just place your order and get a completed paper in return.”

But in recent months, I’ve come to a new realization. I still detest BuyEssay.org, but that feeling covers a more important issue: What kind of teaching and learning environment has this country nurtured to allow such companies to come into existence, and to become so profitable?

Yesterday, I read a disturbing article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled, The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story. “I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students. I’ve worked there full time since 2004,” writes the author, under the pseudonym Ed Dante. “On any day of the academic year, I am working on upward of 20 assignments.”

What can teachers do to put BuyEssay.org out of business, while promoting academic honesty? Here are five recommendations.

  1. Know your students and how they write. In my first few years of teaching history, I recognized highly sophisticated writing from students who otherwise struggled with clarity and concession. When I approached them with my suspicions, most confessed, admitting to lifting from various online sources. Much to his credit, one student even admitted to getting his essay online. Now, as a more veteran teacher, I have a reputation for being familiar with individual writing styles, and students keep this in mind. Incidents of academic dishonesty still occur, but as far as I can tell, they occur less frequently.
  2. Be reasonable in your expectations. As a rookie teacher, too often I took points off for every type of error I could find. Soon enough, most students began to feel that I cared more about decorating their work with my infamous red pen than actually wanting to see them succeed. I still mark up papers, but if a student is really struggling, I try to focus on just two or three main areas, like topic sentences, transitions, and use of credible evidence to support an argument. After seeing improvement in those areas, I move on to suggest other ways to grow. Along the way, I make sure to praise the student for continuing progress.
  3. Be clear with how you assess. Before assigning written work, I spend a period or two reviewing previous student submissions. In so doing, I’m careful in how I explain why these essays earned an F, D, C, B, or A. I then distribute another set of examples, and have students break into groups to discuss what they think of each essay. Afterward, while keeping all student work anonymous, I reveal what grade each essay in fact earned. Almost always, students grade more harshly. All the same, this activity helps kids realize what’s expected of them, while reinforcing my reputation as firm but fair.
  4. Present a reasonable timeline for various due dates. Left to their own devices, many students will wait until the last minute to begin an essay. As teachers, it’s our job to foster a healthy work ethic. To accomplish this, I assign due dates for different writing phases, such as outlines and drafts. This helps students stay on track, and it also allows me to address individual difficulties before the essay is completed. When assessing the final draft, I also find it helpful to have previous drafts in front of me. That way, I can evaluate not only how far each student hopefully has come, but also whether the final draft raises any flags by reading much different.
  5. Allow students to revise for full credit. If a student has satisfactorily met all of her deadlines, and I see how much she is trying to improve, I let her submit an infinite number of revisions. After all, the end goal is mastery. I’m not nearly as concerned about when a student masters a difficult concept, just that it is in fact mastered. I make known to my students that if they are willing to put in the time, and if they genuinely want to improve, I will do everything in my power to help make that happen.

How to you promote academic integrity on writing assignments? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Saturday, 22 October 2016