A teacher catches a student plagiarizing a major essay. An initial reaction is often, “How could he do this to me?” The teacher may feel violated and even want retribution. In an attempt to seek justice, she gives her student a zero and a referral. All too often, this is the default response to cheating. However, it is shortsighted and exempts the student from having to demonstrate his learning.
According to a Boston Globe column, students cheat because “the penalties of not doing so appear far worse than the cheating itself.” Many students feel pressured to appease family, get into a good college, or impress their peers. The focus here is on the grade and the rewards of achievement rather than on learning.
When we encounter cheating it is fair to ask the student an honest “why?” Don’t make this about accusing or shaming. The student knows he cheated. There is no need to rub his nose in it.
Once you find out the “why,” let the student know that he must:
- restore the broken trust
- demonstrate the learning
A fair consequence requires the student to do the assessment in front of the teacher when it is convenient for the teacher. This can mean that the student has to come in before or after school to work on the assessment. He should schedule that time in advance so as not to inconvenience the teacher.
The student should not be allowed to simply redo the same assignment. It would be appropriate to give an alternative assignment that meets the same objectives but relies on a unique text or data set. If the assignment was a thematic analysis of a specific book read in class, have the student read a different book, make annotations in his own handwriting, then write a similar essay on the new book. Make sure it meets the same objectives and holds the student accountable for the same learning.
This scenario provides many opportunities. First, it allows the student to demonstrate his learning to meet class objectives. It also allows the teacher to answer questions the student may have about the assignment, clarify misunderstandings, and reteach essential concepts the student may have missed.
Most importantly, it becomes a mini-lesson on the values of kindness, grace, and redemption.
Teaching is about promoting growth and should emphasize learning from one’s mistakes. When a student makes a calculation, interpretation, or comprehension error, a good teacher brings it to the student’s attention, explains why and how it should be corrected, and gives them opportunities to make the correction. Integrity may not be one of the intended objectives, but it is a lesson that should surpass any Common Core State Standard. Missing an opportunity because of a shortsighted decision misses the point of education.
Real learning never takes the easy way out. It is a rocky road worth traveling. Teachers need to put aside personal feelings and focus on the student because good teaching puts students’ learning first.
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