How to handle students cheating
What should we do about the computer hackers at Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County who changed dozens of grades? What is the solution to student cheating in general?
Research suggests that rising pressure to get into good colleges has led students to cut corners. One study cited by the Educational Testing Service said only about 20 percent of college students in the 1940s said they cheated in high school, while that proportion is four times as large today.
De-emphasize the college race, some experts say, and much of this nonsense will go away. I have argued for many years that parents and students should recognize the research indicating that adult success really doesn't depend on the prestige of one's alma mater. But that approach to easing cheating isn't going to get us far. Competition is too much a part of American culture. Also, college pressure tends to affect only the top 20 percent of students who seek selective schools (it's a higher percentage in the affluent Washington area) and not students who cheat for other reasons, such as laziness or boredom.
If you have some ideas, post them as comments here. I think the solution is obvious: smart teaching.
The best teachers I know encourage teamwork in their classes. They encourage behavior that helps the group, and discourage behavior that doesn't. This means quick rebukes and sometimes loss of privileges when one student insults or bullies another, interrupts the class or fails to do an assignment. They explain that copying is unfair to other team members and hinders one's own progress.
Not all students know this. In this culture, cheating is often honored. Notice that some of the most popular and attractive actors in the country play con-men in the films Oceans 11, 12 and 13.
Good teachers love their students. Some trust them until that trust is betrayed, and then show how disappointed they are, a good motivator. Others assume from the beginning that, as much as they love their students, they can't trust them.
There are dozens of smart ways to give a test, starting with staying in the room and paying attention to what is going on. You can change the order of questions for test papers of students sitting near each other. You can look for obvious similarities in answers. You can have a probing conversation on the lesson after class with a student whose work suddenly and mysteriously improves.
But the best way to deal with cheating, creative teachers tell me, is to emphasize conceptual learning, as well as building students' skills, such as clear and critical writing. The classic homework assignment in history, answering questions at the end of the chapter, is an open invitation to copying. (Though even that will implant some material in a young brain.) It may be better to assign the reading and then give a quick quiz first thing the next day that requires short answers:
Q: Why did some American generals oppose the Italian campaign in World War II? A: They thought it would delay and dilute a direct attack on the Germans from England.
Give ten questions, to be answered in five minutes. You not only get a fast start to the class, but a good sense of who needs help.
Good teachers in English and social studies demand a lot of writing, in class and at home. If a student's homework is brilliant but her class writing is not, running the homework through plagiarism detectors online may solve the mystery. Or you can have a private conversation about how much her parents are involved with her work.
What about those wayward computer geniuses at Churchill High? As I said, many good teachers love, but don't trust, their kids. A smart teacher checking grade records exposed this scheme. Educators like that, with their focus on learning, will close enough loopholes to provide the education their students need, no matter how hard our kids look for an easier way.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
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