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Academic Honesty: To Cheat or Not to Cheat

Academic Honesty: To Cheat or Not to Cheat

February 2, 2019

Although the room is silent, taking a test can be a chaotic moment, as you puzzle over complex equations or tricky verb conjugations. Some students decide that, instead of struggling on a question, they would rather turn to their neighbor and copy their responses. This obvious breach of academic integrity and honesty can cost a student, emotionally and academically.  

Transgressions like these occur regularly in many high schools, including our own. The Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics surveyed 43,000 high school students and revealed that 59 percent admitted to cheating on a test, 34 percent reported cheating more than twice and a third used the internet to plagiarize.

Despite the stringent punishments in place at the high school, students continue to cheat. The New York Times reported that, across the nation, more students are cheating, including those that are high-achieving in prestigious academies.

From copying a friend’s essay to asking a friend about questions on a test before you’ve taken it, cheating is all around students of any institution.

How cheating has changed

Science Curriculum Coordinator Ed Wiser said that with new technology comes new ways of cheating. Specifically, one new creation that may allow for new means of cheating is the Apple Watch, according to Wiser.

“Now that there’s new technology, these crazy devices, we have caught many kids,” Wiser said. “Since the technologies are always being used in new and innovative ways, we have to make sure that the kids are using them appropriately.”

Wiser also mentioned specific ways in which students cheat. In some instances of cheating, Wiser said, students that missed a test may make it up without teacher supervision.

“The kids will take an exam by themselves somewhere because they missed it the other day,” Wiser said. “They’ll be just too tempted. They will go and get their phone and look something up.”

Specific to the science labs, Wiser discussed how sometimes students miss vital information if they are absent during a lab and therefore should not just copy their classmates’ work.

“If somebody is not there or steps out and goes to the bathroom or something else and comes back, they’ve missed a little bit of ,” Wiser said. “Students then will often just say ‘oh well I’ll just take this because that’s what we did in physics.’ But if they’re missing something critical in that lab, that’s a problem.”

The Brookline High Handbook defines plagiarism as “using the words, data, ideas, or opinions of someone else without giving credit to that person in the form of footnotes or references.” In a study by Rutgers University, 24,000 students from 70 high schools reported that 58 percent have plagiarized. 

According to Dean of Student Support Systems Brian Poon, while the internet allows for more opportunities for plagiarizing, it also makes it easier for teachers to prove a student has plagiarized.

“You do a Google search with quotes, and you can find the passage which they lifted,” Poon said. “What I usually like to do is print out both their piece and the other piece and then highlight both of them so there’s no real question of like the paragraph from Wikipedia, which is highlighted in both your paper and in the Wikipedia citation.”

Senior “Jane” finds that the increasing population of the school has also allowed for more cheating.

“When class sizes get bigger, teachers can’t really focus on everybody, so it’s easier for someone to take out their notes and be like ‘let me read it,’” Jane said.

Measures of preventing cheating, such as physical barriers that separate tables during tests, are not in an effort to create an oppressive environment according to Wiser.

“We’re not trying to create this whole new Draconian state where kids are all assumed to be evil doers before they walk into the room,” Wiser said. “We just have to keep ahead of it to make sure that those temptations aren’t there because we know that kids are under a lot of pressure, and a lot of them, if they’re not prepared, they will resort to inappropriate uses of technology.”

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Why cheat?

Although each instance is unique, there are common motivations for why students decide to cheat or plagiarize.

School Psychology Intern Casey Farrissey said often students are looking to succeed academically when they cheat.

I think that a student that is cheating is looking for perfection or wanting to do well because if you don’t have motivation to cheat you would just leave it blank or you wouldn’t turn it in or whatever it may be,” Farrissey said. “I think that if you’re cheating it actually shows that you are striving to do well. You’re just not going about it in the correct way.”

Junior “Henry” does not cheat often or in a premeditated fashion, but due to his belief that he is a weak test-taker, he sometimes feels compelled to cheat.

“I don’t do good on tests. I feel like the system is working against me because I study, and I do all the homework,” Henry said. “If I seriously don’t know something, and I get the chance to cheat, then I guess I would.”

Henry believes assessments should not define a grade, as students work hard in other areas of the class.

“I want a good grade, and it’s not like I’m not doing the work to get it, but at a certain point if I fail a test that’s a bigger part of my grade then any other work that I do, then it would screw up my grade,” Henry said.  

Farrissey believes patterns emerge when students are not caught and see academic success as a result of their actions.

“If they find that they can get away with it they’re more likely to do it again. As with anything, I don’t think kids or students are afraid to cheat. I think they’re afraid to get caught because they don’t want to be reprimanded,” Farrissey said. “If they find that cheating makes school easier for them, they might fall into that pattern.”

However, students may risk feeling ashamed, discrediting their learning, and ruining their reputation if they cheat, according to Farrissey.

“That’s a dangerous pattern to fall into because it undermines what you learn, and it can give you a bad reputation if your peers are noticing, even if your teachers aren’t,” Farrissey said. “I think students that cheat know that cheating is wrong, so I think they feel a lot of guilt.”  

Poon believes that to stop this behavior, the high school has to learn a student’s motivations and educating the student as to what is viewed as cheating and plagiarism.

“Before there’s a pattern, you want to find what were the circumstances which caused you to feel like you had to cheat? Is there an educational element where they didn’t know that cutting and pasting off that internet site was wrong?” Poon said. “Then you want to work with the student and their teacher to make sure you close that gap on what their understanding of the rules are.”

Poon said that the humiliation that comes with being caught outweighs any motivation to cheat.

“A kid will say ‘I was so stressed, I had all this work, and so I took this pathway in order to survive,’” Poon said. “In context, I can see how that all makes sense. We’re sitting here with your parents and the shame everyone in the room feels, it’s not worth it.”

Discipline

Rule 1.3 in the Brookline High Handbook states that “educating students about academic honesty and clarifying the school’s policy on academic dishonesty are imperative.” To live up to these ideals, the high school outlined specific punishments for cheating.

After the first offense, the student is given a zero for the assignment. With a second offense, the student is given two zeros. Finally, with a third (or more) offense, the student fails the quarter for the class. Parents are notified after all three offenses.

Poon believes that the definitions around cheating and plagiarism are fairly clear in the handbook, but that accusing a student of cheating can be difficult.

“How do you ascertain if a kid is cheating on a quiz if they look to their left or right while they are taking a test?” Poon said. “To then accuse them of cheating can feel like a reach. But if you see a pattern and you say ‘alright everyone keep your eyes on your paper’ and then the kid does it again, then I think to maintain the integrity of the assessment you have to pull the kid aside and tell them you think they’re cheating.”

The Brookline High Handbook differentiates between homework and larger assignments in Rule 1.3, stating “teachers will address concerns about cheating/plagiarism on daily homework. All other assignments fall under the policy, and any work handed in for credit, including drafts and outlines, falls under this policy.”

According to Jane, however, she received the punishment under Rule 1.3, even though she cheated on a daily homework assignment. Jane copied a few lines from a website for one 10-point Advanced Placement U.S. History homework and was caught by her teacher. This was the only time she has cheated.

Jane believes the punishment she received, which included a zero for the assignment, a discussion with her parents, and a record of cheating, was too harsh given the weight of the assignment.

“I thought they were notes, and I didn’t know they were going to be such big a thing,” Jane said. “It’s not like a research paper, and I still got the same punishment as someone who cheated on the research paper. It feels like too much for such a little thing. It doesn’t make sense. If it occurs a lot, then yeah, do it, but if it only happens once on a homework, I think you should get a zero, but I don’t think you should get it on your permanent record.”

Jane said that the incident remains on her record, and so she has to explain the situation on her college applications. The impact that this mistake has had on her future is frustrating, according to Jane, as she feels her peers have done the same, if not worse, than she has.

“I feel like it isn’t fair. I’ve tried so hard through all my four years to actually do the work, and there’s just one thing because I was tired, I had too much work, and I was just like ‘whatever,’” Jane said. “It makes me angry because that thing is going to push me back from what I want to do.”

Although Henry has never been caught, he believes the punishments are harsh given the difference in severity between plagiarism and cheating.

“I feel like it’s a little extreme,” Henry said. “Plagiarism I do get if that’s a punishment because I think that’s more serious than cheating on a test that you weren’t taught enough for or the information on it is not really the same as the information you were taught.”

What we’re really trying to teach students is about their academic integrity and character.”

— Brian Poon, Dean of Student Support Systems

Poon said that the punishments may seem harsh in the moment, but the consequences are much harsher if students pursue post-secondary education.

“If this happens when the student is at college or university they could be sent home, and while I feel bad for both the student and the family when they are caught cheating, what I’m terrified about is that we don’t close that educational gap,” Poon said. “I would hope that we have taught them so that they wouldn’t but that scares me. That drives me in terms of my vigilance, my fear for our students.”

Poon said that important life lessons are also taught from emphasizing academic integrity.

“What does it mean that your work is your own? What is at the core of learning? If you cheat do you know the thing and then are you set up for whatever tasks in your life going forward?” Poon said. “While I think it’s really critical for us to be intentional about cheating in terms of the fairness for other students and hard work and all that stuff, what we’re really trying to teach students is about their academic integrity and character.”

Although students do receive punishments for cheating, Poon believes that the administration’s main effort is to educate rather than discipline.

“I think high school should be a lot about learning and redemption,” Poon said. “You mess up, and we want to pull you in. We need to educate you. We need to solve the root problems of why you felt the need to cheat or plagiarize. We need to build you up so that you can make better choices next time.”

Graphics by Natalie Jew and Madison Sklaver

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