Cheating is easy in digital age

About Joanne


  1. Could it be that the open-book test and collaborative teamwork-y stuff leads to a flimsy idea of what cheating actually IS in some cases? Also, is it possible that sometimes students do not even know what the regular “cheating” standards are in our cut and paste era? How often have you seen, for example, the same fb status on 20 different accounts in a day? It’s not considered cheating to repost the status as your own.

    I know there are very cut and dried examples of “cheating” but I submit to y’all that today there are also, in the eyes of students, many grey areas.

  2. Well, how often are students asked to provide cut-and-dry right-or-wrong answers on individual exams? Collaboration and projects teach students to always exchange information.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    When things like poetry interpretation turn into a game of “guess what’s in the teacher’s head”, and your essay is graded depending on how well it matches your teacher’s views, which just happen to match up almost exactly with what’s on the Wikipedia entry for the poem, one can understand that students do not see the value in the actual EXERCISE of interpretation, and instead see the assignment as one of “find the right answer.”

    From there it’s a short step to copying the answer verbatim.

    I’ve talked with many of my students about how they write their papers. A shockingly large number of them do something roughly like the following:

    1) Figure out what you want to say in your paper

    2) Google till you find someone with more letters after their name who says something similar.

    3) Skim that

    4) Copy the best/most interesting/most seemingly relevant paragraphs into your document.

    5) Above each paragraph, re-write it.

    6) Delete the original paragraph when you are finished.

    7) Go back and smooth it all out, adding transition sentences.

    They learned that in high school, and they learned it because the reinforcement mechanisms are in place to reward it.

  4. Michael, what you say the students are doing circumvents original thinking but it’s probably reinforcing good writing skills.

    The internet has made plagiarism easy, but detection of plagiarism even easier.

    In a plagiarized work, it is not difficult to find a string of four words that appear suspect. If they copied from the internet, then Google can find it.

    Google can’t usually find words copied from a book. Fortunately, most student plagiarists are too lazy to do anything but cut and paste.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Just a clarification — *I* don’t say this.

    They do.

    I’m just repeating what my students tell me in moments of candor.

    As for teaching writing while circumventing thinking… I don’t see how that’s possible. Writing *IS* about the thinking. The skill of “writing” is just a transcription of a well-organized thought.

  6. Michael,

    My husband and I have come up with very similar theories about plagiarism based on internal textual evidence, but it sounds like you have the goods.

    The funny thing is that plagiarism sounds like more work than just writing your own freaking paper.

  7. 5) Above each paragraph, re-write it.

    At this point, where is the plagiarism?

    • Whether you word-for-word quote it or rewrite it, information taken directly from another source should be cited.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I’m not particularly of the mind that this is plagiarism. I’m more worried that this turns what should be an intellectually challenging exercise into a bit of administrative tedium — and I’m also worried that the finished products are really quite substandard.

      The point of a writing exercise is to prompt thinking — but there’s only so much you can do when the students steadfastly refuse to sit down and do the painful work of birthing a thought.

  8. I think you’ll agree that editing is a high level writing skill which requires thinking, but not original thinking.

    And I believe you’ll also agree that good writing requires rewriting.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I’d agree.

      I might be happier about it if it seemed like they were getting better at editing. It is a useful skill.

      But they — the ones whose method I outlined above — generally are not.

  9. It would help if the students started their writing life on assignments that they feel passionately about, and had something to say. It takes time, in EVERY class, to get the kids NOT to just parrot what the book, or some other expert, says.

    I’ve found, both in my classes and with my own children, it helps to have kids dictate their thoughts at first. Then, word for word, transcribe them. THEN, edit. Go through that process often enough to make it second nature.

    At that point, they will be able to transition to becoming writers, not copiers.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:


    That’s *exactly* how I try to teach my students to write in the limited time I have with them. Over and over again I tell them to stop writing and start TALKING — just say what you mean and then write that down.

    Somewhere out there, there is a legion of English teachers who have all gotten together and decided to teach “writing” as some sort of specialized process involving arcane structures and useless language. Students — and these are the supposedly some of the better students in the state — are trying desperately to understand why I don’t want a 5-paragraph essay with topic sentences for each paragraph and three bits of support for each topic sentence.

    They seem somewhat dumbstruck when I tell them that real people don’t usually think in five-paragraph blocks, and that the five paragraph essay is an *exercise* designed to help them learn how to structure their thoughts — an example of sorts of what good writing *might* look like.

    But, they assure me, they have been writing five-paragraph essays since 5th grade.

    For the modern student, that’s what writing *is*.

    So why not steal your paragraphs from online?

    • I think that it is also important to tell students when 5 paragraph essays are useful and when they are not.
      I used the 5 paragraph structure to answer essay questions to great success in my graduate school short essay question tests. It doesn’t work as well for longer term papers, research reports, lab reports, etc.

  11. There’s an easy way to fix this: have students do all note-taking, drafting, and writing in class. No computers allowed.

  12. I don’t think most students copy from the internet because they don’t know how to write a good essay. I think they copy from the internet because they haven’t allotted enough time to writing the essay. They are not sitting down at 4:00 in the afternoon, to work for two to three uninterrupted hours on an inspired train of thought. If they put time into a project before the night before it’s due, they’re turning to it at 10:00 at night, after school, sports practice, dinner, their favorite TV show, and other required homework.

    For all the excitement about schools teaching “grit,” I think it’s essential for schools to teach students that crime doesn’t pay. That means being more vigilant about cheating, including buying cheating detection programs, and giving students effective penalties when caught.

    • Yes, this. When I’ve “called” a few students on plagiarism, a couple of them confessed that they didn’t “feel” like they had enough time to write the paper. (This is a 5 page paper they had an entire month to work on).

      I also once had a student repeat my class because he failed the first time, partly because he plagiarized a paper. He plagiarized the second time around. His response: “I didn’t think you’d check.” That one really had me shaking my head.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        I think one problem with the kids who think they don’t have time to write a decent paper is that they don’t know how to read and understand text in the first place.

        Writing a good English paper is a fairly quick process IF YOU READ THE BOOK CAREFULLY THE FIRST TIME, thought about what your read, argued with the author, a recorded interesting quotes with their page number in a separate notebook. In 11th and 12th grade English (and beyond), it was a given that if you read a book, you were going to have to write a paper on it. You also knew that there were several genres of topic the teacher was likely to choose from (imagery, conflict, social issues, morality, etc.) So if you read carefully and took notes and thought about the book, the actual WRITING didn’t take too long—you already had most of what you needed to write, so a quick outline to organize your thoughts and make sure your argument was adequately supported, and you were off to the races.

        The problem is that most students don’t read the book, or don’t read it WELL. So when the paper comes, they’re blindsided and really need to reread the whole text (or plagiarize) to get anywhere.

        As a teen, I figured out this “read it right the first time” strategy on my own, but maybe it needs to be carefully taught to most kids. Arguing with a text and supporting your statements doesn’t come easily to most kids. (Heck, the big light bulb for me was when I realized that an English paper was just like a geometry truth, only with literature instead of shapes!) But I think this is an area where more papers is better— the more students learn to read for writing and write about what they read, the better they’ll get! (I was blessed with English teachers who annoyed me at the time because they were so much harder than everyone elses, but who were annoying BECAUSE they were rigorous and taught well!)

  13. “For all the excitement about schools teaching “grit,” I think it’s essential for schools to teach students that crime doesn’t pay.”

    That is grit, in some sense.

    • Knowing that doing the wrong thing is easier, that you’re unlikely to get caught, and the consequences probably won’t be THAT huge* – and doing the right thing anyway: that takes a certain amount of grit.

      (*it”s the rare campus these days where someone gets thrown out for a first instance of plagiarism)