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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 3, November/December 2004

But I changed the words around!
Preventing cheating and plagiarism in the classroom

by Diane Gallagher-Hayashi

You have handed out a math test to your class. You have arranged the desks to make copying difficult. You watch the class closely. A boy in the back row catches your eye. You stand up, stretch, and wander around the room. You can see nothing wrong in what he is doing, so you go back to your desk. He keeps checking his watch, but you figure he is just nervous about getting the test done on time. When you mark the test, you find that he has done all the questions correctly. Obviously he knew his stuff—you were worried for nothing. Or were you?

Changes in technology outstrip our abilities to keep up. Perhaps the boy in the math class really did know his stuff and passed the test fairly. Or perhaps he had downloaded all the formulas into his digital watch. Sound outlandish? Not according to Ann Lathrop and Kathleen Foss, who wrote Student Cheating and Plagiarism in the Internet Era. "Students today enjoy the challenge of discovering what they can accomplish with each new high-tech toy. Unfortunately, many are quick to see the possibilities of using the new technologies to cheat on tests and homework." (Lathrop et al., p. 10). Hand-held computers and programmable calculators can store and send information and questions to other devices (and other students) outside the classrooms. Pagers and cell phones can be set on vibrate, and text messages can be sent quietly to students writing tests. Access to the Internet has changed student research. The Internet has become a valuable tool for students, but it has also become a supermarket of term papers for students who wish to cheat.

The problem is not just accessibility to tools allowing students to cheat and plagiarize. Attitudes about cheating have changed too. Studies on student cheating show a marked increase in frequency and tolerance. A 1998 study of the academically top 5% of American students showed that 80% cheated (Lathrop et al., p. 30). Another 1998 study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics surveyed over 20,000 middle- and high-school students and found that 70% of them had cheated within the past year (Lathrop et al., p. 31). More disturbing is the change in attitude. Schab’s longitudinal study on cheating showed that in 1969, only 34% said yes when asked if they had ever cheated on a test; whereas in 1989 a full 68% said yes. In 1969, when asked if they agreed with the phrase, Honesty is the best policy, 82% said yes, but in 1989 only 60% said yes. For many students today, the issue is not, Should I cheat or not? but How can I avoid getting caught when I cheat? (Lathrop et al., p. 30).

The change in attitude and the increased access to technology that will allow students to cheat has teachers trying to create situations that make cheating and plagiarism difficult AND policing students’ assignments after they are done. Classroom teachers are not alone in their battle against plagiarism. Every school with a teacher-librarian has a ready-made expert in research. Giving assignments that are generic or using the same assignment year after year invites plagiarism and cheating. Trained and experienced, the teacher-librarian can help develop research units and assignments that are difficult to plagiarize. Compare these two assignments: 1) Describe Hamlet’s state of mind just before his death. 2) You are Hamlet’s psychiatrist. Write an entry in his file for the day before his death.

Both assignments would have the same criteria. A paper matching the first assignment would be very easy to find on the Internet. A paper matching the second assignment would be much more difficult to find.

The teacher-librarian can help the classroom teacher when a suspicious paper has been submitted. The teacher-librarian has an arsenal of tactics that can help find papers that have been plagiarized. The simplest is to take a doubtful line from the assignment and search for that line, enclosed in quotation marks, in a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or Dogpile. If the student could find the assignment on the Internet, so can the teacher-librarian or the classroom teacher.

Working with the teacher-librarian to teach students good research and note-taking skills, and to require students to follow every step of the Ministry of Education’s Research Quest when they research will make plagiarism difficult and unnecessary. To become lifelong learners, students must know where to find information, how to evaluate and use that information, and how to evaluate their research performance. Once students become comfortable with this process, the temptation to plagiarize will be much less.

Diane Gallagher-Hayashi is a teacher-librarian at Stelly’s Secondary School, Saanich.

Lathrop, Ann, and Kathleen Foss. Student cheating and plagiarism in the Internet era: A wake-up call. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 2000