Thursday, December 2, 2010

About integrity

I have to say that it drives me absolutely nuts when a kid copies work off of another kid. That, and it breaks my heart that I have to give the kid a zero on the assignment, when the kid is already struggling (usually). Surprisingly (and thankfully), it doesn't happen much at my school.

Recently, after the resistors lab I did with my kids, I let the kids take the last problem home to finish up the trial-and-error calculation portion. Later, I found out while grading the labs that a handful of the boys copied the last problem off of this girl in the class. They actually didn't even use their own collected data values for the problem, but blindly copied the other group's values. So, obviously, I gave them all zeroes. But, I was feeling pretty crappy about this, because I supervised the groups doing the rest of the lab and I knew that all problems except for that one were actually their own work.

Well, before returning their lab, I thought for a long time about what to say to the kids, and every time I thought about it I just felt more upset about the whole thing. In the end, I didn't want to give them a drawn out speech and I just said two things when I returned the labs:

1.) You guys are a second away from college. In college, they're not going to be this generous when you get caught; you're not going to just get a zero on the assignment, but they will kick you out of the school.

2.) You're also about to be adults. If you're trying to grow up to be a lying and cheating adult, this is how you do it -- you cheat. But if that's not whom you want to be, then you need to start making different choices, because integrity isn't something that you just magically gain as an adult. You get it by practicing integrity everyday, now.

One of the boys came up to me after class and pleaded with me to give him some points back, if he would re-do the assignment. He said that he has never cheated before ("and Ms. Yang, you saw me do the rest of this myself!"), and the only reason why he copied off of someone else was because he really wanted to get full credit on the entire assignment, after all that work he had put in during class. It broke my heart, but I told him firmly that this is one issue I don't budge from; you can't cheat and gain back those lost points. It's a hard consequence, and 20 points lost on a lab is a very cheap lesson for learning that.

I've been in this situation before, and it never gets easier. When kids make mistakes, they need to learn the lesson. But it turns it into a me-versus-them sort of situation, instead of me-helping-them-do-the-best-they-can. After school, that same kid came back to me to get help to prepare for tomorrow's quiz. He wants to really do well on the next assignment, to make up for this one mistake. Did he learn his lesson? I hope so.


  1. "20 points lost on a lab is a very cheap lesson for learning that."

    Agreed. I also think your speech to them was spot on. I hope I remember it the next time I'm in a similar situation.

    It doesn't sound to me like the student who approached you after class learned his lesson at all. Maybe there's more to the story, but "I only cheated because I wanted to do well" is pretty much the opposite of "I'm sorry I lied to you." What he needed to do for full credit, after all that hard work in class, was keep it up, and not look for a shortcut at the last minute.

    I hate catching them in a lie... its such an icky feeling. Good for you for sticking to the punishment.

  2. I feel for you. I'm in charge of our school's disciplinary committee (8 students, 3 faculty) and we deal with really tough cases. But what's nice is it removes the teacher from the equation -- so the teacher and the student can work on repairing their relationship while the student's infraction is talked about by us.

    We try to make what we do a learning experience, so we guide the student through a variety of questions, to get them to reflect on what they did, why they did it, who their actions hurt, and strategies they'll have to prevent from doing it again. Sometimes we'll have them research some college's policies on cheating/plagiarism.

    I'm sorry though - the icky factor is totes there. I remember it from this happening to me a couple years ago.

  3. Thanks for the sympathetic words! I'm sure I'll feel better tomorrow.

  4. Here is something I like to consider in these and similar cases: giving several reasons to change behaviour is only good if those reasons are very similar.
    In this case, your argument actually gets pretty muddy: should students not cheat because of college (or should they make sure to get away with it in college?) or because they want to be honest adults?
    Research in psychology (wish I had those studies at hand, but I don't) supports the idea that you'd probably be more successful at convincing students to be honest if you just stuck with one argument, and I think the one based on morals is the better one.

    Although I also notice with my students - and non-teacher adults - that they don't consider cheating in school as morally wrong. My dad, who's always had a passion for math and is now a maths professor, said cheating was rampant in school and uni and he gladly took part in it. So sometimes I wonder if this whole "cheating is so, SO bad" thing is something we teachers believe in simply because cheating makes our work with assessment more difficult.

  5. I actually think that there is definitely benefit to giving multiple reasons, because not all kids in my class are at the same moral stage in their development. (a la's_stages_of_moral_development) Some are at the "avoiding punishment" stages, and others behave according to intrinsic moral reasons.

    And I don't agree that cheating as badness is teacher-invented. In our world/cultures there are other instances (ie. sports) where you can see how the general public frowns heavily upon cheaters. (Even though, funnily enough, there are also those instances -- ie. cosmetic beauty -- where "cheating" is not frowned upon.) From my perspective, if I let a kid walk out of my class thinking that grades are more important than his honesty, I've definitely failed at my job.

  6. ugh, how hard! it breaks my heart every single time a student cheats, and i teach college! i know what the policies are and i think what gets me is that i could never conceive of doing such a thing, so i can't begin to understand why students would do it.

    i have to agree that cheating is a moral issue. it speaks about empathy and your respect of the work of others. it also speaks to your respect for your own work and the intrinsic value of hard work and learning...i could talk about this stuff all day. i see it a lot with the student populations i work with in college.

  7. Cheating is a really interesting topic for me right now. The thing I keep asking myself is, "What is it that we are doing wrong for kids to think that cheating is an option?"

    They are viewing school through lens that values grades, points and credit when they should be looking through the lens that values learning and understanding.

  8. Maybe the problem is bigger than school itself; maybe it has to do with our society being so (upwards) mobile, that both the adults and the kids seek instant gratification in all things. I've heard that in our generation, people lack loyalty for the companies because if they haven't been promoted to an impressive status after 3 or 4 years, we're ready to be out of there. Maybe the kids are osmotically absorbing that mentality from our generation? :( Certainly if we don't value persistence at a job, it's more difficult to teach our kids that they should work continuously at school instead of taking shortcuts.

    Parenting probably also has a huge effect. I know that when I was little, my mom was always unequivocal in telling me (every time I was disciplined) that if my character is poor, she would rather me be un-smart, so that I wouldn't be able to cause harm in the society. That sounds harsh maybe, but it definitely laid out for me what was most important in her expectations. I'm not sure our kids necessarily all get that at home.