Beyond the




How to Handle Plagiarism and Cheating in the Classroom

A student cheats on a quiz

When a student of mine copied material from a book and used it in her essay, it wasn't my happiest day grading papers. She was honest when I asked, but her father was still angry that—as school policy dictated—she received a zero for her work after cheating in the classroom. He felt that his daughter "found" the information, and citing it was unnecessary.

Not satisfied with my explanation of why his child received a failing grade, the parent went over my head to my director, who, thankfully, backed me up and the zero stood. I do believe she learned from the experience, as she never plagiarized again.

Plagiarism and cheating in the classroom have always been difficult for teachers. In my twenty-two-year career, some of my most uncomfortable moments have been because I caught a student plagiarizing or cheating in the classroom. Yes, it's awkward and problematic, but these incidents are also the perfect teachable moments for students to learn from their mistakes and not repeat them later in life.

Creatively Dishonest

I learned quickly that students can be pretty clever when cheating. Those who are absent will ask other students what's on a test they missed. Older siblings pass down essays and test answers to their younger siblings. I usually create several versions of a test to eliminate this problem. I once gave my students a test on the Eugene O'Neill play, Long Day's Journey into Night, where question #10 asked what two emotions were at the core of the play (the answer was "guilt and forgiveness"). When a student who was absent came to make up the test, I rearranged the questions. Question #10 was now "List some historical events which took place in 1912 when the play was written."

Imagine my surprise when this student—who was on the National Honor Society—wrote "guilt and forgiveness" as her answer to this question. She refused to admit she cheated on the test, but she didn't fight the grade I gave her.

No Bias Toward the Best

My most difficult issue with plagiarism and cheating came after a few years of teaching Advanced Placement Literature and Composition. One day I gave my students the poem "My Last Duchess," and I asked them to analyze its meaning in an essay. I told the students they could talk to one another about the poem, but they could not use the internet or other sources for help.

It became clear when correcting the papers that several students had plagiarized—including the class valedictorian. Again, as was school policy, all students who plagiarized received a zero for the assignment. While most students accepted their fate, the valedictorian did not. He felt he wasn't guilty of plagiarism because he was not the one who got the information online—his friend did—and even though the valedictorian knew the information came from the internet, he did not think he was at fault.

How to Enforce Your Policy

Teachers can avoid issues with plagiarizing and cheating without causing their students to rebel against them; all it takes is a more diplomatic approach to enforcing it.

  • Review what plagiarism is and isn't, providing students with strong examples. Teach your students about paraphrasing and how to cite sources.
  • Advocate for a school-wide Honor Code, which clearly states the consequences for cheating and plagiarizing offenses. Be sure parents/guardians and students sign off on the policy.
  • Ensure students have plenty of time to complete research papers, and create due dates for collecting primary and secondary sources, writing outlines, introductions, and rough drafts. Students tend to plagiarize or cheat when they let an assignment go to the last minute. Staggering due dates eliminates this problem.
  • Create several versions of tests and essay prompts, and alternate them year to year. Trust me, the little extra work this requires will save you hours of aggravation if a student is caught cheating.
  • Consider software like Turnitin, PlagScan or DupliChecker, which has students upload their work to the site so that it can detect similarities to content elsewhere online. When my school used this program, plagiarism became non-existent. Students knew they would get caught, and the plagiarism problem disappeared. Use these tools responsibly, though; software can make it easy to misinterpret a student's work, and you're still the judge at the end of the day.

Being upfront with your students about your expectations at the beginning of the year will help set the standard for consequences (and rewards) for work in the months to follow. Remember, be empathetic to kids who are under immense pressure from their families, peers, potential schools, and even themselves. Some plagiarism stems from laziness, sure, but there are also many occurrences that signal a larger problem of stress or awkward stages in their writing development. When a student submits unoriginal content, address the problem individually, you'll see much more authenticity.