As if the school year were starting

August 27, 2004

I feel as if the school year were starting.


Over the last two days I have gotten a good dozen hits from searches on the term Reading Log. I am currently #18 on Google for that term.

What I can't guess is whether this is because kids are being told to start a reading log and want a model for what to do, or if it is because kids were told to turn in a reading log at the end of the summer, and want something they can crib off of.

I might very well change the syllabus to insist on an electronic submission of the long paper. I probably won't, but only for technical reasons regarding chasing down plagarism.

Let me explain.

There are some folks who will cheat no matter what. All you can do is make it more difficult for them to cheat effectively, but they often spend more time getting around security than it would have taken them to just do the darn work. Luckily, these folks are rare.

There are also some folks, many more, who will cheat if it seems easy and costless, will be more likely to cheat if they are in a climate of pervasive cheating, but would be perfectly willing to just do the work themselves. The trick in managing a classroom is to keep the first group from creating a climate where the second group feels impelled to cheat - either to hold their ground or because "everyone is doing it."

It turns out that there are two basic approaches to academic cheating. Both are comparably effective - the first is a little better at the first crowd, the second better at the second, larger group.

You can either proctor aggressively, letting the students know that their work will be tightly policed, that you will assume cheating unless they can prove their innocence, and then follow through. Tight proctoring and aggressive enforcement works on the first group, but it can also either turn off the second group or create a climate where students take cheating as a challenge, living down to your expectations. Finally, this aggressive approach can turn the classroom from a collaberation to a battleground.

The other effective approach is to emphasize honor. Schools with a strong honor code, enforced and impressed on the students at regular intervals, make a more fertile climate for the incorrigibles, but do a better job of keeping the swing students on the straight and narrow. It also creates a good classroom environment.

What you don't want to do is just trust that the kids won't cheat. They will. You have to do something, the question is whether you prefer to use hard or soft power.

Asking for electronic submissions of papers is fine if you will be grading on the computer or lugging floppies on vacation rather than a stack of paper. But I prefer to grade in a purple pen. So if I asked for electronic copies, it would be in order to submit them to search engines. Instead I will rely on visible soft power and less visible structural restrictions. What do I mean?

I explain plagarism early and spend a lot of effort building up the classroom as a place of collaberative learning. The kids help write the exam, and I draw them into discussion as much as the survey format lets me. I also structure the assignments to make it harder to cheat.

The kids have weekly homework assignments, about 200 words on some provocative topic: "Should Andrew Jackson be on the U.S. money?" They also have a long paper on Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. I can easily tell when someone turns in a paper that is completly unlike their homework. In addition, their paper has to make extensive use of both Stowe and two of the electronic documents from our class syllabus. The odds of someone buying a term paper that will do this is minimal, and I will have my eyes open for papers that include very slick discussions of Stowe and very clumsy discussions of the other material, well, that is a paper worth typing in a juicy paragraph or two and then searching.

We will see. I find that most blatant plagarism is the work of desparate and unprepared students, and is very easy to spot. And, considering the goofy nature of most of my write-ups on the reading log, I pity anyone who tries to turn them in as their summer work.

Posted by Red Ted at August 27, 2004 01:38 PM | TrackBack