Fighting the battle of copy/paste cheating

It’s so frustrating when students turn in activities that are copy/pasted. To solve the problem, we have to get to the root of it first.

It was a simple activity. One that I thought my students would have no trouble completing. In my Spanish 3 class, I had asked them to find some facts about an artist from the Hispanic world and write a paragraph about that person.

One paragraph. In Spanish.

No big deal, right?

The activity ended up having, let’s say … less than the impact I had desired.

Here were the results:

  • A few papers: Pretty clearly written by students. Some minor errors. (That’s my way of knowing if student work was actually written by students.)
  • Most papers: WAY too clean. No minor errors. Verb tenses and words that they hadn’t learned (and likely wouldn’t learn unless they took advanced Spanish in college).
  • One paper: Egregiously copied and pasted. The formatting from the webpage was still all over the document when it was turned in. (i.e. Not in Times New Roman like the others.)

I looked over the papers and did two things: grumbled about the students being lazy and metaphorically hung my head in shame.

I turned the egregiously copied paper in to the assistant principal for a plagiarism violation. Despite the student’s claims that he formatted it that way — on purpose! (???) — he was charged with his first plagiarism violation.

A zero for the assignment and a reminder not to do it again.

Afterward, I was lost in my own thoughts all day …

  • Why did this assignment turn out so poorly?
  • School isn’t supposed to be like this, is it?
  • Do students cheat like this in other people’s classes?
  • Do they even realize they’re cheating?

It would have been easy to rail about those lazy kids. That technology. A lack of ethics or morals. The term “kids these days” crept up toward the tip of my tongue.

But instead of complaining about something I couldn’t control (the students), I decided to change something I could control.


Copy/pasting is the battle, and the classroom is the battlefield

Teachers air their frustrations about copy/paste cheating all the time. “It’s out of hand, and we have to stop those kids from copying, from plagiarizing, from Googling the answers.”

Students don’t only get their copy/pasted answers from Google. It’s just as easy to text or snap a picture with Snapchat of a math assignment and send the answers. And there are websites that teach kids to avoid TurnItIn detection with special pasting and tricks to replace certain characters.

Businesses are invested heavily in the plagiarism game. A simple Google search reveals Grammarly, BibMe, Plagly, Quetext, EduBirdie, Noplag and, of course, the big dog in the fight … TurnItIn.

School leaders don’t seem to know what to do about the problem either. Plus, they’re in a tough spot to deal with copy/paste cheating. They often don’t have much evidence (often there isn’t much) and don’t know enough circumstances around the situation to make a fair decision.

And when certain teachers turn students in a LOT and others don’t, so many more questions surface about why it’s an issue in some classes and not in other classes.

In short, copy/paste cheating is a hot mess.

But it’s one we have to get to the root of.

Copy/paste cheating is like that weed in your driveway

Ever try to pluck a weed out of your driveway?

(I have a very long gravel driveway, and we have no shortage of weeds.)

Snatch the bloom and the leaves off the top and it’ll grow right back.

To really get it, you have to dig down to the roots. (Either that or shoot it with really good pesticide. But that doesn’t advance this metaphor I’m setting up …)

When I was confronted with my cheating situation above, I started trying to get to the root of cheating.

Why were my students cheating?

Why didn’t they write an authentic paragraph about an artist in Spanish?

The personal connection to the assignment

Well, for one, there was no connection between my assignment and their lives — present or future. Or if there was, they weren’t able to see it. They were just doing the assignment because I told them to.

(The bigger problem I was wrestling with, too, was whether they saw a connection between their lives and my class. PS: The nagging voice in my head that was asking that was also asking me if I was good enough or if I’d ever amount to much of a teacher. PS #2: To this day, that voice still hasn’t left me alone.)

I was taking the “eat your vegetables” approach to assigning work. “I know you don’t like the smell or the taste, but I promise it’s good for you!”

The students, in turn, were taking the “hide them in your napkin to avoid them” approach.

It was a one-size-fits-all assignment. The kids had no say in creating it.

Unless they really liked art, they probably hated it. And found the fastest way possible to get past it.

I was digging down to the root of the weed. I figured if I did better at making more interesting assignments, at taking students into account, at letting students have some choice, the copy/paste cheating would go down.

The “performing monkey” dissent

If you’re like me, that last statement caused you to object a little bit. At least it used to make me object.

I’ve traveled down this following line of thinking many times before …

“It’s not my job to entertain students. It’s to teach them.”

“I shouldn’t have to be a performing monkey in front of the class for them to learn. Sometimes in life, you’ve got to do things that you don’t like to do.”

I’ve wrestled with this one over and over. And here’s my take on it.

You can’t make students learn.

You can make them comply, but you can’t make them learn.

Learning requires inspiration. Motivation. Connection.

And my assignments weren’t providing it. At all.

It comes down to your philosophy of the job of a teacher. Is it your job to motivate students? Or is it just your job to deliver the content?

If content delivery is our job, we’re no different than pizza delivery drivers.

If content delivery is our job, we’ll be outsourced for FREE by YouTube and Khan Academy.

I believe that our job is to inspire, to motivate, to make connections. That’s what students really need from us.

There’s a line between entertaining / being a performing monkey and finding ways to motivate, inspire and connect with students. And I was fine with walking all the way up to that line if it meant my students would learn.

Getting real and finding a solution

As I continued to wrestle with the copy/paste problem, I asked myself a question …

“How much learning came out of that?”

Some activity was required of my students to do that activity. (At least the ones that did it.)

But activity doesn’t equal learning. I asked myself … How much did they learn? How much did their skills improve? How much did they change?

If they actually did the activity: Maybe some.

If they copy/pasted their way through it: Slim to none.

And how many of them copy/pasted their way through it?

Judging by all the perfectly Google Translated papers, my guess was most of them.

So the answer was “very little.” There was very little learning that came from that activity.

Here was the next question …

Can I create an activity that produces that much learning — or maybe slightly more — that they’ll ACTUALLY do?

The answer to that? Absolutely. Even a quick research and write activity in class would yield more learning than that paragraph.

For a moment, I had to step out of the land of the ideal. My students weren’t going to get the most out of my artist paragraph in Spanish. Most of them just weren’t going to do their best work.

I could assign it. It would put points in the grade book. I could even hang them up in the hallway to show all the Spanish my students were writing.

That doesn’t mean they learned anything.

Focus on “learning” instead of “activities”

The copy/paste cheating issue is a tricky, convoluted one with lots of fiery emotions. There’s no easy answer to it.

(And no, TurnItIn and other tools to “force kids to stop cheating” are NOT the answer either.)

You have to be willing, as William Faulkner said, to “kill all your darlings.”

You’ve loved those activities for years. You’ve refined them and gotten really good at assigning and grading them.

But they’re not getting the results they once did. (Or did they ever really get results in the first place?)

Students were doing activities. But were they actually doing any learning?

As teachers, we have an uncanny ability to watch students, to listen to them, to talk to them, and see that they’re actually learning something.

We have to be brave enough to trust our senses and the evidence around us when we create learning experiences. (Notice I just avoided the word “activities”.)

We have to wield the tools of inspiration, motivation and connection.

If we want to get to the root of the copy/paste cheating issue, then using a tech tool to “force kids to stop cheating” is like pulling the leaves off a weed. It’s gonna grow back.

We don’t have a tech problem. We have a PEOPLE problem.

To get to the heart of the problem, we have to get to the hearts of our students.

This is where I’d LOVE to engage in discussion about this topic. However, as of publication of this post, the comment feature of my website is broken! Please feel free to share via Twitter with me (@jmattmiller) and on the #DitchBook hashtag. If the comments are fixed, I’d love to hear from you right here. Thanks!

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