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It could be that I’m naïve, but I’ve rarely encountered what I’d characterize as true, barefaced cheating in the first-year writing and other courses I teach. My experience with what some people call plagiarism has involved students attempting—and failing—to understand the conventions of paraphrasing and citation, the need for attribution, the meaning of credibility, the nature of collaboration, and other gray areas that have been and are being researched in a variety of disciplines. I’ve had hard conversations with agonized students who were unfairly accused of plagiarism, who were worried their project’s group members were completing work in an unethical way, and who felt betrayed when they discovered a classmate had turned in work similar to theirs.

I’m not saying nobody cheats. In fact, recent reports in research and the popular media suggest we’ve seen a huge spike in reported cases of academic dishonesty and in the use of somewhat dubious “tutoring” websites during the shift to online instruction. It’s clear that academic integrity remains a deeply important problem in higher education.

For the past few years, I’ve been interested in learning more about that problem, especially in understanding the student perspective, and I recently took two concrete steps to do so. First, with colleagues at several other Canadian universities, I launched the PASS project, the first such study I’m aware of that surveys and interviews students to learn more about how and why some pay third parties for help with their academic work. In our current in-progress survey, around 70 percent of the participants report never paying for additional help, while the remaining 30 percent report having paid for some combination of Chegg-type websites, private tutors, proofreaders or editors—and, in a few cases, ghostwriters.

Second, I launched a special topics course on academic integrity that I’ve had in mind since I started my faculty position. I originally wanted to call it Cheating 101, which I felt would be an irresistibly sexy course title sure to lead to massive enrollments. But the faculty committee that approves undergraduate courses offered wise counsel otherwise, and the name was changed to Academic Integrity. What didn’t change was the first assignment I had long dreamed of trying: I was going to require my students to cheat.

As a lifelong Goody Two-shoes, I did so with some trepidation. I still truly believe that cheating on homework is wrong, but my desire to understand students superseded that view. And I had been reading the work of the education scholar Dave Cormier, intrigued by his writings on “cheating as learning” and how it is now “very, very, very difficult for students not to cheat.”

The course (which ultimately did attract 28 students, mainly aspiring teachers, even without a provocative title) began with a critical examination of The Fundamental Values of Integrity, a document produced by the International Center for Academic Integrity, which explores the meaning of honesty, trust, respect, fairness and responsibility in academic work. We also read an insightful meta-synthesis taxonomy of cheating behaviors by nursing scholars Emily L. McClung and Joanna Kraenzle Schneider. Then I laid it out: I said I was going to give the students a quiz, during the third week of class, on “everything we had learned so far.” They should use the taxonomy of cheating and the university’s own policy to cheat on this quiz. Nothing was off-limits unless it was dangerous or illegal. Other than that, have at it, I told them. All the students had to do was complete the quiz and then write a one-page reflection that explained: 1) the ways in which they cheated, 2) what, if anything, they learned from it and 3) how they felt about the experience.

What were the results?

Some students seemed to have fun with the assignment. One offered his mother a trade: “I’ll do the dishes if you do my homework.” (He was not the only one to bribe a family member.) “I decided the best way to cheat was just to not even do it or be a part of it,” he wrote. “The Canucks game was on and [I] decided I would rather watch that instead (regretted that decision, terrible game as a Canucks fan). I have no clue what she wrote down, if she put in the right answers and if that’s going to affect my grade.”

He felt that if he’d done this on a real assignment, he’d be so worried about the quality of his surrogate’s work that he’d “spend just as much time probably looking over the paper that was written for me—making sure it was good enough quality—that I could have just written my own paper in that time.”

Another pair of students decided to work together, googling for answers and copying each other’s notes. “Cheating did help me learn the material better because I went over the materials again in order to answer the question,” one of them wrote. “I don’t think I would have done better or worse if I didn’t cheat, because if I didn’t cheat, I would have had a different mental preparation and would have studied before doing the quiz.” She added that she “enjoyed thinking of all kinds of ways to cheat.”

Others, however, found the exercise disturbing. One student said she second-guessed her responses more than usual, because she was just copying and pasting answers whose correctness she couldn’t verify—which led her to “feelings of guilt, worry and anxiety”—rather than following conventional methods. Another wrote, “This assignment seemed like a terrible idea.” More than a few explained that this was the first time they had deliberately cheated, and since they normally took pains to make sure they were avoiding plagiarism, they felt unmoored by abandoning what they’d been taught to do.

I personally felt a kind of exhilarated terror at various points during the week of the cheating assignment. Would a student think I was trying to pull a fast one on them and turn me in to the university’s academic integrity office?

I also wasn’t sure I could trust any emails I received from the class that week, since one of McClung and Schneider’s categories of academic dishonesty involves attempting to unfairly influence the instructor. One student emailed me blatantly asking for the answer to a question—should I give it to her for taking the initiative or rebuke her for attempting to find a shortcut?

I decided not to give her the answer. (We’ve got to have some standards.) Someone asked me if they could redo the quiz due to extenuating circumstances, and that seemed OK, so I allowed it.

But then I got an angrily worded email from a student who said that she’d missed the first week, she hadn’t understood the assignment and she’d performed poorly, so she should be given concessions. I panicked and responded as though her concerns were legitimate; she immediately replied to let me know she was just messing with me. (Thankfully, the ruse ended there. She later told me she was prepared with a second faux-outraged email threatening to go to my dean, which would have given me a heart attack.)

I was overwhelmed by the students’ thoughtfulness and variety of responses. Some said their strongly held beliefs that “cheaters never prosper” were confirmed and they learned nothing but the pointlessness of cheating. Others said that educators should reconsider and legitimize some of the cheating strategies.

I became convinced of the value of the assignment. I plan to use it again, despite the discomfort we all felt at times, because it led to a lot of generative conversations about important things: learning, motivation, trust, honesty and desperation.

In Intellectual Appetite, Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths offers what he calls a “theological defense of plagiarism.” To Griffiths, all words and “word-ensembles” are to be received as gift and as part of the “ocean” of discourse we are all born swimming in—one that does not invite easy demarcation or declarations of “ownership.” (Nor, he argues, should it.) It can be unnerving to let go of the impulse to righteously track down and punish those who violate not only policy but also the trust that we try to create in the classroom. But as Jeffry Moro wrote in a memorable blog post, that impulse is “cop shit.” If Griffiths is right that words, or even knowledge, cannot really “belong” to anyone—and I suspect he might be—then perhaps we can let go of the immediate desire to police our students and work to better understand academic dishonesty.

In my course, relieved of the elements of subterfuge, deception and mistrust that can surround questions of academic dishonesty, we were free to focus on the mechanisms of cheating—what actually is done to complete academic work in unsanctioned ways—and their consequences: on grades, on learning, on our own affective responses to violations of integrity. When cheating was required, rather being than an option for the desperate or lazy who might attempt to do it in the dark, we were forced to confront larger questions about the purpose of education, the effectiveness of assessment methods, the nature of knowledge and the importance of mutual relationships of trust and understanding in the classroom. And we were forced to ask and answer them together. We didn’t all come to the same conclusions, but it was, for both me and the students, immensely illuminating.

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