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Collaboration or Cheating: Where is the Line?

Collaboration or Cheating: Where is the Line?

I teach my students the importance of collaboration to their further studies. I teach them this because I know how much collaboration has aided me in continuing my education, but I also know how much collaboration is involved when working in the “real world.” But I also stress to them the differences between cheating and collaboration. Let me start with a scenario.

A history professor asks students to choose a specific aspect of World War II and write an informative essay over the topic. Now, consider two students (I’ll call them John and Shane) who both decide to write on the battle of Pearl Harbor. Let’s say, for sake of argument, that John had a composition teacher who stressed the importance of collaboration and introduced students to resources that would allow them to collaborate on the research portion of the essay. John introduces Shane to one of these resources. We’ll say that the students are using Diigo to share links. Now, during the research process, John and Shane create a Diigo group in which they both add links to collaborate for the paper. They both add annotations to the resources and use some of the same resources in their papers. The papers, when graded by the professor, vary in content, but contain several of the same quotes from the same sources. The professor thinks this is suspicious, so he compares the two documents and discovers these similarities:

• Three of the eight required sources on the papers are the same.

• Of these three sources, at least one quote from each source is in both papers.

• The organization of the papers is vastly different.

• None of the content is the same in either paper.

I would do a little happy dance if these two papers were from my students. Why? Because the content demonstrates that the students are not plagiarizing each other, but the sources indicate that they are in fact collaborating in their research (which means they were paying attention to what I said in class). But, it seems that some professors view this as cheating and will, in fact, give students a lower grade on the essay–if they don’t fail them–because they chose to collaborate.

Now, I would be the first to turn in a student who was copying answers from another student’s paper during a test. I would turn in a student text messaging a friend for answers to a test during the test itself. But we have to realize that with the advances in technology that our students use, we need to change our definition of cheating. Or do we just need to reconsider exactly what comprises collaboration. As I said, if I were reading these two essay I would be happy that the students had thought to collaborate on their research. I can easily tell, based on organization and content when students are collaborating too much on their technology and when they are merely collaborating on the research. Testing is another story, so I won’t address that in this discussion because I want to keep the focus to collaboration and writing.

If we can think about the load of courses that our students have to take to meet the requirements for graduation (both in high school and college), it requires a LOT of writing. English teachers require between one and five essays per student each semester. In addition, many history, psychology, and even music or art classes are requiring papers of students. This is just brushing the surface of classes I can remember taking. Now, we also have to think about the friendships that we encourage our students to make in the classroom and how we encourage these students to create study groups for tests and to contact each other if they have to to miss class. So why do we not encourage the collaboration that helps them achieve the goals we want them to achieve?

To return to the history paper, think for a second about the number of sources–books, journals, and websites–devoted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now, if we think that a traditional semester runs about 16 weeks and the paper is discussed on the first week of class, but not begun by students until around week four (and I’m being optimistic here) then they have fourteen weeks to complete the research and write the paper in order to turn it in during the final week. There is no way these students can get through all of that research. But, if they form study groups as they will have to do in advanced classes and careers, they can then begin to condense the amount of research that is done in the group. It doesn’t matter how they divide the research, but that they divide it. This allows two people to continue to research longer while gaining more information on the subject and, ultimately, be able to use better research. There is no need for both John and Shane to need to decide that a particular book is not useful to the research. If one can determine this and then notify the other then they cut out a portion of the research.

I doubt that this form of collaboration is new. What is new about it is the way students interact with the books. Using digital libraries and more online sources, students are able to access more sources than ever before. Because of this, I think, many professors are expecting a more diverse group of sources when they could be looking at the way that students are using their research networks to their advantage.

I’m not saying that if John and Shane each included the exact same sources, organized their paper the same way and had paragraphs that had similar wording, we should not consider this a potential cheating issue. However, if the only similarities between the two papers lies in the research of the paper, then the use of research networks should be taken into account.

But let’s say that John and Shane each have completely different sources. John, normally a “C” writer has written a “B” paper that is organized in exactly the same manner as Shane but has different content. Is it a bad idea to look back at John’s previous papers and see if he has encountered comments in the past that focus on his lack of organization? Is it too much to consider that perhaps John knows Shane is good at organization and asked for help with his own paper? Shane would likely tell him how his own paper was organized and John is likely to use this information to organize his own paper. Again, I don’t think that we should consider this cheating. We teach our students using examples. Why then, would we not allow them to use an example they had sought out on their own? It makes sense to me.

I am not saying that a teacher should completely rewrite their definition of cheating. What I am saying, instead, is that teachers need to look closely at what is going on in these situations and determine whether it is detrimental to the student to eliminate collaboration for the sake of keeping students from drawing ideas from other students. I, however, think that if students are using each other to further expand their education, we should encourage this. It could very well lead to a promotion in their future. Should we stand in the way of this?

But I’m curious. What do you consider the difference between collaboration and cheating? Am I living in a utopia where student collaboration is not cheating or am I actually being realistic about these collaborative endeavors? Do I need to explore this idea further?

Read more about how to Stop Cheating.

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