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How to Avoid Your Biggest Mistake: Cheating

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how to avoid cheating

When I was in seventh grade (bear with me -- a point is coming), I wrote the formula for photosynthesis on my palm prior to taking an earth science test.

So did half a dozen other kids, which meant the jig was up about five minutes into the test because, well, we needed to use our hands to write. The incensed teacher had each student walk up to her desk and hold out his or her palms. The humiliating moment my turn came is etched into my brain so deeply, I can recall what I was wearing (pink skirt, maroon top).

As a college professor, I have seen that look of horror and humiliation on several faces over the years when I have confronted students with evidence of their cheating. The difference is that, now, I not only understand the reaction of the students, I also understand the reaction of my seventh-grade teacher. She felt she was being played for a fool, and that made her mad. I used to feel that way, too.

But one of the lessons I’ve learned about cheating is that, in most cases, it has nothing to do with the student’s opinion of the teacher. Nor is it about a vague, overall sense that everyone else is cheating so you have to do it, too, to kind of keep up (I have never heard that excuse in all my years as a teacher).

It’s usually about panic. Or laziness. Or a momentary lapse in judgment. Based on some other things I’ve learned about who cheats and why, here are five suggestions for students (and parents) to keep everyone on the straight and narrow in the classroom:

1. Role play what you might do

Think about all the ways you could cheat -- and about how you are going to deal with that temptation when it arises. What will you do when a classmate asks to copy your homework? (And what if it’s your BFF?) When you don’t know the answer to the first two true/false questions on the test, but you’re pretty sure the person sitting next to you does? When you run out of time to write something original and discover something online that seems exactly what your teacher wants in that 10-page paper? Parents, run through those scenarios with your students. It’s not enough to think your kid will just say no (I’m sure that’s what my mother thought). Help them with what they will say or do in each situation.

2. Ask your teacher if it’s cheating.

If you wonder if something is against the rules, ask the teacher. Is it OK if you work with a classmate on homework? Is it plagiarism to use someone else’s idea but not their actual words? When you are taking a quiz in class, is it cheating to use your phone as a calculator? Every teacher has thoughts on these and other questions. But no instructor will penalize a student for asking “Would this be cheating?” ahead of time.

[Looking for more college prep advice? Check out the Guide to Preparing for College.]

3. Try to work out a solution.

Are you feeling under pressure to do uber-well on that test because it may determine your class grade, which may determine your GPA., which may determine whether you get into Harvard, which may determine whether you ultimately reside in the White House? Have you put off working on that research paper and now realize you can’t possibly do all the work required to get it done on time?

See tip No. 2: Talk to your teacher. You might hear bad news: “Sorry, but you should have thought about the White House thing earlier.” But, depending on circumstances, you might get an extension on the paper, or extra help on test material.

But, sub-tips: Do this early, not the day before the paper is due. And be prepared to suffer some consequences such as points taken off your grade.

4. Don’t finagle, deny or make up excuses.

If you do cheat (and, you know, don’t), do not try to finagle your way out of it. That means don’t deny it (“I would never copy.”), don’t offer excuses (“My parents will kill me if I don’t get an A in this class.”), don’t make it seem like it’s your teacher’s fault (“You were just so unclear about whether I could go online during the exam.”).

Teachers do not take cheating allegations lightly. I can’t sleep the night before I confront someone about cheating. So you can be sure I have marshaled all the evidence necessary to prove my case. Your best strategy? Admit to the offense, accept the consequences, apologize, ask if there is anything you can do to regain your teacher’s trust. You will still get the F (and maybe worse), but your teacher will be more inclined to work with you as you seek to redeem yourself.

5. Keep up with your work.

If you pay attention in class, take notes, do the reading, mark your calendar with assignment due-dates, study for exams, you will not be tempted to cut corners. Get sleep. If you’re not exhausted, you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed; if you’re not feeling overwhelmed, you’re less likely to give in to the temptation to do something stupid.

Your parents and others have helped craft your sense of right and wrong. But they aren’t the ones sitting in the classroom oh-so-close to someone confidently filling in those blanks on the quiz for which you failed to study.

Learning how to keep your eyes glued to your own paper in that situation is something that, in the moment, no one else can teach you. It’s a lesson you have to teach yourself, over and over. But it’s a lesson you’ll carry with you forever.

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