Cheating is such a frustrating part of my job. I know that kids cheat on homework assignments and lab reports. So I have to work to safeguard my assignments from mindless regurgitation of facts. I create assignments with answers that cannot be googled. I make up ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge that is different from last year because most of my assessments are electronic and "out there" accessible to students. With my AP Chemistry class, I record all the past questions to track their use and reuse. And, shame on me if I assign the questions from the lab kits — those answers are all easily googled. I moved toward collaborative lab report writing because the most frequent cheating cases were from one lab partner copying another. Now I have students write the report together — in class — so that they can develop their ideas as a team. Working towards "cheat proof" assignments only gets me so far. What really bothers me about the academic dishonesty problem is the emphasis on earning a grade rather than actual learning.
As a teacher I work hard to create engaging learning experiences. My heart goes into labs and demonstrations to find ways for kids to learn difficult chemistry concepts. But there's always that point where the fun stops and kids have to demonstrate what they've learned. Inevitably there's the question, "Is this on the test?" It sounds so cliché, but kids ask it all the time! To say my students are grade motivated is an understatement. Kids in my class will ask to revise their work, do test corrections or re-work homework problems. I should be thrilled by this extra effort, but in the end it's just another attempt to earn a grade, not learn the chemistry. Do kids actually care about learning? The pressure to get an A on their transcript is very real and in the forefront of my students’ minds. Somewhere along the way they traded in their excitement for learning for stress about GPA. I wish that I could infuse them with some of the joy that comes from learning something new. Wouldn't it be great to tap into the curiosity and excitement that you see in an elementary school classroom, the same energy these high schoolers had only a few years ago.
When kids cheat, I am reminded that my job as a teacher is a complicated balancing act. I want to foster exciting learning opportunities while upholding a standard of mastery of the chemistry. All of this is happening in short time segments that, for my students, is crammed between five other demanding classes with teachers just as eager to inspire and motivate mastery in their subjects. Place that in the context of a boarding school experience that includes sports, dorm life and social events, and it's no wonder kids are looking for a quick way to get to the end of an assignment. Drinking from the fire hose, you might say. Throw in the competition for college admissions and you have the perfect storm for stressed-out teenagers. In the face of what seems like an impossible task, I try to keep my focus on learning. I want to challenge my students to learn and if they enjoy the process, great — and if they walk away thinking "Chemistry is pretty cool", then I've succeeded.