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The Thin Line Between Collaboration and Cheating

Cheating is prevalent at all levels of education, from elementary school to university. Students cheat for different reasons which might appear logical to them, but to us educators, it is frustrating, annoying, and saddening. So why do students cheat? Is it because they lack strong moral and ethical values? Does cheating come innate or are we teaching students to cheat?

Cheating to most educators is stealing, whether of ideas or entire work. Collaboration then is working together or sharing of ideas. However, look up the breach of academic integrity documents of most educational institutes,

and you will notice that the distinction between cheating and collaboration widely differs institution to institution. Unless we clearly define what collaboration and cheating is and what we expect from our students, we will never fully be able to prevent students from breaching academic integrity. Our students should be entirely clear regarding the point where collaboration becomes cheating and the consequences of such actions.

Often I ask my students whose lab reports seem a little too similar to be coincidental to explain why it is so and I usually get the same response, "we worked together on it", or "we discussed it together". We all hear this, and while it is a happy event to see students collaborating and building interpersonal skills, it is disheartening at the same time to realise that they do not understand the difference between collaboration and cheating. I always inform my students, "it is okay to sit and discuss how you are going to approach the work, but it is not alright to sit together and write the same opinions, thoughts, and ideas". It is a thin line between collaboration and cheating, and this is where it is most obvious. You can have the same idea, but you have to present it in your words and opinions, the personal touch should be there. You cannot expect to paraphrase and call it your work, instead, integrate it with your philosophies and your approach to the world.

However, let us not forget that we all have a different approach when it comes to collaboration. What would be acceptable with one teacher might not be acceptable with another. For example, I allow my students to collaborate on ideas but draw the line when it comes to presenting the ideas in their words. My peer might not let the students even to discuss the ideas and might insist upon the students coming up with their ideas individually and then explaining the ideas in their words.

Why the restriction on collaboration? Is it harmful to the students if they were to sit and discuss their thoughts?

We should be open to collaborations occurring both in-class and out and expect that it will happen regardless of our instructions on not to do so. Why restrict collaborative skills while in school when it is one of the very skills required in the real world? Those individuals who cannot collaborate and get along with their peers will not have a very successful career regardless of how talented and good they are at their jobs. Students learn valuable skills through collaborating with their peers; such as respecting opinions that might be different form their own, new ways of thinking or approaching problems, brainstorming abilities, etc. Let the students collaborate but make sure to inform them not to solely rely on collaboration solely if they are to progress in their learning.

But what happens if there is a clear distinction between the two? Have a discussion with the parties involved, ensure it is a teaching moment but do not be hesitant to write them up. We should not be tolerable of such breaches and unwilling to write students up just because of the paperwork involved. It is a lesson worth learning for students who have such a blase attitude towards the work of others; it is better to learn the lesson now than when it is too late.

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