Dear Student

How to Get Away With Cheating

Being a journalist is like being a little bit pregnant: you are or you are not.

I am a journalist.

That means I check. I check stories students write. I check names, dates, places. I may even call sources occasionally to verify quotes. I search to see if any of the content was copied – there are multiple sites that do this faster than I ever could.  I even check the doctor’s excuses that students bring following an absence. I verify everything to the best of my ability.

So why, oh Lord, why do students test me with plagiarized passages in their stories, made-up sources and fake medical excuses with hospital logos cut and pasted and then photocopied badly in an attempt to make them look like real stationery, with bogus phone numbers and the names of doctors who do not work there, if indeed they are the names real physicians?



I understand why some students want to cheat:

  • They want to turn in perfect work so they can get a high score. So they submit something previously published, hoping I’ve never seen it and will believe they produced it, although nothing they’ve turned in up to that point came close to the quality of that work.
  • They have too many things going on, wait until the last minute to do the assignment and copy something quickly, hoping that it will not be closely examined.
  • They have pretended to understand what was going on in class throughout the semester and avoided asking questions in class, visiting my office during class scheduled office hours or even sending an email asking for help.  Now at deadline, they cannot admit they have no clue what has been going on.
  • They cut class or felt yucky when they woke up and decided to stay in and never bothered to get an excuse. They later remembered they needed documentation for an excused absence. So they created a fake excuse or got a friend to do it. I certainly hope they didn’t pay for it.

I get why students want to cheat, just not why they actually do. Calling a student to my office to present her with a phony doctor’s note or evidence that significant portions of his paper were taken verbatim from three different news sources is not my idea of fun.  

Our syllabi include extensive sections on plagiarism, ethical standards, copyright and fair use. I usually test my students to ensure they have read the syllabus. Some of my colleagues have students read the syllabus in front of them and sign and turn in the last page to indicate they have read and understand the rules.

Still, every semester there are increasing complaints from faculty that they are catching more cheaters than the semester before. It’s a shame to think that the one thing the students are working hard at is the one thing they shouldn’t.

Every semester in some form or fashion, here’s what I tell them:

Dear Student:

College is tough sometimes. I get it. But what you will find over time is that it largely is as difficult as you choose to make it.

One of the worst things you can do, however, is cheat. You risk failing an assignment, a course or, worse, getting suspended or expelled from school. The time that it takes you to make up stuff, copy someone else’s work, let someone else use your work or turn in your own work for another assignment without adaptation is time you could have spent doing things right in the first place.

If you don’t understand, ask. If you need help, ask. You only get better with practice. You are not expected to be perfect, but you are expected to make your best effort and to do so honestly.

But if you still want to know how to get away with cheating, remember these important tips:

STEP 1: Your professor already knows. Never overestimate your cleverness, or underestimate our experience, instincts and ability to check.

STEP 2: Deny everything and when caught, make excuses. But remember, plausible deniability occurs ONLY if the excuse is plausible.  If you don’t understand what this means, you’re not qualified to pull this off. 

STEP 3: Just because your professor doesn’t nail you for cheating doesn’t mean the cheating wasn’t caught. It usually means you are a lousy enough student to fail on your own merits. Pointing out your cheating is just piling on.

In the end, the only person you’re really cheating is yourself.  When you cheat, you’re missing the chance to build the muscles that will help you pursue your goals. You’re squandering the value of lessons learned through diligent work, moving out of your comfort zone, and forming the habits of excellence.  You’re choosing not to build skills that could make you marketable in the future. Your adult life skills won’t be developed if you choose not to meet the challenges that become life lessons. 

Jackie Jones is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism.  Follower her on Twitter @jjones5647.


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