Is It Collaboration or Is It Copying

During the spring of our last school year, two bright and earnest students (both strong, hard-working girls), were accused by a beloved language teacher of copying homework. The students were horrified, the teacher was disappointed, and the parents were confused and angry. As the details emerged from all sides, the girls had no intention of violating rules, and mindless copying was not involved. They were collaborating - working together to drill one another, challenge one another's understanding, and validate their own grasp of the information. They proceeded to write out the responses as they worked together, and obviously, the similarity in their responses was a red flag for the teacher. The teacher was initially skeptical of their explanation (in spite of her respect for the girls and their families), but we all came to realize that their intentions were honorable and the question of collaboration vs. copying warranted important reflection and consideration. As educators, we are keenly aware of the power of collaborative learning. The act of talking through one's understanding, or reinforcing content knowledge through articulation and affirmation, is a potent means by which students construct knowledge. Through collaborative dialogue, information can move from short-term memory to the more enduring long-term memory "bin," the realm of enduring understanding -- cognitive nirvana.

The encouragement of collaboration raises interesting questions regarding authorship when the collaborative discussions result in individually submitted work for assessment, as was the case with our two language students. In the area of science, students routinely submit individual lab reports based upon group lab assignments, and science instructors have dealt with this challenge year after year. How do we clearly educate students about that delicate line between collaboration and copying? What advice can we, as educators, give to parents in guiding their child in completing homework assignments that reflect her own efforts, even if she has completed her homework with a phone on her ear and/or computer at her fingertips? Here are some helpful hints for students and parents:

  1. Distance matters - the best way to avoid collaboration becoming copying is to create distance (including geographic, technological, and chronological) between the collaborative discussion and the putting of pencil or pen to paper. The distance factor ensures that written responses are from one's own head rather than someone else's.
  2. Listen to the words - if a student is using language such as "What did you get for number 4?" or "What did you write after that?" or "Where should I write that answer?," she is treading on dangerous turf. In contrast, if language such as "Why do we use the ablative in this situation?" or "Is this the same kind of problem as number 4?" then the collaboration is a productive and stimulating one for all participants. One can hear the difference - it's not a matter of mindless filling in of blanks, but rather engaging in the higher order thinking that "why" questions engender. These are the building blocks of enduring knowledge.
  3. Brain-power is the key - when a student blindly fills in the blanks, not only is she blatantly copying and placing her integrity in jeopardy, she is also depriving herself of the learning opportunity before her. Engaging the brain - that's the important factor in all learning, collaborative or solo.
  4. Choose your collaborators wisely - the best collaborations involve similarly curious and energetic learners who invest equally in their collaboration. If one party feels that they are "carrying the burden" instead of benefiting equally from the alliance, the collaboration is unhealthy and the potential for copying is great. How should the "burdened" student handle this situation? She should express her concerns to the other student and to the teacher. She should NOT go along with this intolerable situation because she thinks that it's expected.
  5. Constructing knowledge requires sound building materials - when students collaborate, they must be certain that they are dealing with accurate information, or at least, can follow a sound path toward building the tower of knowledge.
  6. When in doubt, CITE! - it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to citing sources or giving credit for material that is someone else's intellectual property. In addition, it's always wise for students to keep their teachers informed regarding tutors who may work with them or parents who may have provided some assistance on papers or other outside assignments.

When teachers and administrators suspect situations of copying, it is never easy for anyone involved, least of all the teacher who may feel frustrated or even betrayed, and the student who may feel embarrassment in the loss of her teacher's trust. Our two language students and their parents endured some difficult days until the facts fully emerged and trust on all sides was restored - their trust in the school to handle the situation fairly and with education as the primary goal, and the teacher's trust in her students, an important foundation of a healthy learning environment. The language teacher clarified her written homework guidelines to inform students as specifically as possible of her expectations regarding homework completion. We would all agree that it is far better to provide clearly articulated guidelines up front rather than deal with the ramifications of murky or unstated expectations after the fact. In addition, we know that teens can be enormously clever in finding loopholes! Therefore, what might be perceived as a statement of the obvious is in fact an important preliminary learning experience for our students - one that will inform, clarify, and instruct. As with most difficult situations, our language students, their teacher and parents, and I learned some important lessons that will significantly improve our ongoing work with these and all girls at the school. We want our students to be unencumbered by unclear or unreasonable rules that stifle creative problem-solving, restrict risk-taking and discourage healthy intellectual discourse. Rather, students and teachers can embrace the power of collaborative learning, exercise it appropriately, and reap the benefits of enduring understanding.

Robin Newham

Robin Newham is in her 24th year at The Ellis School (Pennsylvania), and her eighth year as upper school director. She works closely with students, faculty, and parents regarding academic and behavioral concerns. She has three sons and enjoys the symmetry of her life in working at an all girls' school.