Ethical Educator

Collaboration or Shared Answers?
School Administrator, December 2021

Scenario: A high school junior lends his completed homework to a friend for the purpose of illustrating for him the general approach to the assignment. The friend winds up copying a portion of the work and submitting it. After the teacher discovers this, the accused plagiarizer confirms the original arrangement. The teacher adds a critical note to the first boy’s student file. His parents complain first to the teacher and then to administrators that the note may discourage other teachers from writing letters of recommendation for college applications. Did the teacher misstep?

Chris Nicastro:

First, it's generally good practice—and in some places a violation of contract or policy—to avoid changing teacher records. Administrators should proceed with caution in such cases. While the first student may have intended for his friend to review, and not copy, his work, he nevertheless might have simply walked his friend through the assignment rather than giving him the paper. His mistake was relatively minor and should not be reflected in his file. 

If the teacher chose to add a note about the plagiarism to the second boy's file, while perhaps harsh, it would be appropriate. In this case, the teacher could have talked to both boys, discussed the importance of individual work and how to appropriately help other students. The risks of plagiarism or any activity that claims credit for another's work could be explained and emphasized. 

The parents were within their rights to complain and ask to have the note removed. If the note was in the plagiarizer's file, his parents would have a tougher case to make. The first boy's mistake was naïve and carelessness. The second boy's action was—in the extreme—theft. The administrator should meet separately with the teacher and allow the teacher to correct the problem and inform the parents. Unless there are other factors related to the teacher's performance in consideration, allowing the teacher to "save face" is important and reinforces the teacher's professional autonomy in evaluating and grading student performance. 

MaryEllen Elia:

How far should we allow students to “share” work before it goes over the line to cheating and then how do we handle the consequences? These are situations that occur all the time in schools and often are not treated with consistency. The most appropriate way to deal with these situations is to develop a committee of teachers, students and parents to create a policy that outlines situations/circumstances and the consequences. It isn’t important to just have the policy outlined clearly, but sharing that information with students, teachers and parents is also critical.  

This situation gets escalated when the student’s parents see the teacher’s actions as threatening college recommendations and therefore college acceptance. In the absence of an approved policy, teachers will handle situations differently. The world of technology has upended past practice and norms particularly in this area so it is timely to revisit policy so it reflects the real world.  

Louis Wool:

As with all ethical dilemmas, it is sometimes easy to be distracted by concerns raised by the aggrieved parties. In this case, the parents’ concerns that teachers’ will be unwilling to provide college recommendations because of the negative note attached to their son’s permanent record. 

In this case, the school leader’s work is to explore a more significant ethical question: Is this punishment warranted and appropriate, and what values does enacting the punishment convey or reinforce? Was the student treated fairly and was the punishment appropriate and within the parameters of the student code of conduct?

Suppose we accept that the student’s intentions were honorable — to provide a prototype so that his classmate might better understand how to represent information in the assignment. In that case, this punishment not only seems to be disproportionate but unwarranted and discouraging students from meaningful collaboration. 

A regular part of a rigorous academic college experience often includes study groups, note sharing, providing sample papers, and even outlines of critical ideas.  Are we to assume that most college students who engage in beneficial scholarly collaboration do so merely to plagiarize and reduce their responsibility for learning? I choose to think better of most students and their desire to engage in study. 

If the facts presented are accurate, I would do the following: Remove the note from the student’s permanent record and undertake a review of the code of conduct and its interpretation. A student was punished with scant evidence that his intentions were anything but honorable.  The punishment discourages scholarly collaboration.

My doctorate in organizational leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University, was built around a cohort model. The group regularly exchanged ideas, notes, studied for exams together and exchanged graded and ungraded papers to advance our collective academic growth. Most of my colleagues in that program would reflect the most powerful part of learning was the collaboration with our cohort members.

Finally, I would work with building leadership and faculty to determine how we can illuminate to our students the values of appropriate scholarly collaboration, still clearly delineating the difference between plagiarism and the powerful outcomes that are possible when students support each other in their learning.

Shelley Berman: 

The teacher may not have erred if the student handbook and school procedures indicated that this was an appropriate way to handle such incidents. However, the teacher missed an important opportunity to help the student understand the boundaries between assisting a fellow student and being complicit (even unwittingly) in plagiarism. If the student was sincere in his desire to help another student better understand how to respond to the assignment, he was doing what we hope students will do in working with each other. In that case, a dialogue with the student and a warning may have been more fitting than a critical note to the student’s file.

However, the parents are raising an important point that is less about the teacher than about school procedures. To prevent promoting bias against a student, it’s best to provide some confidentiality around discipline records, through either maintaining a separate file for these records or limiting access to student files. Only administrators, not teachers, should have ready access to student discipline files. If a behavioral incident emerges, administrators can check the files to determine if it is a first occurrence or a repeated incident that calls for more significant consequences. Teachers should write references based primarily on their personal engagement with the student in class and through extracurricular activities, not on incidents experienced by other teachers. At the very least, administration should establish a procedure for maintaining confidentiality around discipline. 

The case also raises a deeper issue about the school’s approach to homework and to students learning from each other. Although grading needs to be based on individual demonstration of learning, schools can create a climate in which students learn collaboratively—conferring with each other, doing homework together, and assisting a peer who is confused or lacks understanding of the material. Although plagiarizing isn’t an acceptable way to demonstrate understanding, it may be highly appropriate and beneficial for students to help each other by sharing their work products and discussing answers to questions and problems posed by the teacher. In that kind of climate, homework may be low-stakes in terms of grading but high-value in terms of students taking risks to struggle with and put forward ideas of their own or of their collaborating group. Given those parameters, the first student would not be violating a norm. The second student could be helped to recognize that plagiarism doesn’t facilitate understanding. He could then be assigned to revise the homework in his own words to demonstrate his grasp of the material. 

The concept of plagiarism can be somewhat difficult for students to decipher, particularly at the middle school and high school levels when a student must adapt to the expectations and procedures of multiple teachers. Students need a chance to discuss what plagiarism is before they cross the line, especially when some classrooms promote collaborative work and some don’t. The point is to foster students’ love of learning so they will keep striving. To that end, administrators should encourage teachers to have a frank discussion with each class about collaboration and plagiarism and how students will be expected to demonstrate their individual mastery of the content matter. 


The Ethical Educator panel consists of Sheldon Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.