January 11th, 2017

Collaboration or Cheating: What Are the Distinctions?


students collaborating on project

The line between collaboration and cheating is fuzzy. It’s still clear at the edges, but messy in the middle. When students are working in groups, searching for a solution to a problem, looking through possible answers for the best one, or sorting out material to include in a presentation, that’s collaboration. When one student in the group solves the problem and everyone else copies the answer, that’s cheating. When one student fails to deliver material she or he’s been assigned and the rest of the group covers, that’s cheating.

Teaching Professor Blog But what about when students study together? Given what we know about how much they can learn from and with each other, it makes sense to encourage students to work together on course content. To us that means collectively looking for answers, explaining things to each other, and using questions to test their knowledge. But what if they divide up the homework problems or study questions so that each person does only a few, but everyone gets the answers?

Collaboration on exams or quizzes further highlights the messiness of the distinctions. If a student admits to a group working on quiz questions that he doesn’t know an answer and someone else in group identifies the right answer, explains what makes it right, and that explanation enables the first student to understand, has cheating occurred? For exams, must a student discover all answers working alone? The question can be framed more globally, when does collaboration cross the line and become cheating?

Teachers have the responsibility to assess individual mastery of the material. Grades provide a measure of how well an individual knows something. When students collaborate, when they produce work collectively, that makes it much more difficult to determine who knows what and how well they know it. Promoting collaboration and preventing cheating can feel like one of those spots between a rock and hard place.

The distinctions matter because collaboration is an expectation in most professional settings. Professionals “cheat,” as we usually define it. If they don’t know an answer, they look it up. If they don’t know how to do something, they ask someone to show them. Most decisions are group decisions. Who contributed what is of little concern; it’s the quality of the decision that matters.

Are we conveying mixed messages if we put a problem on the board and tell students to work on it with someone seated nearby, but then silently expect all homework to be completed independently? Do they see what differentiates in-class collaboration from the individual work we require that they do for grades? As far as that goes, how clear is our own thinking about what makes them different?

If we don’t understand the distinctions, then we don’t have much hope of clarifying them for students. Students already have permissive attitudes about cheating—so many of them do it, despite our efforts to prevent it. If we’re teaching students in that traditional 18-23-year-old cohort, then there’s the added power of peer pressure. If the student asking for your answer is a friend, can you say no without doing damage to the friendship?

Unfortunately, it’s also possible for groups to collaborate with the intent of cheating—the giving and taking of answers without any attempt at learning. We focus our efforts on the person who’s cheated—the one who’s gotten the answer from somebody else. We don’t pay much attention to those who enabled the cheating—the ones giving away the solutions and facing no consequences when they are in fact co-conspirators.

Finally, are we so focused on preventing cheating that we’re neglecting to teach the skills of collaboration? I’m wondering if the place to start is by exploring with students what it means to work collaboratively, how everyone has the responsibility to contribute, and why it’s everyone’s responsibility to prevent the undeserved taking of ideas and information from others. That doesn’t mean everyone must always know the answer, but everyone ought to have ideas about the possible answers or at least some thoughts about how to probe the problem further. Handing out an answer to somebody who hasn’t done any work is different from trying to help someone who’s struggling but still working to understand the content. Effort on the part of the receiver is key.

Please share your thoughts. Writing this post has stimulated a lot of thinking (and rewriting). I’m not sure I’ve gotten us to good answers yet.

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  • If a prof relies almost exclusively on group collaboration, then he offers an unfair advantage to the unscrupulous. So don’t do that. One of the reasons to mix individual assessment in with group collaboration is to identify what the individual has learned. If a student “cheats” in group work but you test him individually on the work, his lack of knowledge will surface and his grade will suffer as a result. In that case, why worry about how much support he got while doing group work?

    • Fumcat

      I totally agree. Assessments must be mixed. Personally, I have always frowned upon collaborative exams although I occasionally use them. I will use short collaborative in-class and out-of class assignments, but then will quiz the students as individuals. Individual work is always assigned more points than collaborative work. And, some professional settings do not always value group think. Individual innovation and scholarship is still king in some environments.

  • pat bowne

    I agree with John R. Walkup, a variety of assessment methods is the best way to deal with this. However, you can also have this variety within a given assessment. Years ago, a colleague convinced me to give my students their big case studies in advance and let them study together for a week before having them individually answer the questions on the in-class assessment. I think this gets me the best of both worlds, as they help each other learn but must demonstrate their knowledge without help.

    • Laurel D

      This is how it was down in my prestigious MBA program. There are a lot of benefits. (With the proviso stated that it is all discussion and they don’t bring notes.)

    • I fully support that approach.

  • Rebecca Brent

    I agree with John Walkup that individual testing is often the way we evaluate the learning. Lots of learning happens during group work when stronger students help others to understand content or when the whole group together figures out what to do to solve a problem or address a question. I know some STEM faculty members who assign group homework, but they count that work as 10-15% of the course grade. They also put a restriction in their grading policy that students must have a passing average on the individual tests before the homework (group) grade is counted in calculating the course final grade. That way, they know that a student can’t fail the tests but get lifted into passing the course on the strength of their group.

  • Dave Porter

    I too agree that mixed methods of assessment are best. However, I think it is also important to recognize that the distinctions between cheating and collaborating are things we establish by the rules we impose rather than categories that are inherently and meaningfully distinct. An activity is not cheating if it is something that is explicitly permitted by instruction from the teacher. Thus the question becomes, “What types of activities should we condone?” Often I ask myself what i might expect students to learn from doing an activity one way or another. I choose the alternative that I believe is likely to promote the greatest learning. I check with students regularly to see how things are working. They tend to be very candid when they see themselves as partners in their own education.

  • Warren Miller

    I believe that some of what Prof. Weimer characterizes as cheating is not cheating. It is what economists call ‘free riding’ – that is, getting a ‘free ride’ from the work of others. In group-type projects, free-riding does occur, and it does so for a variety of reasons. To expect otherwise is to object to human nature.

    When I taught senior-level undergraduate business courses three decades ago, a small part of the overall grade component–5%, as I recall–was the evaluation of performance that each student in a group had to prepare on every other group participant. Knowing that there is, in the context of group work, a level of loyalty among thieves, if you will, I mandated that the students’ evaluation of one another be rank-ordered. In other words, on a given criterion, not everyone could be ‘Excellent’, ‘Above Average,’ etc. Most of the students hated having to do that. I justified it in the context of having to prepare ‘performance appraisals’ of subordinates later on, after they had graduated. They didn’t like it, of course, but they had a hard time arguing against that stated rationale.

    Knowing that a ‘group mentality’ can sometimes work to a particular student’s disadvantage, I also provided space on the evaluation form for the person being evaluated to comment, disagree, etc. This enabled an individual to push back if s/he thought the evaluation was unfair. The person being evaluated wasn’t required to comment, but s/he was required to sign and date that section affirming that s/he had read the evaluation.

    All in all, it worked well. Students learned a lot about collaboration, but they also learned that being a ‘boss’ (in the form of preparing written evaluations of others) was no walk in the park. It was as level a playing field as I could make it, and I’d do it the same way today if I resumed teaching again. However, I suspect today’s students would like those ‘Peer Performance Reviews’ a whole lot less now than they did in the 1980s because, from my vantage point, most campuses appear to be places where, figuratively speaking, the inmates are running the asylum.

  • Donnell Wolff

    Thank you Dr. Weimer for this article. Definitely, I struggle with this. In my classes, most collaborative work occurs during initial learning in the classroom – I don’t tend to assign group work that is a gradable component. For assignments that are graded, I do state that students must work independently – but, I know this doesn’t happen. I do remind students to work independently and that I don’t expect to see any two answers that are the same etc. etc. but, I know that cheating occurs (not to say that students identify this as cheating). There really is a limit as to how much we can police. In the end, it is my hope that hard work pays off – in understanding, in performance in the lab, in ability to pass the national exam, in getting a job, etc. etc. But definitely, a few will slip through on the coat tails of others. I feel that I need to spend my time and effort helping those that really want to learn as opposed to trying to catch those that want to find short cuts. Thank you again – such an interesting topic!

  • Tim McKenna

    “Talk all you want, don’t write anything down.” has helped students at our school understand the difference between collaboration/sharing and going beyond that on individual assignments.

    Pat Bowne’s method has been successful for me. Students have told me the real value of the test was being able to discuss and debate with each other before writing their own version. With the questions in advance, they learned something with each other instead of merely preparing the test’s deliverables just to make me happy.

    Group work has the potential to dilute responsibility (Wikipedia: ‘social loafing’). I’ve tried various schemes to deal with it; all were a PITA one way or the other. Only the following has worked for me…
    Instead of splitting up the work, as might be done in industry, students share the work. Everyone must produce a draft of the entire project scope and submit it to each other and the instructor by a milestone date. It is graded (a non-ignorable portion of the final project) solely on participation and apparent effort, not on the details of its content beyond that it must be on topic (“marking” it is a very quick browse). Each group member digests the viewpoints of all other members. The group then assembles to debate and synthesize. Only the final draft of discrete sections may be split up. This can reduce the number of group meetings, will improve the final quality, and considers all viewpoints. The technique is supported by research into brainstorming/idea generation best practices (introverts feel they are finally heard) and has been born out in my own experience with students. The final report was never from the “best draft” from a single group member, it was always a synthesis.

    • Akilah

      “Talk all you want, don’t write anything down.”– This is a good point. I had students write a play as a group, but their explanation/rationale was to be written individually. I told them over and over (AND OVER AND OVER) that they could discuss and agree on their answers (i.e., who is the protagonist/antagonist of the play), but the explanations (coming up with examples to offer as proof) were to be done individually. Out of 75 students, I only had two cheat, so I’d say it was successful.

      For group reports in the business class, one of my colleagues had the students submit their group report but also required them to submit the portions they wrote. She said it was usually pretty easy to see when group members were covering for each other because the person’s individual section wouldn’t match what they were supposed to have contributed to the group project.

  • Laura Shulman

    I sometimes invite students to work together on a project. But when they split the work in half and then just take the answers the other one found, they risk taking WRONG answers. Better that they both do the ENTIRE project on their own and then switch papers to see if they got the same answers and, where different, work together to determine whose answer is the better one. But the issue with doing the ENTIRE project on their own is that they are then duplicating their effort.
    Perhaps the best solution is that they may SPLIT the work in half but then DOUBLE CHECK the work the other did rather than blindly accept what the other did.

    • Fumcat

      I have done quite a bit of the double-checking work with my history and Latin students. Also, with Latin as language exercises, one can slightly alter translations from one individual to another in the group. Concepts remain unaltered. But, this is for in-class group assignments. I still walk around the class and visit each group to assure that everyone is one target. Then we all switch exercises either between members of a group or between groups. Good for high school and undergraduate freshmen

  • Laurel D

    Cheating on homework that is individually assessed is very common, especially among our international students who are used to “working together”. Although I do many things to make it clear what is/isn’t cheating and to prevent it, I will just mention one here. I tell them that they can use this rule of thumb: If you are looking at someone else’s paper when you are doing your work, you are cheating. Discussing general ideas is OK, copying from others is not. Don’t show anyone else your work. (This is for homework in statistics and math classes.) So far it seems to reduce the amount of cheating.