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February 17, 2011 / Ben Chun

Restorative Justice

I busted two kids for cheating in my AP Computer Science class today. What I didn’t know last night, while researching and documenting the way they cheated, is how much I would learn from that experience.

Back in October 2009, we in San Francisco heard a lot about “Restorative Justice” when our school board (lead by then-president and now city supervisor Jane Kim) adopted a resolution creating a “Restorative Justice Framework” to be implemented in the current 2010-11 school year. Since the school where I work, Galileo, already has a very low rate of suspensions and expulsions, I didn’t expect to see much impact. I might be in the dean’s office once a year on a non-social basis. I think in my four years here I’ve written a total of two referrals. To me, “Restorative Justice” was just a catch phrase that didn’t really mean anything.

Then, today, I needed to figure out how to deal with these students who had cheated. Specifically, they copied solutions for an extra-credit assignment from a web site. Not only is there a problem with academic integrity here, but it screws up my data! I had seen some previous indications that completion of these additional exercises (provided on the wonderful CodingBat) was strongly correlated with exam performance. Then this year, I didn’t see the correlation. Now I’ll need to go back, remove these false data points, and redo my analysis.

Since I’m learning Python this year, I decided to put together a little Python script to parse the suspect student solutions from the CodingBat web site and spit out the student code into correctly named directories and text files so they’re easy to diff against the posted solutions. (Use DownThemAll to get all the individual HTML and text files.)

By the way, fellow teachers, let’s not pretend these solutions aren’t out there for all the assignments we give. We need to address the issue of academic integrity in a world of Google and Yahoo Answers head on, both by letting students know that we’re aware of this reality and by giving them clear guidelines on what constitutes academic dishonesty. I know my syllabus will have a new section on this next year.

As I ran my script and collected evidence, it was disappointing to see just how many verbatim, character-for-character matches had been entered. The completely identical answers combined with the timestamps in CodingBat confirmed for me that this was not original work. These students would copy and paste for 20-40 minutes at a time, getting as many as 70 solutions entered during a session. That’s kind of a long time time to sit and just copy-paste.

And still the question remained… what exactly should I do about it? Obviously they lose the credit for the assignments, but what else? What is an appropriate punishment? This is where Restorative Justice provided an interesting and useful answer. My understanding of the process, limited to just my experience using it today, is that it centers around a series of questions that the transgressor tries to answer:

“What happened?”
“What were you thinking about at the time?”
“What have you thought about since?”
“Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?”
“What do you think you need to do to make things right?

What I like about this approach is that it puts the work of figuring out the situation and facing its full complexity on the transgressor. Instead of the authority figure giving a lecture or handing down a punishment that the student endures, they are forced to grind through the whole thing themselves. Of course, as they work on it I can set the bar higher if an answer isn’t satisfactory, and I did have to do that several times today.

For example, one student started out equivocating on the very first question, “What happened?” And instead of getting into an argument about it, I just said, “Well, some of the evidence I have indicates that you’ve done more than just use the posted solutions for ideas or reference.” I put the results of my diff on the table and then I let him try again at answering the question. So this is not a way that people get off the hook for what they’ve done.

I think in some circles Restorative Justice (RJ) has been presented as or labeled a “soft” solution that avoids actual punishment. But what I saw today was a much more satisfying solution to a the problem than an arbitrary and possibly ineffective punishment. As the dean and I stepped the two students (individually) through the process of answering the set of questions, I decided to throw in my own: “Are there any other cases, in this or any other class, where you crossed the line from research into academic dishonesty or plagiarism?” Now I’m not sure if the answer would have come out via another process, but I want to give some credit to RJ for helping one student admit that, yes, there were other classes in which this happened.

Then we let the student try to answer the question about who had been affected. It’s easy to say “you” or “me” in that situation, but with some prompting it also came out that the classmates (facing an unfair advantage) and the school community (living with an atmosphere of fraud) are also negatively impacted by cheating. And what needs to happen to make it right? Well, their previous semester grades both dropped by one letter without the extra credit. These changes to their transcripts need to be sent to colleges where they’ve applied. Their parents need to know what happened. Other teachers who weren’t aware of cheating in their classes need to be told the truth and given apologies. But these answers didn’t come from me.

In many situations where the student has done or is doing the wrong thing — which can be discipline situations like this one, or ongoing low academic performance, or any number of other teenage problems — the adults in the room often dominate the conversation. The more adults, the worse it gets. I’ve been in Student Success Team (SST) meetings where the student hardly says a word. Everyone wants to help, but we don’t really know how.

Restorative Justice feels very different. We give space for the student to think and respond. We demand answers that are honest and satisfying to those who have been wronged. And, in the end, we actually resolve the problem.



Leave a Comment
  1. Shawn Cornally / Feb 19 2011 8:20 pm

    First of all I’d like to say that I love your blog. I’m a teacher and your writing is useful and applicable to my daily routine and needs. Thanks! I write and think a lot about grading, points, cheating, and classroom atmosphere, and what you’re describing here is a situation I was in a few years ago.

    Since then I’ve stopped giving points for anything that remotely resembles practice; whether that be programming projects, or calculus homework sets. The only things that get graded are clear cut quizzes that I control. I know that projects seem to be the meat and potatoes of programming, but what I’ve seen is that the kids will still do them despite there being no points awarded. They love not having to worry about the grade while they’re experimenting and playing. I also don’t have to be crestfallen when they invariably would try to cheat for points. It’s kind of like money: we’d all love it if no one stole or embezzled, but when money trumps goods and services as points trump learning, we’ll see some cheating.

  2. Cindy Francis / Feb 22 2011 11:18 am

    Hi there. Long time. Your RJ post was very interesting. I think we’ll be using it for Apex AOIT. Also your Othello assignments sounds great.
    Susan Szep and I have been busy over the past couple of years continuing to merge the digital productions course with senior English. In fact, we just received the Borchardt Scholarship from NC State. We will be attending their seminar “Technology and Writing” at the University of Surrey, Guidford, England, 7/27-8/7. We are so excited about this opportunity.
    Currently our students are creating their websites for the digital production course by choosing 1 major historical time period from British literature and going through a varied task/rubric list. They are also using either photo story or glogster to create a critique/presentation of the modern British novel those chose to read. Next is the PSA using a quote from British literature and then they start working on their 4 minute documentary by choosing a thematic thread we studied and bringing the theme forward to explain modern relevancy. We are having big fun. I don’t know if I’ll be at the conference this summer because there doesn’t seem to be funding for teachers who don’t teach the technology classes.
    I would love to see you and chat in person about all you’ve been doing and what we’ve been up to. Maybe one of these days? I might accompany my husband on another trip and maybe I can come to visit again. Cindy

  3. Shin / Feb 24 2011 7:21 am

    I’m not sure how I feel about this (not RJ just the idea that taking off the internet is horrible). I think the student may just have been trying their best to complete their homework. Even for me, if I don’t get any “ideas” from the internet, I can truly be stuck on a problem. I don’t think anyone feels good about cheating; as you mentioned, it’s usually an act of desperation/when lines become unclear. What they want is probably help on the subject and careful citation.

  4. Ben Chun / Feb 24 2011 9:16 am

    Shawn – Thanks for stopping by! I’ve also enjoyed your blog and particularly have been thinking about your SBG Haters post:

    I’m wondering how you make it work for CS? Do you let them come back later and demonstrate mastery on something they previously didn’t get? Do you write a ton of quiz questions? Do you find the questions falling into patterns where you’re essentially asking the same thing with different decorations on it? This stuff is hard and the discussion going on in your comments is great.

    Shin – Copying and pasting without reading or thinking is simply cheating, and there is nothing unclear about that. I can not believe that this represents anyone “trying their best”.

  5. Shawn Cornally / Feb 24 2011 6:11 pm

    I have pretty much the same implementation as I do in my other courses. The big ideas are my standards (Object/Class Disambiguation, While Loops, etc . . .) I assess these using quizzes with a lot of code snippets. I use a lot of find-the-error type questions. I’ve found that the design part, which most people claim can only be taught by grading projects, can be assessed more genuinely using questions where the students comment about the design of pre-existing code.

    I switched away from grading the projects mostly because I felt that they really weren’t a good assessment. A lot of code is adapted from internet sources, a lot of code is shared among peers, and, frankly, making the projects worth points was causing my student to want to race through them just to get the points.

    I’m going to start writing at Think Thank Thunk a lot more about programming, please keep me honest in the comments!

    • gasstationwithoutpumps / Feb 26 2011 10:12 am

      The problem of cheating on programming projects is a genuine one that has to be tackled directly. It is not clear to me that just removing projects from assessment does much to help there.

      I’m not convinced that you can assess design skills by asking questions about pre-existing code. You may be able to assess debugging skills that way.

      I had a group of students last year who had taken several programming courses (all from the same instructor) and were completely unable to design a program. It turned out that all their programming classes had been heavily scaffolded. They could code a subroutine and debug, but they had no idea how to break up a large problem into smaller problems, as that skill had never been requested of them nor assessed. They could pass tests on programming (though not ace them), but they couldn’t program.

      So it isn’t even enough to have projects. The projects must be designed to require the skills that need to be developed.


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