by Edward Whitley
The first time I caught a plagiarized essay was at the beginning of my career as an English professor over 20 years ago. Two of my students had turned in papers with more than a few suspiciously similar phrases, and a quick Google search revealed that they had lifted whole paragraphs directly from an academic website about American poetry that was, as far as I could tell, honestly trying to help students understand the subject.
The culture of student cheating on the Internet has come a long way since then, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought it into even sharper focus. One thing that has changed dramatically in the past two decades is that students aren’t turning to crude HTML sites put together by well-intentioned poetry scholars to cheat on their assignments, but to sophisticated “homework help” sites like Chegg.com that grew by almost 70 percent during the pandemic, reaching a current market cap of $8.5 billion.
Chegg is trying to encourage university faculty to partner with it, claiming (accurately) that “90% of college students say they need more help with their studies.” But the solution to helping students with their homework isn’t to move them onto online platforms that could easily be exploited for student cheating. Rather, students need to work with peer tutors on their own campuses.
Peer tutoring has a long and successful history stretching back to the 17th century. In its modern iteration, since the 1960s, it provides college students with personalized academic instruction from someone closer to their own age and experience who can provide a meaningful bridge between the textbook and the lecture hall. Peer tutors do more than help struggling students get the right answer; they also help students learn how to learn, leading to an increase in “students’ competence to self-regulate their learning.” Recent studies have found that these advances in metacognition help both student and tutor alike, leading to better educational and social outcomes for everyone involved.
As Inside Higher Ed recently pointed out, “In the era of online learning, peer tutoring relationships can prove pivotal in making some struggling students feel more connected to their college community and better positioned to tackle academic challenges.” As students recover both academically and socially from a year and a half of online education, faculty should be encouraging the work of peer tutors on our own campuses, not sending our students back to the Internet.
One of the inadvertent lessons from my first encounter with academic plagiarism was that when students face a challenge that they can’t handle on their own, they often turn to one another. My students had worked together to find a website on American poetry, and they worked together to identify the best paragraphs to lift from the site. Turning to the Internet for plagiarism was clearly not a good solution to the problem; turning to one another, however, was the start of one.
Since that time, I’ve seen a variety of successful peer-oriented programs at my own home institution, Lehigh University: a writing fellows program that embeds advanced undergraduate students into writing-intensive courses so that they can work one-on-one with students in the class on all their writing assignments throughout an entire semester; a peer mentor program that pairs first-year students with juniors and seniors who follow them throughout the entire year; a program for first-generation students that creates a community of support for one of the most vulnerable groups on college campuses.
Compare the rich networks of support that peer tutors and mentors provide students on their own campuses with the anonymous posts on the Chegg Answers subreddit, where students who can’t afford the $19.95 monthly fee for a premium subscription ask if someone with an account can find the answer to a test question for them, either as a courtesy or for a few dollars via Venmo. The difference is stark, both in what students are learning and in the relationships they are forming. Regardless of whether sites like Chegg are making it easy for students to cheat “on a very large scale” or just outsourcing the tutoring that should be happening on college campuses, in a post-pandemic world we need our students to turn to one another more than ever.
– – –
Professor Edward Whitley is chair of the English Department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.