A Cheater Learns a Lesson

The first time I failed at school I was over 30. Don’t get me wrong. I have failed at many things–relationships, do-it-yourself projects, exercise programs, baking–but I finished school and university with good marks, without doing much work.

So when I found myself in a new city (Vancouver) with no job and few prospects, going back to school seemed like a good idea. I enrolled in a community college program to become a court reporter, and started to fail almost immediately. Every Tuesday, we had a test.

Every Wednesday, at 11 a.m., we got the test back, and were allowed to keep it for the duration of the class, before returning it to the teacher. That was so we could notice where we had made our mistakes, and learn from them.

The test was marked out of 25.  You started with 25, and 5 marks were deducted for each mistake. The first week I got minus five.  Five marks less than zero. That turned out to be my most frequent score for the next five or six weeks, although I did once make it to minus 15. An occasional zero or plus 5 did not brighten my day at all.

It was demoralizing. Each week, when the teacher handed back my paper, I could hardly bear to look at it. I took a quick glance at the red circled mark at the top, and gave it back to her as if it was burning my hands.

I had no interest in seeing my mistakes, and I didn’t stick around long enough to learn anything. I felt stupid, and that made me angry. I blamed the test; I blamed the teacher; I blamed the intake procedure that had let me into a class I couldn’t cope with.

Eventually, being a pretty smart cookie in many ways, I figured out how to cheat on the test. I don’t remember now the mechanics of that cheating, but I remember the day I got the test back–the test I had cheated on. Right at the top, circled in red, was my mark.  25 out of 25.

I felt a warm glow come over me. I was elated. I took the paper from the teacher’s hands, and put it on my desk. For the whole hour, it sat there, and I hardly paid attention to anything that happened in that class. My eyes, and often my hands, were on my paper–my perfect paper. At the end of the class, I reluctantly gave it back.

I knew I had got the perfect mark by cheating, but that fact did not dampen the glow. There was no reason for me to hang on to that paper for an hour, because there were no mistakes on it that I could “learn from.” Yet I could not bear to part with it.

I cheated on the test for a couple more weeks before I finally, miserably, dropped out of the program, and went back to the job hunt.

I had lots of time to reflect on what had happened to me. A situation from my days as an elementary school teacher became clear. I remembered handing back tests to my grade five and six students, and thinking sarcastically about them. Why was it that the kids with the lowest marks, the kids with “the most to learn from their mistakes,” spent the least amount of time and energy on those tests I handed back? And after I had spent such care and attention on the marking, to help them see where they went wrong!

Soon afterwards, I got a job teaching Adult Basic Education, and I realized that my ABE students were the ones who had got those marks of D and C- and E or F when they were kids. I knew I had to do something different, or I would waste my time doing a lot of useless marking, and they would waste their spirits in a sea of failure. That’s when I started marking for confidence.

5 thoughts on “A Cheater Learns a Lesson

  1. Pingback: Feedback | Working in Adult Literacy

  2. Pingback: Learning Curves, Twists, and Turns | Working in Adult Literacy

  3. I was taught not to use a red pen when correcting. For awhile, I was using a neon pink pen, which I think rather amused my incarcerated male students (or left them wondering or left them blind). Unfortunately, that and the neon blue pen ran out of ink, and I’ve migrated back to red in the absence of locating the colored markers that I know are wandering through the house somewhere. I really need to go pen shopping. No matter what color I use, though, I like to make silly comments and draw smiley faces on their papers in between making notes that I hope are useful but sometimes aren’t.

    Anyway, this post reminded me of why I am reluctant to give spelling tests. There were lots of people cheating on those tests, even after I told them there aren’t any grades and that they are cheating themselves. They have been too ingrained to get over the shame of possible failure. The students do seem to enjoy it more when I give translation tests with me speaking in their language (Spanish) while they write the English (spelling doesn’t count). It levels the playing field when they see how much I struggle with my Spanish. We’ve talked about how difficult it is to learn a language and how not speaking a language well makes us want to keep silent. It’s an interesting dynamic.

  4. To this day I cannot bear a red pen… it signals math failure to me – and try as I might – I never did learn from my many many mistakes in grade school math – what I learned was that I wasn’t very good at math and that after a while it really wasn’t any use to try….

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