By Jennifer Carey

It’s an open secret in the education community. As we go about integrating technology into our schools, we are increasing the risk and potential for plagiarism in our tradition-minded classrooms.

In fact, a recent PEW research study found that while educators find technology beneficial in teaching writing skills, they feel it has also led to a direct increase in rates of plagiarism and infringement of intellectual property rights. In my recent article about using Google Drive as a system for students to write and submit work, many of the readers who commented expressed their concern that students would use such a tool to “peek” at their peers’ work and perhaps use it for “inspiration.”

These concerns lead us to an interesting discussion about collaboration and plagiarism in the classroom. It’s true that tools such as blogging, social media, Google Drive, and DropBox (among others) allow for faster and easier communication and collaboration – skill sets that many educators and business leaders have identified as valuable and important today. But when does collaboration cross the line into plagiarism, out in the digital frontier of education?

In the balance, does plagiarism make these tools more problematic than they are useful?

An Interesting Dilemma

We want students to do “group work,” to collaborate, and to discuss. However, we have very specific realms in which we want this to happen: the group assignment, the in-class discussion, studying for exams, etc. At the same time, many of us want to put up barriers and halt any collaboration at other times (during assessments, for example). When collaboration takes place during assessment, we deem it plagiarism or cheating, and technology is often identified as the instrument that tempts students into such behavior.

This leads to a broader and more provocative question. Should we ever stymie collaboration among our students? We live in a collaborative world. It is rare in a job, let alone life, that individuals work in complete isolation – with lack of assistance or contributions from anyone else. Perhaps as educators, it’s time to reassess how we want students to work.

Instead of fighting a losing battle (as my grandmother would put it – “You can’t nail jello to a wall!”) by trying to ban any type of interaction with students online, what if we incorporated collaboration into our lessons and our assessments?

Transforming “Cheating” Into Collaboration?

While students should not be copying and pasting somebody else’s content, at the same time it’s engaging and fruitful for them to be able to discuss assignments and enlist assistance from their peers across the board. For example, students who are working on a research essay on topics that they’ve chosen, can share their work with their peers, looking for feedback, input, or guidance. This is not cheating, rather it is collaboration. It should be open and above board – transparent – but this is exactly how they should grow as learners.

Using tools like Google Drive, students can more easily collaborate across distances and with conflicting schedules. Better yet, teacher can see their collaborative efforts using the “revision history” function of Google Drive (Go to File → See Revision History), and can track not only quality, but quantity. (See the post on Google Docs and research.)

We have all heard students complain that a member of the group has “contributed nothing.” Now, there’s a method to verify. While student A may have contributed fewer comments or changes, those contributions may have been especially meaningful and balanced. Likewise, if student B has never logged into the system, the teacher knows this well before the project is complete and can follow up and discuss with that student the necessities of participation.

But What About the Test?

Outside of project work or written papers, we still have the formal quiz and test assessment. Many of us are required to do testing in our classes (in the form of mid-terms or finals). This does not mean that the anti-collaboration walls must go up.

Now, we ask students not to discuss test questions or we guard them in the fear that those questions will leak out via cellphone snapshots — or that a student might Google the answer. Perhaps it’s time to reassess how we write our exams. If you can Google the answer, how good is the question?

Do we want students to simply memorize and regurgitate information? Is this the type of learning that we value in the 21st century? Or do we want them to think, assess, reason, and verbalize (vocally or in written form) their processes and ideas? I would argue that the latter is better not only in assessment but in overall skills.

A student may produce an entirely wrong answer, but if how they got there was through logic, reasonable assumption, educated guessing (not just plain old “guessing”) – and they were effective in communicating that process – then there is evidence of learning that I can take into account. I’m not left to figure out what they DID know from a T/F or multi-choice “wrong” answer.

Perhaps instead of focusing our concerns on technology as a wonderful aid to plagiarizers, we should focus on its ability to foster creativity and collaboration, and then ask ourselves (we are the clever adults here) how we can incorporate those elements into our formalized assessments.

Unfortunately, yes, there will always be those students who want to cut corners, find the easy way, and cheat to get out of having to do the hard work. (See my post on combating plagiarism.) But a significant majority of students are inherently inquisitive: they want to learn and do better by engaging and thinking, not memorizing and fact checking. It’s up to us to appeal to that inquisitiveness.

The reality is that rote memorization is largely becoming obsolete and not a reflection of the needs we have in our citizens or our workforce. Instead, we need to get busy fostering creative and developmental skills that will allow them to achieve through their skills as collaborators and creative makers and shapers of information and ideas.

This is the power of the new technologies that are populating the digital frontier of education.

Jennifer Carey is Director of Academic Technology at the Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Florida.  This post originally appeared on Powerful Learning Blog.

Is It Plagiarism or Collaboration? 23 January,2014MindShift

  • Jennifer Carey

    Thanks for sharing this article! I’m excited to hear other’s thoughts.

    • tbarseghian

      It’s a pleasure Jennifer!

  • Gwen

    I think there are times for collaboration and there are times for individual work. Some personalities dominate discussions and group work and then you don’t hear equally wonderful ideas of those will quieter personalities.

    Consider this:

    I definitely agree that we need people who can think their way through problems and figure out where they can go to get credible help should they need it.

    • Gwen

      Sorry for the typo… those WITH quieter personalities.

    • Jennifer Carey

      Thanks Gwen! You’re right that balance is key. Sometimes we want to individually assess, at other times it’s a broader dynamic. What I like about technological tools today is that we can use them to individualize group assessment in multiple environments – students that are uncomfortable being vocal in a group may be more prone to write, research contributions are marked, and you can view the work as a collection rather than as a product.

  • Candice Smith

    I believe teachers need to know their assignment designs well and keep in mind ways that some student may act as ‘free riders’ taking advantage of their peers work.. With that knowledge teachers can access how they want to use the technology where to add barriers and where to allow sharing.. Plagiarism has become easier for teachers to detect through tools if it concerns ‘copy of data’.. But where there is a ‘copy of idea’ i think to a negligible extent a student still learns something..

    • Jennifer Carey

      Good points Candice. Do you think that more ‘open ended’ projects would be a good way to combat this?

      • Candice Smith

        Yes i think open ended projects work best to enlighten creativity but at the same time teachers should master how to access the results of the student learning..

  • geoffcain

    It is actually not an “open secret” that we are increasing the risk of plagiarism and cheating. The research shows that there is no substantial difference between the levels of cheating online or off: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring131/watson131.html

    The biggest difference is the perception of more cheating. I agree though, assignment and test design is very important which is why instructional designers are critical to the development of online programs:

    • Jennifer Carey

      I agree that technology does make it easier to check – looking up various journal articles to find the one a student “borrowed” from was more arduous than googling a sentence.
      Thanks for sharing the online program link, I will check it out. I taught an online class one semester. I wasn’t particularly concerned about academic dishonesty but did not like the disconnect with students. However, I’ve seen some promising trends and changing practices to address this issue.

  • Jeremy Lu

    I think there’s more to just file sharing in collaboration. There’s an important lesson for students to learn about the 3 most important views in a room.. your’s mine and ours.

    The ability for people to discern, make decisions, but then work together at the end of the day is part and parcel of the collective learning and collaborative process. There does need to be some way for educators to look at the collective, as well as the individual efforts of any one person within a team around and exercise. I do agree that technology moves us part way towards this.

    Thought this was a pretty interesting lesson plan that allows individual students to create responses, share them anonymously, vote and prioritise on ideas. The reports then allow teachers to see what the whole class did, as well as drill down to individual students.

    Really good way to see how each student contributed as part of the whole group. For those of your who like to assess individual as well as manage group activities.


    • Jennifer Carey

      Thanks for sharing the lesson plan, excited to check it out.

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  • Diane Trout

    Wow! I LOVE this: “If you can Google the answer, how good is the question?” This is so true. Like your article states, we don’t want students just to memorize information. They need to have a deeper understanding of the curriculum and not just scratching the surface. If students are finding this information on their own, they have a better chance of absorbing the information, making the learning experience more authentic.

    • Jennifer Carey

      Thank you for your thoughts Diane. You are right that we need to foster an environment of deep and critical thinking. I hope you will share your successes in this arena!

      • S Baker

        Sometimes a task requires complex thinking but the information short-circuiting the thinking is available by Googling–such as when I want my students to show that they have learned how to read Shakespeare’s language by paraphrasing a passage and discussing the themes evident in it. My view is that these are very appropriate tasks on which to assess a student, but it’s all widely available on the web.

  • stansbuj

    What about students that use each others gmail accounts when they are collaborating? That would render Google’s “revision history” less useful for determining who contributed what.

    I just read a Wired article about writing in the digital age. It said that people tend to write much better when there is an audience that will be reading it. This would tend to support collaboration.


    • Jennifer Carey

      I am always transparent with my students – I show them that I am looking for their group contributions and show how I will be monitoring that. If they know that is how they will be receiving a grade, then they *want* to ensure that you can tell who did what. It’s part of framing the assignment.
      You’re right that people do write better for an audience. It’s one of the many arguments in favor of blogging! Thank you for sharing the Wired article!

  • Holli

    Group work, using case studies, has
    been part of nursing school education for a long time. This collaboration is
    exactly the kind of interdisciplinary teamwork we hope to see our graduates
    take into the workplace. If they take full advantage of the technology
    available to them even better!

  • Mark

    Great article. I use GoogleDocs routinely in my writing class and build assignments that begin with a shared document and then narrow to an individual one. You make great points about using revision history to see how work develops and also to see how each student is contributing to shared work. GoogleDocs also supports interactions with students in real time using the comment and chat features of the platform making teachers collaborators as well, making the platform especially powerful for formative assessment that is NOT for a mark. Thanks so much for your balanced contribution to an often stilted discussion of “cheating” online.

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  • Mike Johnson

    Plagiarism has been the recipient of a lot of attention in academic
    institutions. Especially, in the current times, it has been given a lot
    of attention and the consequences of committing plagiarism have become
    quite severe and extreme


  • Emily Frick

    I really liked your view on collaboration, in that students should be able to feed off of each other with discussions, and answers to an question or topic that comes up. Students love to work in groups and work on projects, and engage with each other and research things. Plagiarism in the classroom needs to be discussed and just tell them and model to them how to give credit to their sources. Also, as a future teacher, I want to show students how to develop their own thoughts and ideas, but then also using those ideas to be bounced off others for feedback. I also liked your comment about “if you can google the answer, how good is the question?” This allows students to not actually learn, but just use computer searches and be done with it!

  • Danielle S.

    Your view on plagiarism, cooperative learning, and assessment is very insightful. You make many great points and have me questioning the assessments I have created for my students. Do they really show if my students use logic and reasonable assumption or are they just regurgitating information I have taught them previously? I have also thought about using GoogleDocs in my classroom for students to work together on assignments and for me to see all the processes they go through for particular assignments. I never thought about students reading other peers’ work and using it in their own. You have brought up many great points regarding plagiarism in education. Thanks for sharing!

  • paulus.86

    I enjoyed reading this article. I have never thought prior about
    how plagiarism could be used as a form of collaboration; but at the same time I
    have used the technique that you describe (to see what others post prior to my
    post). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t copy them exactly, but rather use their
    thoughts to make sure that I’m on the right track. Your quote about how “we
    live in a collaborative world… (and how it’s rare) that individuals work in
    complete isolation” helped to broaden my mind about what type of classroom I
    want my students to represent. Of course no one should want their students to
    regurgitate information as in rote memorization, which makes it of high
    importance that we need to discuss with our students explicitly what plagiarism
    and copyright laws detail; so that they can focus on creativity and
    collaboration. You’re absolutely right when you suggest that we need to tread
    lightly, during this discussion, but not too lightly. Perhaps part of the
    conversation should let students know that you would rather see late work than
    copied work; even if the work was meant as a means of collaboration. There is
    still a difference with collaboration vs. plagiarism. It seems like
    collaboration helps one obtain an idea from what they read from others to
    inspire their work vs. purely copying the material that is read.

  • codora.3

    I love that more and more people are realizing that the real world does not involve working from memory alone and keeping your work and thoughts a secret. Collaboration is what we need our students to work on to ensure creativity of thought and give a good output. I do not believe that the internet has increased the amount of plagiarism in the classroom as it is just easier now to get caught with tools that the internet provides teachers. I do not think that we should fear technology, rather, we need to embrace it and all of the wonderful tools that it provides us with.
    This article on legal zoom comments a lot on this subject if anyone (outside of class) wants to check it out.

  • Morgan mason

    I really enjoyed this blog. You made a lot of good points especially saying if students can google the question how good is the question. This makes us look at ourselves as educators to realize are we plagiarizing too? How can we teach about plagiarism and how it is wrong to steal others work if we could be doing it as well? I know in my experience I saw many teachers working together and collaborating ideas of new questions for testing or for homework. Many teachers work hard to come up with their own ideas. Working together and collaborating is so important for students to learn. From legal zoom.com I saw a great quote that talked about maybe we are just now noticing more plagiarism because we have the technology to show us more now. So maybe students aren’t doing it more we are just finding it easier?

  • Shane W

    article brings to light an interesting perspective on plagiarism. This article
    will certainly cause me to reflect upon my view on plagiarism as well as challenge
    myself to find ways to deter students from plagiarizing by instead
    collaborating with their peers and others. I totally agree that learning should
    not be about regurgitating, in most cases, meaningless facts of information
    that once the students are tested on will forever leave their minds. Learning
    should most definitely focus more on the student’s process and whether or not
    that individual can support his or her view. Lastly the types of questions we
    are asking our students are greatly changing. The times where students can
    simply answer a question with yes or no or filling in the blank with a single
    word or number is over. It is all about higher level questioning that
    challenges students to think outside the box as well as supporting their answer
    by explaining their thought process or reasoning behind their answer.

  • Kenzie B

    I really enjoyed reading this blog. It has really good information about making collaboration in the classroom easy, without having to worry about the students cheating off of each other and using information that they find on the internet. This blog provided me with information that I will be able to use in my future classroom to get my students to work together. I also liked that this blog connected together the information with an article on legalzoom. It really tied the two together. Legalzoom talked about that the popularity of the internet has caused plagarism to increase, but this blog helped to show that students can use the internet as a resource for projects and papers without committing plagiarism.

  • Brooke B

    I really enjoyed this post, it says a lot of truth behind plagiarism today, and collaboratively avoiding it. This blog makes me think as a future educator how will I help my students avoid plagiarizing, and in what ways can I help them be creative and use their own mind and thoughts to produce their own work. I do agree with your view on how we need to just appreciate technology and it’s usefulness to today’s society. I find that students are more tempted to plagiarize in today’s world, because it’s right at their fingertips, but I also am hoping that with the way it is becoming increasingly easier to detect, that students will refrain in doing so.

  • Jenna B

    I think this blog had a lot of interesting points. Educators should be finding new and innovative ways to help their students use and learn from technology. Technology is growing and developing rapidly which means schools need to climb on board and stop trying to hinder technological access. Students will need to know how to effectively use technology when they get out of school so this needs to be added to the curriculum. It has been proven through research that technology does not hinder the learning process, so instead of pushing against technology in the classroom we should be teaching students how to properly use it.

  • Jeremy Chandler

    this blog bring up many points on both sides of the argument that I never would have considered. I never thought of group work as cheating or plagiarism because teachers need to teach our students to work with others and listen to other ideas. we, as a group, need to teach children the difference between learning from research and taking the information and trying to pass it off as their own work. it is unfortunate that testing in the traditional sense is always going to be necessary while the rest of the school day could be group work and technology research. like the article says there will always be students who want to cut corners but there needs to be a way to show them that this is the future and they need to do things the right way.

  • Brooke Moore

    This blog talked about many interesting point that I wouldn’t of thought of, but many of them really made sense. Technology can really help students grow in a new and different way. Students need to work together, I never really thought of that as plagiarism. Students can really learn from each other. I really liked this statement
    “Do we want students to simply memorize and regurgitate information? Is this the type of learning that we value in the 21st century? Or do we want them to think, assess, reason, and verbalize (vocally or in written form) their processes and ideas? I would argue that the latter is better not only in assessment but in overall skills.” I feel that this is so true we want to challenge our students to think critically and not just memorize the information. Collaboration in the classroom can be easy with out worrying about plagiarism. Legal zoom talked a lot about plagiarism and how internet is the core reason as to why it has increased so much, but this blog proved that there are ways to use the internet through collaboration with students without labeling it as plagiarism.

  • Abby Trigg

    This was an excellent blog/article to read. All steps and
    forms of plagiarism were very well thought out, much further than what I have
    considered. First of all, I agree collaboration is important in education because
    it is a key to success in the students’ futures beyond school. Group work is
    trick though because some students do get stuck doing all the work and others
    get off easy. I like how you mentioned that the teacher can monitor who did
    what work through Google Drive. I did not realize this but I do feel that is
    good to know. Second, I felt you presented a very good point when talking about
    tests. Though sometimes we do just need to memorize facts, more often than not,
    we need to be thinking critically, asking questions, and digging deeper into
    what we are learning/teaching. Assessments need to be a reflection of this,
    therefore the answers cannot be cut and dry and something that can be “Googled”
    off the internet. This article helped me think more deeply about how I will
    design projects and assessments that help students to avoid plagiarism and copy
    right infringements, but rather learn and discover for themselves and from each

  • Kenzie E

    I really enjoyed reading this blog! It has some pretty insightful points to make. I think collaboration within the classroom is crucial for many students. I never knew collaboration could be considered plagiarism though. I just see collaboration as the students learning through one another, not plagiarism. I liked that this blog had some ties to the article from legalzoom. On legalzoom, it talked about how the internet is the main reason for plagiarism but this blog post discussed different ways that the internet can be used for collaboration without it being called plagiarism. The internet should be used as resources for students and this explains how they can do that without plagiarizing the material.

  • Richard Oakes

    I found both of these articles as great tools of information on plagiarism. I really liked how this article hit on the fact of collaboration and the positive side of it and saying that in jobs later in life there are rare cases of working alone instead most jobs work as a team. Also, I really like how it said teachers need to reassess and incorporate collaboration in with our lessons and assessments. The Google Dirve thing is amazing because in groups you dont want to be that person and says hey this person didnt do a thing but more importantly it puts it in the hands of the individual to do their own work and complete as a group. Just like with everything in the classroom rules and parameters ned to be set about plagiarism, I think that if you make it a big deal the kids will too and know that your looking out for that kind of stuff and wont be tempted to do it. I really liked the step three rule in the legal zoom article about not over blowing things and causing kids not to get good material. Go over it once or twice in class make sure each student graps the rules and ideas and than move on. I dont think a teacher can remove technology out of a room with how much we have come to rely on technology, i think it would hinder the growth of the student.

  • bauer.534

    Collaboration is an essential role in the world outside of school and why should we not foster that in our students at ALL points in the classroom. You have made excellent points within your article here about how to combat “cheating” and focus that energy in a positive manner toward collaboration. I do think this would be a challenge to reteach students when collaboration is happening and when they are plagiarizing.. Specific education would have to take place within the classroom to teach the students that their assessments can be collaborative, their assignments can be collaborative, but we need all need to be assisting. All group collaborators need to suggest ideas and add their own thoughts.

  • K Blanchard

    I think it is very reasonable for students to be able to collaborate & discuss their ideas with others. This way they broaden their learning and see/understand things they wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. Yes plagiarism and citation or lack there of is a touchy subject but that is why we need to education ourselves and our youth.

  • olson.361

    This post sheds light on how plagiarism is not just copying and pasting from an online source; but rather, it is also collaborating with other students and using their work to complete an assignment. This is not something that a lot of teachers deem as plagiarism. Some teachers view cheating and plagiarism as different things; when in reality, they are one in the same. I appreciate the source on how students can collaborate with each other under teacher-provision. I took note on the site and will be using it when I have my own classroom.

  • Karen White

    This blog had a lot of good information! I do believe the term plagiarism may be a bit
    too broad, especially with the use of collaboration and technology today. While I can see how many students will cut
    corners to just get their work done or get a good grade many acts of plagiarism
    may be left unintentional. We want
    students to collaborate and form their own ideas based on the ideas of
    others. I really enjoyed your example
    about the students collaborating and wanting feedback on an essay or research
    project. However, it is difficult to
    have students give meaningful feedback on ones work but not be able to use that
    feedback for fear of plagiarism.

  • Sarah M.

    I really enjoyed reading this blog and thought that it brought up a lot of interesting points. Reading it has given me ideas on how I can help my future students
    understand what plagiarism is and how they can avoid it. I like how you point out that student’ asking their peers for feedback is collaboration and not cheating. With new technology it can be easier for students to plagiarize their work. Hopefully, by showing students how easy it is for teachers to see that their work is plagiarized students won’t plagiarize.

  • Rebecca Burch

    I enjoyed reading your blog! You made a lot of good points. In another article on Legal Zoom, it mentioned that a lot of people believe that technology is the reason that the rate of plagiarizing has increased. I agree with what you say about using the internet as a tool for students to collaborate on it, instead of looking at it as a threat. We need to give our students the chance to use blogs, Google Drive, drop box, and social media to collaborate and use them as resources. As a future teacher, I want to create assignments and assessments that require students to collaborate and use technology as a resource.

  • Rachel McClure

    I like how you talk about making the issue more about collaboration. I think that this is a good way to phrase it to students. It makes it sound like they still have ownership of what they are writing. It also makes it sound like you are not just harping on the students not to plagiarize.

  • Jessica Snay

    I agree with what is being stated here, Collaboration is a great tool and is something we will use throughout our lives. As adults we collaborate with others everyday, its important to be able to use and share ideas with others, and blogs and other web sites allow us to do so. Some students will use the internet to cut corners and cheat but we also have tools on the internet to check for plagiarism and cheating. We cant expect our students to memorize and repeat everything they are being taught.

  • Colby Rush

    I think you made a great point regarding the plagiarism issue that can occur between students through communication on the internet. We all know that technology is a very powerful tool that can be used in both positive and negative ways, but I think it is important for students to understand that they can use their technology skill-set for more than just entertainment purposes. The students in my current classroom use Google Drive on a frequent basis to complete projects and share information. In my experiences students communicate and collaborate more efficiently through technology based communications than they do face-to-face. That being said, I completely agree that it is possible to incorporate internet based collaboration without any plagiarism occuring, as long as students understand plagiarism and its many forms.

  • Kristen Lauf

    I think that this blog made a good point that collaborating with other students could turn into plagiarism if another student takes their peers’ work and passes it off as their own. It is hard to find the original when two or more students have the same exact wording and we may never come to the bottom of the situation because each student can claim it is their own.

    This is where we need to set boundaries in the classroom and rules for plagiarism. As an article by Michelle Fablo states, we can formulate lessons to educate our students on the topic of plagiarism, why it is important, and also identifying the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Looking at the similarities and differences of these two serious offenses and the consequences of each is very important for students to understand.

    Fablo’s article stated that the internet is making it easier for students to plagiarize, but also easier for teachers to identify plagiarism from students. As the blog above by Carey, the internet is a a great way for students to collaborate in a variety of ways and is more accessible than face to face meetings since it is at our fingertips. I agree that the internet is more convenient, but as teachers we need to monitor the collaboration of our students and be aware that plagiarism is still a constant problem.


  • Jamie Wickert

    I really enjoyed reading your article on collaboration and plagiarism. I think it opened my eyes as an educator to new possibilities in the classroom. As you pointed out, a lot of educators are against collaboration in the classroom for most assignments and tests. However, (“In the real world” as I hear frequently from my father) when your students graduate and find a job, they will be thrown in to collaboration with all their co-workers expected to join their ideas. Why not have this in the classroom too? We can’t penalize all our students because of the few students that would plagiarize in situations like this. As teachers, we truly know how students and should be able to keep an extra eye on the students that could possibly ruin it for the others. This form of collaboration in all areas of the classroom could be a great success.

  • Kim Amerson

    I enjoyed the article about plagarism and collaboration. I like how you talked about wanting students to develop group assingments, collaborate and discuss their ideas and plans. This will give them the opportunity to be open and share their ideas and I believe it will cut down on plagarism because they are all working together and I believe that they all should be responsible for a part of the lesson that way one person is not just doing all the work. I also enjoed the article LegalZoom that according to Digital Revolution and Higher Education they have found out that plagarism has increased over the last 10 years and who are we to blame for that.

  • Kayla Schneider

    I really enjoyed reading this article. It addresses a lot of issues that arise with the modern technology being used in schools. Now, it is a challenge for students to not only find the answers, but credit the sources for those answers. In teaching my students, we have focused on EVIDENCE. They always need to look back in the text to find evidence, no matter the content area. When writing a short answer response about a mathematics question, students must look back to the evidence provided (whether given work or the students’ own work).

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