What to Do With Cheating Students?

(Photo: Alberto G.)

I’m nearly certain that a pair of students cheated on my final exam—the probability they had so many identical answers on the multiple-choice exam is infinitesimal.  If I pursue them, it takes me time, and there’s no assurance they will be found guilty.  If I don’t, I’ll feel badly about giving them an undeserved grade.  Even for fairly risk-averse students, cheating seems like a good idea.  I doubt that most cheating is caught; and unless the penalty is very severe (expulsion) and/or the students’ costs of contesting the accusation are high, and both are very well-publicized, the incentive to cheat for students with weak consciences seems overpowering. To salve my own conscience I’ll report them, although it’s probably a waste of my time; but I doubt that reporting them will deter their future cheating or deter others very much.

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  1. Brooks says:

    On behalf of students who don’t cheat, please do report them!

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  2. HH says:

    Two things:

    1. You’ll feel bad. You won’t feel badly. If you feel badly it implies that your mechanism for feeling is broken.

    2. The probability that these two students had identical answers is indeed small. But over the years, across all your students, isn’t it almost certain that two people in some class somewhere will have identical answers, by pure chance? That should lower your confidence in their cheating quite a bit.

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    • pawnman says:

      Exactly. Who can know if these two didn’t study together extensively prior to the exam, and thus had very similar answers? Likewise, if you have several students who score 100% on a multiple choice exam, by definition they must have identical answers. Does that mean they are also cheaters, or just hard workers?

      I’m not saying you should not report them if you have reason to believe they are cheating. I’m just saying some identical answers on a test isn’t a strong indicator of cheating.

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  3. Damn right report them says:

    Cheating students become cheating adults, and the risk is you wind up with Governors selling Senate Seats. We need to laud merit and achievement, and destroy curb cutters an cheaters if America is to survive.

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  4. Bree says:

    When I taught I always reported suspected cheating. I figured that if every teacher did that, that the students who are cheating would be reported enough for some sort of penalty. At the very least it may earn you a reputation as a teacher that doesn’t tolerate cheating–which may be a deterrent for future students in your classes.

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  5. Craig says:

    I turn in, on average, one student a semester. I only turn in those for which I have evidence that a third party would find sufficient without witnessing the cheating themselves. Just write multiple versions of the exam and when an answer (or variable letter!) from another version finds its way onto a student’s exam, it’s case closed. Furthermore, it doesn’t take but 10 minutes to contact the honor council and send them the proof. And if it’s not the final, then it actually saves you time as you won’t be grading anything more for that student for the rest of the semester assuming you fail the student outright as I do.

    So the student fails the entire course and I announce to the class that one of their peers has failed from cheating and read the letter from the honor council (excluding the student’s name of course). Unfortunately, I find that even when I publicly announce my record with catching cheaters and let them know the severity of being caught, the incidence of cheating does not decrease one bit.

    I would like to think that this can change cheaters to better themselves for the future. But it is likely that it only weeds them out of maintaining top grades at their university. Even for that, I think it is worth it.

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  6. Anthony says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  7. Koufax says:

    Since I teach graduate courses, it’s a little different. Yes, they still cheat, but it’s more like a liberal use of Control C, Control V, sans citation. Only once have I encountered a paper completely lifted. The student found a paper with the same topic on-line and basically turned in 90% of it as his own, with a few word changes here and there. Turnitin picked it right up and the student admitted it right away. What surprised me was how he stressed that this act did NOT reflect on his integrity and character. He received a zero on the paper, which was worth 30% of his grade and he will have to retake the course, since it was a core class. First time offender, according to the university, and he had a previous master’s degree from the same institution. As a visiting professor, I was a little hesitant about reporting him, but I would not be able to sleep at night with a clear conscious and in my own grad program, I would have been dismissed if I had done something that egregious. But as Daniel states, it’s a lot of work and it cost me 4-5 hours of time during finals week to sort this out.

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    • SJS says:

      I taught a graduate-level evening course where I failed 10% of the class for blatant plagiarism on the final paper (they had copied huge chunks of text from online sources, and failed to perform even the most rudimentary rewrite). I was annoyed that they had ignored my instructions to avoid the appearance of plagiarism and insulted that they cheated so blatantly and poorly.

      Most of the tenured professors (the ones who weren’t depending on those students to be their TAs the following semester) congratulated me. Students who hadn’t cheated and learned that I had failed some of their classmates for cheating thanked me.

      I was informed that the students in question were put on academic probation, and required to attend training on avoiding plagiarism. The most shocking penalty, I suspect, was that the “F” was a permanent part of their transcript, as this was a graduate-level course.

      When I related this story to the NEXT class I taught, indicating that I take cheating very seriously, 20% of the class dropped that night. So by the second class, I could take ALL crashers — and nobody cheated that I could tell.

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  8. Douglas says:

    Have you considered public shaming, in a way that wasn’t directly accusatory (e.g., posting a surface plot of % correlation on the correct/incorrect answers) with names attached. Increasing the awareness among students without any other consequences may normalize the behavior, but it may also bring peer pressure and ostracization to bear on weeding them out. Good luck.

    As a TA, I had a student once turn in a photocopy of someone else’s assignment. I’m not sure if he got away with it in his country of origin, but it was just too blatant for even our lenient supervisor to overlook. Most other cheating brought to his attention was ignored, which frustrated most TAs to no end.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Your method has the effect of stigmatizing good students, whose answers should not only correlate highly with each other, but also with the answer key.

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    • Sbard says:

      Public shaming (or non shaming, really any disclosure or grades or grading information) of the sort you suggest would be a FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) violation. As a TA, I wasn’t even allowed to acknowledge that a student was in my class were a parent to call about them.

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