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.


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


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.

Damn right report them

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.


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.


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.



How is it possible to cheat in a multiple choice exam - look over each others' shoulder? Were they sitting that close together? Were they not invigilated?


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.


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.


Mike B

Perhaps you shouldn't give multiple-choice exams that are easy for people to cheat on? Don't complain that your house gets robbed if you leave your front door open. Free response questions that require students to show their work or significant amounts of writing are much much harder for students to cheat on. Moreover it is completely possible to design exams that allow students to come prepared with "cheat sheets" or open books. After all, classes should be teaching critical thinking skills, not rote memorization. I had one professor who would give "open everything" tests (although no internet and no collaboration) . He said that he conducted an analysis of that method with traditional ones and determined that he could achieve equivalent assessment while offering more challenging questions and generating less student stress.


Infinitesimal does not mean not possible. Wouldn't the number of identical answers go up the better the grade? Were the wrong answers identical?

Don't give multiple choice tests.


Report them.
Yes, it may take time, might not work, and may result in some damaged teacher-student relationships - but if they DID cheat, they need to face the consequences of their actions. I've seen too many students escape unscathed from these kinds of behaviours - other students don't want to 'rat' them out, professors turn a blind eye. What happens as a result? Undeserving students receive top marks while students who actually put effort into studying and worked honestly for their grades get knocked down. Furthermore, cheating students who don't get caught will probably repeat it again - on their next exam or later on once they enter the workforce. Even if the students aren't "convicted", the accusation and defending process alone may be enough to deter them from making similar ill judgements in the future.


Are the odds so odd if the distribution of answers is not random? IE, if the possibility of any given answer to a question is a uniform 20% (5 questions), then the odds of identical answers may indeed be low...

but if the correct answer is chose 75% of the time, and a second answers is selected 15% of the time.. how likely are these two answer sheets are identical.

Furthermore - if a student gets 100% (say through diligent learning), they will be identical to any other student who also got 100%...


it takes two to lie. one to do it and one to accept it. take the strongest possible line you can with them.


I teach English at a large state university. The process for reporting plagiarism is incredibly onerous and adds a significant burden of time to the faculty's grading load. The incentive to such a process results in ignoring the cheaters (although I can't stomach doing so; I always report plagiarism). I know of people who ignore plagiarism cases because reporting it takes so long, and often does not result in serious punishment for the student.

As with other policies of universities today, it makes me wonder what we're teaching students.

Karen White

Well, I assume you mean that the two students a higher percentage than normal of "incorrect" answers that were identical, which would probably be a good clue that they were cheating somehow. All students who get high scores get a large percentage of correct answers in common. Did you have good evidence they were cooperating in the cheating--I usually assume that one is copying from the other) ? I know how hard it is for professors to call students on something like this. There are many ways that professors attempt to prevent it, but most of them come up short. One of my old professors somehow arranged for his questions to print out in random order on an exam, but the old style ones that were graded by hand, not multiple choice of course!

I guess it all comes down to a problem in how students value their education. Too many employers are assuming that a degree is a kind of pre-screening for employees, even though a lot of those jobs wouldn't really require a degree. Students go to college just to be employable and they know, deep down, that most of the courses they are taking don't matter to them. For fields where it DOES matter, those students are disadvantage when they are taking courses with the students that don't care. I would love to see a system where "grades" as such are eliminated since I don't feel those do a really good job of distinguishing performance (and this is from someone who made straight A's and high scores on standardized tests).



And just think, you are senior tenured faculty. If you are not tenured, or -even worse- an adjunct, your incentive to report is even lower, because you don't know if you will be supported or not. On my last final, I'm rather sure that two sets of students shared answers on at least one question for each group, but I don't know what question, and I have no way of proving it.

It seems there are only two options - give a test with a finite set of answers - like multiple choice - and you increase the possibility of cheating. Or you can give essay questions which students hate and which are impossible to grade in a large undergraduate course where cheating is more likely to occur. I've tried giving multiple versions of the test with the question orders rotated and the answers varied as well, but it does not stop it. I can't find a practical solution.


You can make it harder to cheat. That's all you can do. I have very high moral standards and I used to cheat on exams whenever necessary; 'weak conscience' doesn't really address the psychology behind it.


The similarity of answers is insufficient. Do you have other evidence that they were either cooperating (both cheating) or that one cheated off of the other? In the latter case, only the one should be reported.


What would Joe Paterno do?

Eric M. Jones.

Gee! I seem to have lost your exams. You two will have to take the test again or take an incomplete.