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.


If you can't catch them red-handed you can't do anything. Yes, the probability is infinitesimal but it exists. I don't know about your specific examination regulations but don't you have any chance for an oral examination or do you have to let them pass when they reach a specific score?

Reporting them is still a good idea as it will rise awareness to the issue even if these students will come out lucky this time.

right and wrong

It's your moral obligation to turn in both of the cheaters, no matter what it may cost you in terms of time or effort. Good luck! All of us who DIDN'T cheat in college are behind you, and we thank you!

Colin Fredericks

As a fellow teacher, I urge you to report them.

Most cheating is not caught.

Most cheating that is caught is not reported.

Because of this, someone who cheats in your class is almost certainly cheating in every other course they're taking. The few times I've caught someone cheating, they've been doing it elsewhere too.

This isn't just about your conscience, this is about your integrity as an instructor. Students who cheat through a course don't learn; I've seen substantial evidence for this in educational research. Beyond the ethical issue of cheating is the need to have what we say about our students mean something. Please, don't be the professor who gives a pass to students who don't know the material.


"the probability they had so many identical answers on the multiple-choice exam is infinitesimal"

Infintesimal? Unless you were giving out individualized tests (this was common in my high school, but I don't see it much at my college), I'd expect students who have sat in the same class and been taught the same material by the same person to have identical test answers more often than one would expect by chance. I don't have my stats textbook in front of me, can someone describe the calculation you'd need to determine probability of this? Would this be a binomial distribution problem?


Student responses on each question are not randomly selected and should gravitate towards the correct answer (assuming the questions are not too hard). In addition, incorrect responses tend to be close to, but not as correct, as the correct response option, hence student choice may gravitate towards specific response patterns (frequency distributions for student responses would likely show a non-random distribution of responses from your students).

Probability of identical scores would be increased if two people studied for the test together, but more importantly the probability increases as students get more questions correct (as there is less scope for distinct patterns of response).

This means that overall, multi-choice questionairres lend themselves to identical patterns of response. And identical response sets are not a good measure of whether or not someone is cheating, especially when the students are performing well.

Getting identical response sets is a numbers game, and you stack the odds if you only look at high performing students.

If you do still suspect cheating If consider examining how well their "cheating" test scores correlate with previous measures of performance and whether they had previously obtained identical results.



I am reminded of a fantastic quote "It is impossible to cheat an honest man". Perhaps the problem is that the students are provided a poor example of what is acceptable. The student-teacher relationship is based on the fundamental belief on behalf of the student the that person lecturing provides benefit and can be trusted. Instructors choose to pawn their duties off to machines and helpers, current trends point to students effectively learning from their instructors but perhaps not the lessons being lectured. Students see instructors pass off their work and in turn, do the same; how can the instructor then get upset when the student is obviously following the example shown to them? We see trends of increased plagiarism and cheating, but isn't it possible to trace those trends directly to the increased usage of multiple choice exams graded by machines and other students. If honesty is what you want perhaps you should start doing your own work as well?



I had a similar issue as a teaching assistant. Two students raised the flag of a program designed to check for cheating (it was a computer programming course)

The students were told they needed to speak to the teacher and given advanced notice. Together they came up with a story that I had helped them and that was why there answer was so similar (I had not helped them so this was news to me) and I actually had a control case where three students had come to my office hours and we had spent an hour whiteboarding an answer. The cheaters had a similarity score of 95% the students that asked for help? 70% So Clearly they were lying.

However, that was the issue. The school gave them time to know they were in trouble. It was easy for them to collude on a story. Every possible teacher involved had to spend time to prove the students wrong and in the event of escalation it was an "our word against theirs" problem.

In the end they didn't get penalized at all. The truth is cheating pays off if you are willing to fight any claims as the amount of work against the teacher(s) is so much that they will likely give up unless you were blatantly caught.



I always make 2 versions of the test. Each have the exact same questions, but the 4 responses are in a different order. After they are scanned it is VERY easy to pick out the cheachers


Your asking for it. Multiple-choice exam above a 6th grade level are just ridiculous. At the college level they are just plain lazy and ask the students to cheat. Its about on par with giving the same final each year.

Cheat sheets

I had a professor who allowed students to create a "cheat sheet" prior to every exam. It could be no larger than an 8-1/2 X 11 sheet of paper but could be covered with as much information as we might fit, front and back, hand-written only. We could bring the sheet to the exam and refer to it as needed.

What I found, and suspect the professor knew, was that the act of preparing the cheat sheet became an effective, efficient study method. I diligently prepared my cheat sheets and then didn't need to use them. By knowing the cheat sheet was available during the exam, I made sure to include as much material a possible. I imagine it cut down on real cheating and I know it increased my knowledge.


Definitely present your suspicions to your superiors. If not, you are complicit, an accessory after the fact.

A moral layup, here.

Harrison Brookie

I say you post their names (and link their Facebook profiles) to the Freakonomics blog. Publicly shamed is probably the thing they fear the most (and future employers will see it when they are Googled). Worst case scenario is you would be forced to take it down. But would probably only bring more attention to their actions. And I bet you have tenure anyways.


I would like to see a better description of the math on this. "the probability they had so many identical answers on the multiple-choice exam is infinitesimal" is not at all convincing. Remember, these are NOT random answers. Each question has one right answer, and an average student will get that right about 70% of the time. (I am guessing at that 70.) Then there are one or two "good looking" answers that will take up 70% of the rest. So, of 5 multiple choice answers, only 2 or 3 will be chosen by 90%+.

Nathan Stockstill

I think students knowing they're being investigated will, in fact, deter their future cheating


Everybody has cheated at some point or another, and if you say you haven't you're a liar also.
So, one kid leaned over and wrote down the same answers as another. Well if he hadn't done that he probably would have just went down the page filling in random bubbles. The cheater student obviously didn't learn the material. So, now who's at fault here? The student for cheating or, the teacher for not recognizing that a child is being left behind? How about you report that student make him feel more like a loser. Or? you could talk to the kid on a personal level and try to help him learn the material that is needed so that he doesn't have to cheat. In the end is might also help with his self esteem instead of tearing him down.


A lot depends on your school infrastructure. My tests contain text answers and problems, so identities are easier to establish. Then I just scan the exams into a pdf file and email it to the dean. He takes over from there.

Tolerating cheating is unfair to students who dont cheat. It also trashes a schools reputation.

Our school has a special grade on transcripts that indicates failure due to cheating. That grade also usually comes with a one or more semester suspension. I caught two student cheating today and another two yesterday. That is a small percentage of my students.

Justin Stults

As I fellow teacher I feel your pain. Every year during mid-terms and especially during finals I have a handful of students who I suspect cheat. It's very difficult to prove and as you said, a waste of time. I think that even if we don't catch them now, they will be caught later on in a much more serious situation. Call it karma. But if they could get away with it in school just imagine what they will do later on in the workplace or in their personal lives. They will let their guard down and then it will be much easier to be caught.


Have the two students come in and take the same test over again. With you watching them it will be almost impossible to cheat again. Their answers might reveal some interesting results. Even if you don't change their grade they will know they were caught and will likely think twice about doing it again. You have an obligation to do something. If you don't then you are reinforcing the behavior you so dispise.