Ask the grumpies: What to do when you suspect students cheating off each other?

Lecturer asks:

I give a take-home exam every semester and this year it was clear that two students had the same bizarre wrong answers.  So I gave them both zeroes for the final (25% of their grade) which earned one of them a D for the class and the other an F.  Now the student with a D is protesting his grade and has filed paperwork to drop out of the program because he says that he did not cheat on the exam and thinks the other student copied him without his knowledge since he turned his exam in early to my mailbox.  What should I have done instead?

Cheating is the worst!  We at ask the grumpies have had to deal with so many instances.  And sometimes it really is just that one person copied off the other without the first kid’s knowledge.  (#1 had a student turn in his roommate in his first year because he was planning to go back to his home country as a government official and could not have any stains on his record– he is now an ambassador!)

So… what we do is generally the following:  As soon as the cheating is detected, make xeroxes of the offending documents.  Then talk to your chair to either inform them of what you are going to do or ask for advice about what to do.  Then email both students separately and ask them to come in to talk with you ASAP.  If you are a junior professor or lecturer or adjunct, you may want to ask for a more senior professor to sit in the room with you– I found that helpful when I was in my 20s but no longer need it now.  When the student comes in, just show them the documents and ask what happened.  Why are they so similar?  A surprising number of students will just admit to you that they copied from each other at that point.  In one case I had a student (different one from the future ambassador), after some confusion, narrow his eyes and say he bet he knew what happened and that he was planning on having words with his housemate (who must have copied his problem set when he left it out).  Said housemate was extremely apologetic and corroborated that theory and took full responsibility and the group of guys living in the house teased him about it for the rest of the semester (and started coming to office hours and learning the material).

I’d say in over 80% of the the cases one or both students admits responsibility and takes the punishment.  In the cases in which they don’t, I then go to my chair and ask for advice– I have had supportive chairs who I can trust on these matters.  #2, before she left academia, did not and in her last year got overruled by a chair on an obvious cheating case in which the students confessed and is so glad to be out of that [excrement]-hole. (#1 again) In one case in which the student did not admit wrong-doing, it turned out that my chair knew she had also been caught cheating in another class, so we pursued that (she decided not to take it to the honors counsel and eventually left our program).  In another case, the plagiarism from the wikipedia page was blatantly obvious so we pursued that one as well– he appealed to the honors counsel and we went through the full proceedings and they were not happy with him in the least.  For weaker cases in which they don’t admit responsibility we’ve just continued to monitor the situation and future assignments– usually they’re scared to try anything further at that point.  I haven’t had any weak final exam cases, only problem sets.

Once you find plagiarism and decide on a punishment, it is very important to see what your university rules are about reporting it.  Our university requires professors to notify the university so that they can put the incident on the student’s internal record.  If they get a certain number of reports of cheating (I think 3, but it might be more) then they are subject to a suspension or expulsion depending on the severity of the complaints.  One of my favorite things about our honors system is that you can force students to take a semester-long hour per week seminar on how not to cheat which I think is a fantastic punishment, especially for our students who plead that they didn’t know it was wrong to plagiarize.

Additionally, if you are going to have take-home exams, it is always good to do a few things to make it more difficult to cheat.  That includes doing things like telling them to put the exam in a sealed envelope if they turn it into your box (if you have an office you can also allow them to put it under your door).  I also like to have problems that include choice, like everyone chooses a dependent variable from a list of 50 dependent variables.  That makes things harder to grade but also more interesting to grade and even if they cheat they can’t just copy each other directly (or if they do, then it’s even more obvious that they copied), they have to learn a little bit.

Good luck and I hope you don’t have to deal with this much in the future!  It’s never fun.

Academic grumpeteers, how do you deal with student cheating problems?

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11 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: What to do when you suspect students cheating off each other?”

  1. Matthew D Healy Says:

    I’m not in academia right now (though that might change); my parents were faculty. Once my father noticed islands of suspiciously well-written prose in a student paper so he went to the colleague who specialized in that field to ask if the colleague could guess the source (this was long before Google existed). After a few moments the colleague exclaimed “I wrote these words!” The student had plagiarized a book by somebody in the same department!!!

    I believe they went to the Dean but I forget the details.

  2. Steph Says:

    This is really helpful for future reference. I’ve only had to personally deal with cheating once so far, and thankfully not on an exam. It was on a take-home lab assignment where I told two students they could work together, but had to write up and turn in separate reports. They each turned in half handwritten pages and half typed pages – the typed pages were identical, they literally just printed out two copies. I gave them a 0 on that lab, which they accepted.

    I’ve also seen possible cheating on an exam, but they weren’t perfectly identical (and I knew they had studied together) so I didn’t pursue it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s what most of my cheating (or at least the obvious cheating that gets caught!) is too– one person pressing “print” twice on the Stata portion of assignment, complete with identical typos. Though sometimes I’ll have lifting of entire passages without attribution from a wikipedia page. I would say kids these days, but I’m pretty sure it was ever thus.

  3. Miser Mom Says:

    So, I think it’s really, really important to take these issues to the deans. At our institution (Steph’s former institution), the deans don’t automatically go to punishment — they care a lot about educating students. But if a person does this in multiple classes, and each professor handles this solo, then clearly there’s not a lot of educating going on. I think the dean issue is important because (a) deans DO have more experience than faculty members, so students are treated more uniformly, and (b) this keeps students from saying “I didn’t know this was cheating” the 2nd, 3rd, or 5th time they did it.

    I had a student from a different country in one of my first year classes; this student lifted HUGE parts of an essay from the internet, even though we’d just spent a class or two on appropriate paraphrasing. In this case, I think the difference between theoretical plagiarism and applied plagiarism was vast. The deans made the lesson really sink in, without sinking the student’s academic career. In fact, this student went on to win our departmental award for best senior, and I was super happy to vote in agreement at that time.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Definitely don’t just handle it in house without talking to higher ups.

      Different institutions will have a different administrative unit to handle this at a higher level– whether it be each college’s dean’s office, or the DOF or Student Affairs, or a separate honors council. If you (gentle reader, not miser mom) don’t know where to go on your campus, your chair (or another mentor) is usually a good first person to ask.

  4. Katherine Says:

    I think this is really good advice. I will keep it in mind for future plagiarism experiences – I had a relatively minor one this past year, and although the outcome was okay (dealing with this kind of thing is one of my dean’s strengths) I think I could have handled it better.

    I did my graduate work at a school with a really strict honor code, where faculty/instructors were not allowed to talk to students about suspected plagiarism – we were to gather evidence and submit to the honor council, and grade the submitted work as if it were not plagiarized. Then the honor council would decide whether there was a violation and if so, what the punishment should be. The effect was that minor plagiarism was rampant and unpunished, because it was a big headache to submit to honor council. When punishments were meted out, they were delayed and draconian, which was a further deterrent to faculty reporting students. I remember one year there was one section of a service course where about half the students plagiarized the final exam (another tenet of the honor code at this place was that exams were unproctored). It was such an ordeal for the post-doc teaching the course.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sounds like a whole slew of unintended consequences!

    • Susan Says:

      Stanford?? This is a really dumb policy!! I found that it really leads to copying on assignments.

      1. Always talk to the student. I haven’t looped in higher ups at that point, but think it is good policy. Although my brother who is a postdoc in math recently did this and was told by the assoc chair that “cheating isn’t a moral issue” and everyone does it. WTF? Thankfully the Dept chair did not agree and backed him up.
      2. Always report it to your institution. Students that do this often do it repeatedly. My university handles this through student affairs. I really like their options – we can either inform them, they will investigate and come up with punishment or we can come up with punishment on our own and there is a form for the students to sign that states the infection, consequence and that they waive right to appeal.

      • Katherine Says:

        Not Stanford, but another prestigious private techie university. It is a really dumb policy with lots of unintended consequences. I feel like it left me completely unprepared to deal with plagiarism at institutions that don’t have such idiotic policies, but it is completely in keeping with the culture of that institution. I also got really terrible advice/instruction there about “dealing” with students who need disability accommodations that I’ve been working really hard to un-learn in the past few years.

  5. Leah Says:

    We have a whole process for academic integrity violations. I like it. Granted, I work at a high school, but I think we are mostly doing good things to help them not have as many issues in college.

    The key parts are this:
    – we have a chain of command that looks at items (department chair, dean of students, dean of academics if needed)
    – no secrets are kept; someone is always in the loop
    – punishments are determined by severity, number of the offense, and taking student into consideration — we have a standard consequence that normally happens, but we can be flexible in certain circumstances
    – students are interviewed about the circumstances — both the student who cheated but also other students who participated/witnessed, typically
    – we typically treat the cheater and the one who helped them cheat the same (like when I have students who turn in identical lab reports) in order to discourage cheating, but it does depend on the assignment
    – some students, depending on the type of error, are given a chance to learn better and fix the error. This works really well for people who somehow haven’t figured out that they can’t copy entire sections of a website into their project.

    We still have academic integrity issues, but this covers lots of them. Some students go on to repeat, and we actually have a process for helping these students leave our school. But many students have learned from their mistakes and gone on to do much better. I had a boy who entirely copied huge chunks of websites into a brochure he did for his first project. But then he got up and presented completely paraphrasing or just explaining what he learned, so it’s clear he did put some thought into it. I sat down with him, and we did several lessons on how to put projects together, how to synthesize information, etc. He went on to work much harder in my class and be a much better student.


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