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?