Wednesday, January 05, 2011


As I mentioned before the blog-break, I had to deal with some cheaters in my class at the end of last term. I am clearly not the only one.

I have dealt with cheaters before, but typically they are in large intro classes in which space limitations require students to take exams while sitting in proximity to each other in a large lecture hall where it is apparently tempting to glance (or stare) at the exams of neighbors or (try to) surreptitiously use an electronic device containing information that might lead to Correct Answers. It is much more rare for me to see cheating in smaller courses involving Science majors and/or graduate students. But it happens.

In my large intro classes, if the cheating is unambiguous, I give the cheaters a zero on the relevant exam or assignment and I make them sit in the front row for all subsequent exams. I don't single these students out -- I don't think anyone else in the rest of the class knows or cares where anyone sits and so the rest of the class is unaware that certain students are required to sit in a designated place. I do not give the cheaters a failing grade for the entire class; just for the cheated-on exam. Some of these students pass the class and some don't, depending on how they do in the rest of the exams. I outline my policies on the syllabus, with a link to the university's webpages on relevant matters.

When I detected cheating on the final exam of my recent class, I had to check my syllabus to see if I even dealt with this issue in this particular class. I knew I had a section outlining what I considered to be appropriate levels of group work on homework and lab assignments, but I have never (?) had to deal with cheating on exams in certain Science classes, and wasn't even sure if I covered this on the syllabus. It turns out I did. In fact, I had clearly copied the 'scholarly conduct' from my Intro class syllabus into my Science class syllabus (is that plagiarism?).

So I gave the cheaters a zero on the final exam because that's what I said I would do in these circumstances, and I filled out the university's form to report scholarly misconduct.

The cheaters in my recent class had otherwise done OK in the course, so they passed, but their course grades were much lower than they might otherwise have been without a zero on the final exam.

One of these students, who, after briefly trying the "We studied together" excuse, admitted to cheating on the exam, has been sending me repeated e-mails begging me to give him a higher grade because he may lose a scholarship. I feel very sorry for him and I enjoyed having these students in my class, but my policy is not "You will get a zero unless you have a really really good reason for cheating and you send me at least 6 e-mails begging me to raise your grade."

I have not always filled out official reports of misconduct, preferring instead to deal with cheating situations on my own. I believed the rumors that it wasn't worth it to file a report, that doing this would lead to all sorts of confrontational unpleasantness and probably result in the punishment being overturned. Certainly if a student believed he or she was unfairly accused of cheating, I heard them out and explained to them their rights to appeal their punishment, but in most cases the cheating was so unambiguous that students confessed and focused their efforts on begging for leniency.

Now I fill out the forms. I think this is the fairest way to proceed because it is systematic, is more clear-cut in terms of informing the student of their rights, and allows the university to detect repeat offenders.

In most cases, nothing further happens unless the student wants to appeal the consequences meted out by the professor, although additional steps are taken to deal with repeat offenders. These additional steps are out of the hands of individual faculty and are taken care of by administrators who are better equipped to handle such things.

The practical result of this recent incident for me is that I am now going to take the 'scholarly conduct' section of my syllabus more seriously for all my classes, no matter what the size or level of the course.


Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who thinks all cheating students should be promptly expelled? This was the rule at my undergraduate institution, and it extended to plagiarism; I know one student who self-plagiarized (reusing an introduction from a paper she had submitted for another course, I believe), and she went on academic probation and had a permanent mark on her transcript. Before showing up on campus as freshmen, we had to write short essays on the school's honor code. People who blew the assignment off too severely had to sit down and write a new essay at orientation. We also rewrote a brief honor code pledge with each essay and exam.

At the time, I thought all the attention to the honor code was overblown and patronizing. At the school where I did my PhD, I was shocked as a TA by the rampant, casual cheating and especially plagiarism.

I think it's obvious how deeply unfair it is for honest people of all ages to have to compete against and work with their less scrupulous peers. This problem obviously pervades professional academic science. Failing students on one exam for unethical behavior implies there can be some sort of intellectual compensation for these moral deficits. There really isn't. Cheating and plagiarizing create an ugly playing field for everyone, and students should learn early (before college, hopefully way before) aren't remotely acceptable.

Anonymous said...

I caught a student flagrantly cheating on my final exam. A graduate student. I gave him an F in the course. I had not said that was the policy in the syllabus - I had not really seriously considered the possibility before - but I did say it in an email to the class mid-semester after a widespread but relatively minor episode of dishonesty (direct copying of problem set solutions when collaborative work, but not simple copying, was allowed).

I docked the grade of the student whose paper was being cheated from by 2 notches (plus to minus) because though he said he didn't know the other guy was copying off him, that claim was not believable.

I am also filing a formal report. I don't know if the cheating student will be expelled or not, but it's possible. The student being cheated from, as far as I can tell from prior examples, probably will get off with a warning and no mark on his record, which is one reason I felt compelled to penalize him myself.

I will say that in this large intro graduate class I have perceived a pattern in that the academic misconduct appears focused in students from particular countries (though by no means do I believe that most or all students from those countries are cheaters).

Tiger Mom PhD said...

As a grad student, I haven't had to deal with cheating students from the other side of the fence, however my roommate in college cheated (bought a paper online in 2001) in undergrad and I am happy she wasn't expelled. While I don't agree with what she did, I am glad that she was given another chance. She was given an F in the class, lost her scholarship (the one she felt so pressured to do well for thus pushing her to cheat-her reasoning), and was put on academic probation. But it made her try harder and do better in school. She graduated and is successful now. Sometimes I am saddened that students feel so much pressure that they cheat. I know there are others that do it just because they are lazy, but I honestly don't think that all cheaters are like this. Of course I haven't had to deal with being a professor and making those decisions. I've only known cheaters and the "behind the scenes" of their personal situations. As a professor, I'm not sure you could really get to know this information and agree that a systematic approach is best for everyone involved.

Anonymous said...

After my experience as a TA, I am a big believer in filling out academic misconduct forms. MyU has very strict rules about this, but from what I hear, some departments don't care about the rules.

The rules here are: report all incidents. First incident = F in the class. Second incident = suspension from school for a semester. Third incident = out for good. All are put on your 'permanent record.'

When I caught my first cheater, I confronted him together with my supervising professor. Good thing, because the prof was a tough old bird--I would have given up too early. Dr. M did manage to get a confession out of him eventually. The student begged and pleaded us not to report it, not to give him an F in the class. Later we found out why he was so desperate--he'd done this before, and he was going to be suspended. I never would have guessed.

This student was a junior IIRC--I wonder how many profs caught him cheating (it was pretty obvious) and let it slide. It wouldn't surprise me if he'd blatantly cheated a dozen times or more before getting suspended.

I think it's better to nip the habit in the bud, before it gets entrenched. I think a harsh cheating policy is a good thing.

STP said...

I am a pre-tenure prof at a SLAC, and in my view, cheating is rampant. I have caught some students cheating every semester I have taught. The most shocking thing to me is that other faculty members treat me like it is only my students--they don't have these problems in their courses! I'm sure they do, but they don't bother looking close enough to find it.

My institution is lackadaisical about any kind of punishment beyond the course or tracking of cheating, which I find disheartening. I tried submitting a case to our Honor Council a few years ago, and it took almost two weeks to get an e-mail response from the contact person about what materials I needed to submit. But that's better than my husband's institution. He caught a grad student cheating, and it wasn't even counted as a strike against her DESPITE hard evidence she was lying. She was a minority student and threatened to sue, so she was allowed to continue her studies as if nothing had happened. My husband was actually told that it was a good thing he had caught other (white) students cheating previously so he could defend himself against the charges of racism.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of filling out paperwork so repeat cheaters may be identified and dealt with appropriately (definitely believe in the three strikes and you are out). A one time deal may just be a moment of extreme stress and should not unduly punish a student but if they are cheating in my class as well as another class then there is a real problem. My former university had such a committee to oversee these reports. It was difficult to get it started (who got to know what) and the biggest hurdle is getting the professors to fill out the paperwork.

Anonymous said...

My college has a wonderful system to handle suspected cases of academic dishonesty. I turn in a report and, if the student does not admit cheating, a panel is convened to hear both sides. The panel is made up of members of the Academic Honor Council - four students and one faculty member. If the panel decides that academic dishonesty occurred, the penalty is usually an XF in the course. The student then has to take a student-run workshop on academic honesty in order to remove the X but still has an F. I think it is a very fair and supportive system for the student, although the panel doesn't tend to let anyone off easy, and it takes a lot of pressure off the professor.

Anonymous said...

When will we find out which of the exam excuses were real??

qaz said...

I'm a firm believer that someone who cheats must get something worse than someone who doesn't do the work. (Otherwise, there is an incentive to cheat when not ready for a test.) So I don't think giving a zero on the test is enough.

What I do is I give a zero on the assignment/exam and I dock one letter grade for the class. I also have a discussion with the student. If I think the student is redeemable, I also have the student to write a short paper on academic honesty (what constitutes cheating, etc.)

Anonymous said...

I, too, was advised initially that referring cases to the Committee on Academic Misconduct amounted to little more than a ton of paperwork for me and a slap on the wrist for the offender. However, in recent years, the COAM has more teeth and is willing to address the cheating and punish the cheaters while remaining sensitive to the fact that these are young students who still have a lot to learn.

It was explained to me that if I chose to be judge and jury on my own that the university would not stand behind me in legal proceedings.

The protocol involves me filing a formal complaint that must be approved by my department chair. Accused students are interviewed by the head of the COAM and may plead guilty or go to "trial" before the entire committee.

The most common punishment is to receive a zero for the assignment in question AND to have their final course grade dropped by one letter.

After multiple (and ongoing) dealings with the committee, I see this to be a fair and reasonable solution.

plam said...

Yes, I need to submit some reports about copying of code in the near future, hopefully this afternoon. Usually they got 0 on the copied thing (which is worth about 15% of the final mark) and perhaps -5% on the course, depending on their attitude. I report to the Associate Dean, who may change the penalty (especially in the case of repeat offenders).

I also have to report a case where the student denies copying.

Alex said...

STP's husband's case brings up an important point, beyond the racial politics: If faculty do not consistently handle cheating in the same way, then when faculty DO bring a case to the higher levels for steeper punishments, a student can argue that the school is treating him/her inconsistently with the way that others were treated. I don't know whether that alone would be enough to prevail in court (ask a lawyer), but the school's case would certainly be stronger if there were more consistency. Add in some protected class issues, and the student can ask "Why is it that I was the only student to face these steeper sanctions?" and now there's a plausible discrimination argument. The argument may or may not hold up in court, but it's at least a messy thing to deal with.

I admit that I have not been as consistent as I should have been in handling academic integrity cases, but I need to start being more consistent. Then again, maybe it's better to wait until after tenure to consistently bring in "the big guns."

The other reason for consistently bringing cases to higher levels, besides fairness, is that it's the only way to catch repeat offenders. Otherwise I won't know if the person plagiarizing lab reports in my class is also cheating in other classes.

pat said...

In our department, we've developed a statement about academic dishonesty and a contract students must sign in every class, saying they understand what constitutes dishonesty and plagiarism and will not do it. If a student cheats, we refer her back to these documents. Most of us also use a form letter to notify her advisor.

There are incident forms at the institutional level, but I have to admit I haven't been good about filing them. After reading some of these comments, I will resolve to do better!

Materialist said...

As a stickler for rules & regs, I'm always surprised how common cheating is among students at top-flight programs. I'm in favor of zeros on assignments and reporting, especially for repeat offenders.
I am against zero-tolerance expulsions for first-timers because I think it treats people as disposable and doesn't allow for discipline to be an opportunity for personal growth.

AnonEngineeringProf said...

I think that cheating on an exam should get an automatic F for the entire course, and be reported to the university.

Unfortunately at my university, reporting cheating to the university is a big pain in the butt: lots of paperwork, emotional anguish, ick. Lots of disincentive to report. But I suppose we gotta do it: it's the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

We now have a grade of "X" of "F-X" or something like that that means "Fail for academic dishonesty". This grade sits on your transcript forever no matter what you subsequently do (a regular F can be scrubbed by retaking and passing the class). This is the grade you get when you cheat regardless of what your total grade would be. To get such a grade the prof writes a report to the VPs office and a process is started. There is an automatic review and appeals process. It is upheld in about 60% of cases, reduced to academic misconduct (and a plain F) in about 35% of cases and tossed in the rest. Academic misconduct stays in a students which leads to a two or three strikes rule -- too many infractions and you get tossed for a semester and allowed to return under some form of probation. Any infraction then leads to expulsion.

Expulsion is actually really hard to do and seems to be less necessary with the X grade. No one wants to have to explain to a potential employer why that is there.

I try to nip things in the bud with an assignment 0: "Summarise the University Academic Integrity Policy in your own words" which, if done, lets them drop one regular assignment.

Bah! This does all suck though.

Azkyroth said...

"I docked the grade of the student whose paper was being cheated from by 2 notches (plus to minus) because though he said he didn't know the other guy was copying off him, that claim was not believable.

I am also filing a formal report. I don't know if the cheating student will be expelled or not, but it's possible. The student being cheated from, as far as I can tell from prior examples, probably will get off with a warning and no mark on his record, which is one reason I felt compelled to penalize him myself."

That was a mistake, bluntly, unless there were very specific circumstances that rendered the claim unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

Every syllabus I have (even for grad courses) has the following boilerplate:

Anyone caught cheating in the class will be reported to their college provost (see XXX policy on academic integrity) and may fail the class. Cheating includes any attempt to claim someone else's work as your own. Plagiarism in any form (including close paraphrasing) will be considered cheating. Use of any source without proper citation will be considered cheating. If you are not certain about citation standards, please ask, as I hate having to fail students because they were improperly taught how to cite sources.

Collaboration without explicit written acknowledgment will be considered cheating. Collaboration on lab assignments with explicit written acknowledgment is encouraged—guidelines for the extent of reasonable collaboration will be given in class.

Anonymous said...

FSP -- from what you described, it sounds like your university allows the instructor to decide the penalty, even if you fill out the official misconduct paperwork. Is this correct? At mine, if you fill out the official paperwork, only the academic judiciary board can decide the penalty.

Female Science Professor said...

The 'judiciary board' or whatever it is called can of course overturn a professor's decision about the penalty for cheating, but the professor decides the initial penalty. The student can accept the penalty or appeal it.

Bagelsan said...

Add in some protected class issues, and the student can ask "Why is it that I was the only student to face these steeper sanctions?" and now there's a plausible discrimination argument.

There could also truly be discrimination occurring -- if you're inconsistently applying penalties, how do you know your biases (conscious or unconscious) aren't influencing you?

Doctor Pion said...

Do we have your permission to use

my policy is not "You will get a zero unless you have a really really good reason for cheating and you send me at least 6 e-mails begging me to raise your grade."

in the future? That applies to LOTS of situations involving grades.

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, you are very welcome to plagiarize that statement.

Anonymous said...

I understand that some colleges have a REALLY drastic punishment: they not only expel the student, but erase their transcript. The justification is that they were found to cheat at least once, therefore the institution cannot vouch for any of their work.

I just had an unpleasant case of very blatant cheating in a terminal MS program. The University committee decided on a 1 quarter suspension (besides an F in the course.

Monica said...

Does anybody think that erasing transcripts may be illegal unless reimbursement is provided or payment for the courses was never made to begin with? If the courses were paid for, the university was required to provide the service. Of course, the university could simply acknowledge that courses were taken but refuse to grant course credit. However, unless that was part of the normal arrangement from the very beginning, such as when a student is auditing a course, that, too, may be illegal since the student paid for credit courses. Besides, the fact remains that the student met course requirements in various courses and got passing grades and then the university is taking that back from the student for reasons that have nothing to do with those particular courses.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody think that erasing transcripts may be illegal unless reimbursement is provided or payment for the courses was never made to begin with?

No. A student buys the right to take the course, which offers the opportunity to earn course credit if they do adequate work for the course.

Removing course credit for a course in which a student cheated is clearly acceptable, though I would prefer to see clear records of cheating maintained in the permanent transcript.