Efficient teaching: after academic dishonesty happens


One of the most unsavory parts of the job is dealing with violations of academic integrity policies.

This is an “efficient teaching” post because dealing with academic dishonesty is a part of teaching, and there are many ways to handle it, some of which are more efficient than others.

Just sweeping it under the rug is not efficient, because efficiency is a ratio of teaching effectiveness and teaching effort. Doing nothing about academic dishonesty is ineffective teaching, because if that’s what you do, then you’re not doing your job.

I used to be bothered by the poor judgment of the students. If students are driven to cheat, how can I be an effective instructor? What did I do wrong?

I’ve gotten over that worry. It was cured with data. If you’re familiar with the literature on academic dishonesty (the wikipedia page is particularly good), then you are aware that cheating on exams and assignments is rampant in all sectors of higher education wherever you go.  That’s just a straight-up fact. Every class you’re teaching, there’s someone cheating in it. Don’t even try to deny it.

(To get the obvious stuff out of the way: Buckets of ink have been spent on how to deter cheating and plagiarism. Often it’s real ink, in the form of useless handouts at professional development sessions. I work hard to design my courses to reduce the incentive for cheating and plagiarism as well as making it harder to get away with it. Every student of mine is fully, wholly, aware about what constitutes academic dishonesty, so when they do it, there’s no doubt that they’ve made an active choice in the matter. You should only pursue consequences for academic misconduct when it is entirely obvious to you, without any doubt whatsoever, that the misconduct occurred. Moving on to the meat of the issue:)

Events of academic dishonestly don’t make me even think about my teaching quality anymore, or fuss about the welfare of the perpetrators. Nowadays, the only reason that academic dishonesty pisses me off is that it’s a massive time sink.

Students who cheat are selfish because they’re wasting my time while I make sure the proper consequences are administered. I deal with this almost every semester at least once. It’s maddening.

When a student decides to foul up in one of my classes, in a stupidly obvious way that I can detect it, it has the potential to screw me up just as it does for them. It can suck away many good hours that would be better spent on students who aren’t cheating, and on manuscripts that are waiting for me.

The first time I intercepted academic dishonesty (while not as TA) was when five students were all plagiarizing together on a lab research project. It was overt, badly done, and they clearly knew it was the wrong thing to do. One student even brought in someone’s draft from the year earlier (with edits on it from the instructor of the prior year!) to pass off as their own and ask me for input. I spent days – literally  – doing all the legwork, paperwork, documentation, interviews, and other crap associated with making sure that these students got their fair dose of justice. My department was very supportive of it, but it mushroomed, because the students escalated the issue. And then one of the plagiarists claimed I was racist. Hearings were held. This is what you do not want to happen when you’re in your first or second year on campus.

This turned into an inquisition because I set the stage to let the students make this happen. In this instance, I was initially dealt a bad hand, as the assignment was designed for plagiarism by the professor who designed (or rather, didn’t design) the lab curriculum. Regardless, I lost control of the situation before I even started. I took the well-meaning but misdirected advice of senior faculty, who mostly did nothing about the plagiarism in their midst, who in fact encouraged it by usually ignoring it or giving extremely light penalties. Most faculty handle academic dishonesty in a way that is designed to make themselves miserable in the process, either by guilt or by effort.

There is a completely fair way of handling the situation without wasting all of your time.

It’s alluring to let students off light, because if you don’t, they can make a big stink which involves lots of paperwork, conversations with administrators, and hearings. However, letting students off easy (aside from being an injustice) also invites more cheating. Once you get a reputation for busting people — and the reputation does get out there — you have deterring effect.

So, how do you appropriately nail cheaters and plagiarists without making it your life’s work?

Here are some handy dandy observations that you should be aware of before heading into this morass:

  • When a students are personally accused of misconduct, they will deny it. It’s a gut instinct to defend one’s self against external threats. They’ll even deny it when the evidence is incontrovertible. You could have a photograph of their arms with smuggled formulas, a cheat sheet in your possession, or the original version of an online essay from two years that perfectly resembles their own. You could have a misdirected email between two students explaining to one another exactly how they cheated on the last test. You could invite God into your office and have him testify that he saw the student cheating. All but the most incredibly forthright students will still absurdly insist they did nothing wrong.
  • The reason that students deny in the face of total proof is, in part, because this strategy often works. It’s amazing how consistent denial in the face of clear evidence can persuade administrators to dismiss or lessen a university-level penalty. (Many student affairs offices are filled with Poppy Harlows that have trouble watching students experience the consequences for their poor decisions, regardless of whether the events were horrific or banal.)
  • Once a student claims innocence, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, there’s nothing you can do to get the student to recant. They won’t recant because then they’d be guilty about lying about dishonesty, which is just as bad as the original dishonest act. They don’t want to get busted for that either, and they won’t trust you after they lie to you.
  • When students feel that they are cornered, they might lash out. This could result in pages-long diatribes copied to every administrator whose email address is on the university website. If the student has a wealthy parent who donates to the school, or is a member of a traditionally disenfranchised minority on campus, or has a disability, or stands out in some other way, then their claims of persecution might have traction. Some students might lawyer up. A couple years ago a student said I was biased against him because he wasn’t from an ethnic minority. Seriously. These irrational attacks by students may or may not help out the students in the long run, but one thing is for sure: it’ll take a lot of your time.
  • Everybody handles academic dishonestly differently, and in your department, there are faculty members who have policies and practices that don’t meet your standard. It’s not useful to try to get someone to change their policies, because they have made up their mind and if you show that you think differently, you’re just losing common ground with your own colleagues.
  • It’s a fine practice to think of your syllabus as a legal contract. It’s not, but if a policy is clearly stated in the syllabus at the start of the semester, the university thinks that it is the students’ responsibility to be aware of that policy.

In light of these observations, how I have I decided to handle academic dishonesty when it happens? I handle the matter in a way that maximizes the probability that it will work out smoothly and not result in a big waste of my time, while making sure that the necessary outcome happens. Keep in mind that I follow this course of action only when it is 100% clear that there was an intentional violation. (If it’s plagiarism, then I am sure of intent; see #1 and #2 below.)

  1. I put unambiguous and detailed policies in my syllabi. I discuss (meaning, talk at my students) in detail on the first day of class, informing them that I don’t expect anybody to be academically dishonest, but it’s something that I have seen often and I need to take care of it when it does. This policy results in an assigned grade of F in the course for any academic dishonesty.  (I make this an “administrative F” by writing a memo to the Student Affairs office, so that the student can’t repeat-and-cancel, by retaking the course to eradicate the F from the GPA. Your institution might now allow that to happen easily, though.)
  2. We go through a short lesson (5-10 minutes) on what constitutes plagiarism, to ensure that they know what it is. I’ve also assigned a short web tutorial with a quiz at the end.
  3. When dishonesty happens, do not immediately engage with the student. If it’s a plagiarized assignment, don’t contact the student. If you intercept a student cheating, then you should document as much as possible at the moment, and don’t start a conversation. Make a note of who is sitting next to the student, and write notes for yourself.
  4. Mention to your chair that you have an academic misconduct incident and that you’re handling it. That will be an inoculation against a possible toxic student outbreak, which is what you’re trying to avoid.
  5. Within the next day, you need to spend about an hour writing a memo. This memo will be addressed to the student, and cc’d to your chair and the other authorities to whom you are supposed to report academic integrity violations. In this memo, you state that you establish the fact that the student violated the academic integrity policy. You spend several sentences going into some detail about exactly how you know this is a violation. Don’t overexplain, and don’t nitpick into detail, but report that it the misconduct was unambiguous and overt (as it needs to be if this is your course of action). If you used turnitin or a similar service, do not specifically reference the originality report, but instead indicate that sections are plagiarized from other preexisting sources in a fashion that it is logically impossible for the student to not have committed plagiarism, and that the similarity transcends coincidence. Be clear that this letter is to inform the student that you have determined the fact of the dishonesty, and that this is not a matter of further discussion, and if the student disagrees with this finding of fact this may be rectified with a formal appeal. This memo will then tell the student the specific consequence – that they will be receiving an F in the course and also that you’re reporting this to the appropriate university body. Write that the student is entirely welcome to continue attending class for the remainder of the semester, but that that any further involvement will not effect the grade at the end of the semester. Write to the student that, if he or she chooses, a meeting can be scheduled. To protect the student’s interests, any future conversation should be conducted in the presence of another faculty member, and should be scheduled through the departmental office. Indicate that you don’t require such a meeting, as the outcome is already determined and is not subject to change based on any further information. Remind the student that you are required to follow this policy and that you are working to represent their interests as best as possible, and as long as there are is no further academic misconduct, you are not going to request that the university pursue further sanctions such as probation, suspension or expulsion. The memo should also indicate that you do not want to discuss the matter over email or the telephone, as these matters are best handled in person and with the involvement of other parties, if necessary. Ask that the student wait at least 24 hours to respond, and if the student wants to file a formal response, you’ll accept it in writing and send it in to the university along with your report. A written statement should precede any formal meeting about the matter.
  6. Send this memo to the student’s home address by postal mail, and also send a copy of it to the student as a pdf attachment to an email.

Your goal here is to handle the matter while letting the student know that you’re on their side, and are only following the policy. Give them 24 hours to cool down. If they find you at the office and lie to you before the cooling off period is over, tell them that you can’t talk, and they should put down in writing their response. Their lies look stupider to them on paper than they do coming out of their mouths, and they recognize this fact. So, make sure their first rebuttal (if any) is in written form. Since plagiarists are repulsed by actual writing, this can dissuade many of them right at the start.

There are a few possible outcomes from the memo. The best one, for all parties, is that the student disappears and you never talk about it again, and you just give the F when turning in your grades. This has happens for me the majority of the time. The student might email me with an excuse, and I just email back saying that the letter is unambiguous about the policy. Then it’s done.

The second best outcome is that the student wants to meet with you to proffer an explanation. In this meeting, you’ll get excuses or mitigating factors. You listen and then firmly tell them that your policy stands, and that all misconduct has this outcome. If they persist, then you remind them that further misconduct, which includes being untruthful about misconduct, would result in a request for more serious sanctions. The student typically then will face facts and accept the F.

This whole approach, keep in mind, is designed to get the student to recognize the obvious fact of the misconduct and come to terms with it before they choose to deny it. Because once they deny it, they won’t take it back, and if they won’t take it back, then they’ll fight you on it. You want them to accept it easily. You have to be your own bad cop and good cop. I do honestly believe I’m representing my students’ interests, and I don’t want them to be unnecessarily harmed. However, I have to administer the consequences that I set forth at the start of class if I’m going to be fair to everyone.

It might be possible that the student will fight the F by filing a grade grievance, talking to the Dean of Students or your Dean or whatnot. At this point, there isn’t that much for you to do. You let the student continue to attend class like normal. You’ve already written your memo that explains what happened. You might have to write a more detailed statement explaining exactly how it is a violation, but this shouldn’t be too much work. And if there’s a hearing, you go. You’ve done everything you’ve could to give the student an opportunity to do the right thing after misconduct, and if they choose against it and continue to fight, then you just have the facts on your side and it’ll speak for itself. Getting deeply engaged in thinking about it can’t help you. You’re just doing your job. If the student lawyers up, then let the lawyer deal with your administration, after all, that’s why they get paid the big bucks. But hopefully, it won’t come down to that, and by handling it this way, I think you’re minimizing the chance that it’ll happen.

Life is not fair, but I can work hard to make my classroom as fair as possible. If a student is caught cheating in your class, or knowingly plagiarizes an assignment, and you don’t flunk them, I don’t even want to hear about it. It’ll just ruin my day. This is where others of like mind might post a picture of a cat wearing sunglasses, captioned, “I CAN HAZ CHEETING?”

6 thoughts on “Efficient teaching: after academic dishonesty happens

  1. Does your University have an academic honor court? I am struck by the fact that you do not mention this in your approach. In all of the places that I have taught, there was an official academic honor court that consisted of either all students or a mix of students and faculty. This court would make decisions about academic integrity violations. The court also imposed a non-academic penalty (i.e., they could not fail the student) but this did not prevent me from applying my own penalty if the student was found responsible. I mention this because it has been a very powerful tool in accomplishing your stated goals. Since I am not the one making the final decision, it insulates me from student questions of bias and allows me to be a student ally during the process. I present my evidence fairly and they present theirs, and the court (often of their peers) decides their fate. In all of the cases that I have used the courts, the students have sent me an apology afterwards for making me go through the process. The other advantage is that given the severity of the penalty for a violation it reassures me that I have interpreted the evidence correctly. I have never seen one of these courts be more lenient than me.

    You have to assemble the evidence and appear on the court date by that doesn’t require any more time than what you describe. The real time sink for me is tracking down the evidence of cases of suspected plagiarism with google etc…

  2. My university doesn’t have such a board. There is a hearing, with some students involved I think, only if the student disputes the allegations formally. Otherwise, whatever sanction that individual faculty members impose stands without any further ado. (This is usually an F on the assignment or something even less, from what I hear). These also take a long time to happen, and when they do, it results in a very weak penalty. A few years ago in our department, there was a case of very overt cheating, with clear evidence, and most of the students involved had the faculty penalties overturned or weakened in the hearing.

    The situation was the same at my previous university.

    The one before that was an “honor code” institution, in which students are required to police one another and faculty can’t be in the room for tests. Accusations were very rare, relative to the frequency of dishonesty. I was only there for a year so I never got a read on how the Honor Code worked out in the long run; the general sense was that it worked about as well as not having one. There’s some interesting game theory in that situation.

    It would be nice to have external validation that my reading of a situation is correct, I agree. I usually do run it by trusted colleagues of mine and have them take a look just to make sure that I am truly seeing things clearly. After a day to think about it, my students always clearly admit guilt, and if they have a dispute it’s not about the guilt but about the severity of the consequence. That’s just a discussion that I don’t have with them because it’s printed so clearly in the syllabus. It is a lot of power to wield and I’d be devastated if I punished an innocent student. However, it’s always a clear cut case of entire paragraphs being lifted – or even worse – a long series of tiny changes in an attempt to obscure the origins or substantiate a false claim of originality. If we actually didn’t practice in class what plagiarism is and isn’t, then I’d be concerned about intentionality. These students arrive at the university not knowing how to write honestly. I at least make sure that before doing any writing assignments, they are fully aware of what constitutes academic honestly and dishonesty, and what it means to be dishonest.
    If only I could do the same thing to Doris Kearns Goodwin.

    • Excellent post. Seems you have learned the ‘hard way’ how to deal with this well. Punishment seems harsh enough to be an actual deterrent as well. Most situations I have had were dealt with as 0’s for the actual assignment, not the course. I like yours better as it would have the added benefit of likely getting the offender out of sight, out of mind, for the rest of the semester!

  3. It was very useful to learn this particularly from the perspective of time and risk management. I have friends and family that have dealt with cheating in their classes, and they typically have taken an extremely gentle approach. This has been good in minimizing risk to themselves, and maybe making themselves feel good (my friends and family tend to be bleeding heart softies). But ultimately I think a strong stance is warranted. Not sure if I would personally fail the student in the class for a single instance, but I would certainly give them a zero for that assignment, and I also very much agreed with your doing the exercise at the beginning of the course – so there is total clarity. Incidentally, I note there has been an increased emphasis on academic misconduct in the blogosphere generally, with in particular retractionwatch.com very strongly emphasizing evaluation of plagiarism and data falsification by the “grown ups.”

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