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3 Key Steps When Handling Situations Involving Cheating

Instructors often feel personally affronted whenever a student in their course cheats or plagiarizes. And it’s understandable! After all, most instructors work really hard to make their courses engaging, accessible, and informative for their students. But it helps to realize that while it might feel incredibly upsetting to be in a situation where one of your students has cheated or plagiarized there is also an opportunity to educate the student or students about the importance of academic honesty.

Why doesn’t academic dishonesty always lead to expulsion?

At most colleges, students are expected to follow a code of conduct that includes an academic honesty policy. Instructors are expected to include the academic honesty policy in every syllabus, so students are aware that the consequences for cheating or plagiarizing are a serious offense and could lead to expulsion from the institution.

But why doesn’t every student who cheats or plagiarizes get expelled? Well, simply put, there can be circumstances surrounding the incident where an instructor considers the context and overall actions of the student who has cheated.

When faced with a situation like this yourself, here are three steps you can take when deciding what you’d like to do next:

Step 1: Have a Conversation with the Student

This step begins with the classic “See Me” note: the instructor can withhold their feedback on the assignment in question until the student meets with the instructor during their office hours.

During this one-on-one conversation, the instructor can explain the situation and ask the student a simple question: “When you did this, did you realize that you were violating our college’s academic honesty policy?”

  • Aware and Repentant

    If the student did knowingly cheat, is a first-time offender, and is contrite when confronted about it the typical result is an explanation that frequently reveals a well-intentioned (if misguided) rationale for why they did what they did. While this is a personal judgment call on the instructor’s part of what to do next this could be used as an opportunity to help the student in question develop strategies to avoid this poor decision-making in the future. Have a box of tissues at the ready for conversations like this!
  • Unaware

    Some students are truly unaware of what they did wrong. It can seem dubious given how often academic honesty policies are mentioned but some students don’t realize that it is wrong to use the unattributed words of others in their own writing. The concepts of paraphrasing and source citation can be brand-new ideas for many, especially for students who did not grow up attending American schools. Students might also be surprised to learn that academic work is expected to be completed individually, not a collaborative study group effort. Uncovering if a student has gaps in their “college knowledge” can be a critical step and learning opportunity for uncovering if this was an intentional or accidental violation of your school’s academic honesty policy.
  • Unapologetic, Denial, Repeat Offender, and/or Excuse Heavy

    And then there are the students who are shown evidence of their cheating or plagiarism and remain either unapologetic or deny their wrongdoing completely. Ultimately only you can decide if a student is worthy of a second chance, but students who blatantly cheat, commit more than one offense, offer unrealistic excuses, or deny their culpability entirely are exactly the ones that need to face the academic honesty board or equivalent authorities at your school.

Step 2: Discuss the Next Steps with the Student

To wrap up their one-on-one conversation after an incident of cheating, the instructor and student should discuss their next steps.

  • First Offense

    If this was the ”first offense” it might be appropriate for the instructor to give the student a score of zero points on the assignment, but allow them to continue in the course. This leniency should come with a warning that any future violations will result in failure of the course.
  • Repeat Offender/Knowingly Egregious

    If, however, the instructor feels that the student’s behavior was a knowingly egregious violation of the academic honesty policy, the student could be told that they’ve failed the course and will be reported to the college’s authorities for further disciplinary action.

Step 3: Report the Incident to the College’s Authorities

Regardless of the next steps the instructor deems appropriate for their own course, any incident of cheating or plagiarism should be reported to the college’s authorities. In reporting the incident, the instructor should explain what happened and how they chose to handle it.

This reporting, even of first-time offences, is important because it establishes a pattern of behavior. If the administrator in charge of academic honesty complaints receives reports about the same student’s first offence from several different instructors, they’ll be able to call that serial violator in for a much more serious conversation about academic honesty and student conduct. It also protects you, the instructor, in case further or future actions are necessary. Having a paper trail, including a log of your actions and decisions, keeps everything nice and clear in case of any further inquiries.

About the Author

Anna Johnson is an award-winning instructor at Mt Hood Community College in Oregon where she has worn many hats since 2005. Joining the faculty as an instruction librarian, Anna then spent 10 years as a career-technical instructor, preparing students for living-wage jobs as administrative assistants and front-end web developers, and now leads the college’s Business transfer degree program. Anna enjoys using problem-based learning and flipped classroom methodologies to prepare students for future workplace challenges. When she's not teaching, Anna is an avid cook, formidable fantasy football player, National Park enthusiast, and volunteer usher and tour guide for Portland's performing arts center. Anna has supported other instructors in their use of SIMnet as an MHE Digital Faculty Consultant since 2015.

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