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Handling Possible Cases of Academic Dishonesty

Educators can do many things to help prevent academic dishonesty, including preparing multiple test forms, helping their students understand course expectations, and educating themselves in ways to reduce academic dishonesty.  However, some students will still make the poor decision to do something unethical. Some common examples of academic dishonesty involve looking at another student’s exam, copying or plagiarizing a paper from a friend or the internet, giving exam information to a classmate in person or via social media, or forging a doctor’s note to obtain an extension.

What do you do when this inevitably happens? Here are five tips on handling cases of cheating or plagiarism for all levels of faculty and teaching staff:

  1. Do not take it personally. Have a plan in place.

While every potential case can be different, having a consistent plan will lessen the shock of an incident.  Without one, you may wish you had done something different when looking back in hindsight and that is not beneficial for handling an incident of cheating. Remember that it was the student’s decision to commit the act and give themselves an unfair advantage. Even if you follow all the possible safeguards against cheating and plagiarism, students will try to find another way to take advantage of the system.

A faculty member should have a productive and proactive plan in place for when these possible incidents occur. For example:

  • Update your course syllabus each semester
  • Make announcements before and during exams
  • Move students who are attempting to look at another exam
  • Put specific assignment and citation rules in the assignment header
  • Publish grading rubrics
  • Discuss with your teaching assistants what to look for on assignments or reports.  

If an incident does occur, have a protocol in place for yourself:

Once a possible incident has occurred, collect all information about the event. 

  • For example, this might mean looking neighboring exams or at a plagiarism report,
  •  taking screenshots of social media posts, or
  • contacting a doctor’s office for verify an excuse.

Once you have all the pertinent information:

  • Contact the student discreetly and request a face-to-face meeting. 
  • A simple email asking, “Can you come by my office to talk about your exam or assignment?” will help in starting the conversation. 
  • This lets the student know you have a concern and want to discuss it. This initial contact will open a dialogue about the incident to gain more understanding.
  1. Have a third party look over the assignment or exam.

Not all instances of academic dishonesty are black and white. Faculty members will sometimes become convinced they are 100% sure of a potential infraction and nothing a student says can change that snap judgment. This is unfair to the student. To ensure impartial judgment and perspective, try a third-party, ideally an academic peer you respect and trust. For example:

  • If you are proctoring an exam and you think that a student might be looking at their neighbor’s exam, ask another faculty member or teaching assistant to stop by to observe the behavior. 
  • While looking at a report that may be plagiarized, make sure you print off the report, highlight the passages in question, and investigate the cited sources. Having a colleague look at the conversion on social media allows for a third party to make an objective distinction regarding an attempt to gain an advantage. 

Take these outside perspectives seriously and thoughtfully.  Once you have a second, unbiased opinion, then contact the student regarding their involvement in the conversion.

  1. Have a professional side-kick present when discussing the incident with the student.

Speaking of third-party help and academic peer support, when meeting with potential violators, conversations can become very contentious. Having a professional safety buddy in or near the interaction will help dispel any “he said, she said” after the fact. Students usually become upset or defensive when presented with information about a possible incident of academic dishonesty.  During these times, both students and faculty can become angry or irrational. Having a third person in the room who is calm, collected, and mediating for both sides can streamline the interaction and get to a fair conclusion. When having these conversations with students of the opposite sex, it is recommended that the observer be a teaching assistant or faculty member of that sex. This is for the protection of both the faculty member and the student. A faculty representative to a university honor council, student advocate, or advisor for the department would be the ideal candidate in case a student has a question about the student rules and school policies.

  1. Keep an open mind. Do not assume the worst in your student.

While cheating and plagiarism can cause many faculty members to become frustrated, the alleged violator feels worse. They feel singled out when confronted about the allegations. It is best for a faculty member to remain calm, present objective facts about the incident, and start a conversation with the student.

In some cases, the student will begin the initial interaction with vehement denial, but when presented with all supporting information, they will usually confess. Only continue the conversation when it is productive to both parties. If the alleged violator remains defiant after hearing a case against them, inform the student that you will be passing the information to the correct departmental or university office.  A faculty member who wants a confession can push too far, continuing to force the interaction, which leads the student to believe the faculty member is acting out of malice. Make sure to:

  • Inform the student of the reporting procedure and their rights in the situation. 
  • Let them know that they can talk to an advisor or dean of students to clarify any questions about the process and discuss possible sanctions or penalties if necessary. 

Many faculty members attempt to handle these instances autonomously, but students need to know they have protection and a process to follow.

  1. Get education and support from your departmental administration or university office.

One of the worst misconceptions about academic dishonesty cases is that they are time-consuming and not worth the effort.  Some faculty members become disenfranchised due to the stressful interaction with alleged violators or perceived difficulty in the process, but many schools have resources to aid in the academic dishonesty protocols. These resources may include:

  • Faculty mentors
  • Departmental chairs or coordinators
  • Honor council office representative
  • Dean of faculty 

No matter the resources available at your school it is important to stay current on the technology available to combat cheating, plagiarism, and trends of academic dishonesty. If you feel that you need more education, there are videos, articles, and seminars available over trends of academic honesty.  Make sure to contact your university offices (departmental, college, deans, or honor council)and ask about the latest information available to promote a safe and fair educational environment.

While cheating and plagiarism will (unfortunately) inevitably happen in your classroom, being able to handle it in a fair, objective, and educational manner for the alleged violator will allow both parties to grow from a poor decision. Focusing on the poor decisions of one or two students can keep faculty members thinking pessimistically. Instead, it is best to do something productive and protect the rightful achievements of students working the correct way.

About the Author

Dr. Daniel Collins is currently teaching in the Department of Chemistry at Texas A&M University after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 2012. He previously taught at South Carolina (2012-2013), Presbyterian College (2013) and the Florida State University (2013-2015). His current classes are the General Chemistry CHEM 101/102 series for the First-Year Program. Along with lecturing at Texas A&M, Dr. Collins has helped design and implement three programs focused on assisting students succeed as a first year chemistry student: The Chemistry Reinforcement Module, recitation program for the First-Year courses, and an improved teaching assistant training and observation program. Dr. Collins is also part of Aggie Honor Council, Texas A&M Faculty Senate, and the University Disciplinary Appeals Panel. Outside of his work at Texas A&M, he is an avid sports fan (GO CUBS!), runner, book reader and youth sports volunteer. Ms. Gabrielle Risica is a doctoral student for the Department of Chemistry at Texas A&M University in the lab of Dr. Michael Nippe. Her current research focuses on the synthesis of molecular magnets. In addition to her graduate, she has taught for the First-Year Program, including CHEM 111 lab as a teaching assistant and CHEM 101/102 lectures as an instructional assistant. Gabrielle is an elected member of the Graduate Student Association of Chemistry where she is the treasurer and chair of the outreach committee. She is also an event coordinator for the Texas State Science Olympiad. Gabrielle completed her B.A. in Liberal Arts at Sarah Lawrence College in 2017 where she helped found the Health and Science Afterschool Program and was a member of the varsity swim team.