One aspect of teaching that can make an instructor feel pessimistic and disheartening is when a student attempts to gain an unfair advantage.  Most of the time, this is labeled simply as cheating, defined as intentionally using or attempting to use unauthorized materials on any academic exercise, or plagiarism, the appropriation or use of another person's ideas, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, but we see instances of fabrication and other acts of dishonesty.  What can you do to combat acts of academic dishonesty?  This article is meant to help faculty members at any level, even teaching assistants, identify possible occurrences of academic dishonesty.

  1. Know Your School’s Policies & Be Transparent with Your Students

When you become a faculty member at a new institution, take a more extensive teaching role at your current institution, or even a long-time teacher implementing new curriculum changes, you must identify and know the school’s policy and rules regarding academic honesty and creating a fair classroom environment.  Each faculty member may enforce the rules differently, but it’s critical that the students know your classroom rules and expectations upfront. A few key items to consider:

  • Do you want them to work with other students on their homework?
  • What rules and procedures do you have for assignments, reports, and exams?
  • Clearly spell out the parameters of what constitutes plagiarism and cheating. Define the possible consequences the students will face.
    • Put this information in your syllabus and discuss this with them on Day 1 of your course with transparency. 

If one of your students performs an act of academic dishonesty in your course, this will allow you to enforce the sanctions professionally.  If you don’t know where to find this information, ask your faculty mentor or your university’s appropriate administrative office.  These offices are usually the academic honor office, the department or college office, or the Dean of Faculties office, depending on the institution.

2. Watch for the Methods Students Use to Cheat and Plagiarize

The reasons why students cheat have not changed, but how students cheat has changed dramatically.  Typically, there is an assumption that most cheaters are bad or failing students, but students cheat for a multitude of reasons: poor time management skills, a tough class schedule, stress, and anxiety, or poor communication of the rules by their faculty members.  The use of social media and other electronic resources has changed academia over the last 20 years. A few examples of some cheating methods to watch out for include:

  • Social Media Communication: Students discuss test questions and individual assignments via social media and other chat apps to give their friends and colleagues academic advantages. 
  • Smartphones: Many students take pictures of their answers with their smartphones and send them to others using text messages.
  • Smartwatches: Recently, smartwatches have become more prevalent and allow communication and internet browsing without the use of a cell phone.  They allow students to access study files and answers that were not authorized by the faculty member. 
  • Groups that Share Tests: Many student organizations have tests and assignments from previous semesters that allow students to look up questions from a faculty member or specific class. 
  • Unauthorized Help: Tutoring services will discuss how to “beat a test” or “write the perfect paper” by giving students unauthorized aid. This can also include groups or individuals who may offer to write a paper or take a test for a fee on behalf of the student.

Being smart as a faculty member is knowing that these outside resources are available and to identify when they are being used improperly.

3. Be Proactive, Not Just Reactive

For some instances of academic dishonesty, the origin of the problem comes back to the faculty member not taking a proactive role in combating the acts.

  • Full Established Boundaries: The first place for immediate improvement is the discussion of unacceptable acts on the first day of class and syllabus.  Many faculty members will only include the minimum required statement in their syllabus.  This does not properly set student academic honesty boundaries.  Establishing such boundaries might be informing students of the use of plagiarism detection software, describing acceptable behavior and communication about assignments on social media, or acceptable help on homework, essays, and reports.
  • Variety in Assessment: Another place where faculty can improve is writing different assignments or multiple forms for exams.  Changing up how you ask questions, what essay question prompts you to use, and creating different forms for exams can be time-consuming. However, this effort will reward students with a fair and objective assessment.  If you are concerned with academic dishonesty in your course, putting in some work early will benefit your course in the long run.

4. Grade Assignments, Reports, and Essays Attentively

Most of the time, trust your own feelings when looking for possible occurrences of academic dishonesty.  When grading assignments, if the work seems more advanced than the student’s level or that they do not seem to follow the question prompt, this can be a strong indication of plagiarism. A few ways to validate these concerns and provide either “proof” or deterrents of this behavior include:

  • Show Your Work: Require multiple drafts of a paper and give feedback regarding citation standards throughout the writing process. 
  • Side-by-Side Grading: If you have research papers or lab reports in which students worked with a partner or in a group, grade the assignments side-by-side.  While the data or general content may be the same, direct copying will be more apparent. 
  • Online Plagiarism Checkers: Technology has been developed to help identify plagiarism.  Websites such as, Unicheck, PlagarismSearch, and others have students upload their essays/reports then compare all submissions to other online resources and papers turned in for other courses or at other institutions.  Many schools have licenses for this technology and you should utilize it on any type of critical thinking or writing assignment.

5. Manage Exam Administration and Proctoring

Most attention is focused on deterring cheating is during exams.  A few methods that can specifically help discourage academic dishonesty during these high-stake assessments include:

Assigned Seats: A good first step is to assign seats for each exam. While this might be challenging for a large lecture hall, it minimizes the chance of friends and study partners sitting next to each other; thereby limiting the student interaction.  It also allows faculty or proctors to know who is present to take the exam.

  • Variety & Alterations by Section: As mentioned before, having multiple forms of an exam can be a great preventive for cheating.  Having different exam forms with the same questions mixed in a different order, or similar questions about the same are all small, minor changes that can promote an honest testing environment.

One topic of test administration that does not get enough attention is proctoring.  In a small classroom, there may be only one adult in a 20-40 student class.  For larger lectures containing 200-400 students, teaching assistants help faculty make sure students are taking their exams honestly.  How can proctors create an honest environment? 

  • They must proctor actively:  Many proctors distribute exams and then ignore the students to grade other assignments, work on their computers, look at their cell phone or possibly leave the room.  After you pass out the exams, you should walk around, checking for anything suspicious, and watching for students looking at other exams.  If you spot any of these behaviors, make an immediate change. 
  • Reminders About the Rules: Announcements about looking at their own paper can only help so much, so moving students to correct behavior might be necessary.  Having another set of eyes and having another presence in the room, even for a brief time, can correct behavior. 
  • Instructor Collaboration: Faculty members that do have test proctors should meet with them before the exam, explain to them the correct protocols, and describe past experiences or issues that occur during exams.  This five-minute discussion will help a test proctor during a situation they have never faced and keep them actively involved during the exam session.

While cheating and plagiarism can cause many faculty members to become frustrated, being able to give your students a fair testing environments and objective assignment is the goal of all successful educators.