When You Catch a Student Cheating: A Guide

A photo of a guy’s back with his arm crossed behind his back and fingers crossed.

It’s happened. You observe a student cheating on an exam. Or, you’ve identified that the student has committed plagiarism. What do you say to that student? What is your role in handling this situation?

First, you need to gather information and consult with the UNT Office of Academic Integrity. Make sure you are familiar with the procedures and responsibilities for academic dishonesty at UNT by reviewing the UNT Student Academic Integrity Policy. You can find forms for filing for academic dishonesty here.

Equally important is determining the most effective way to talk to student(s) involved about an issue like this. Teaching often tacitly invites a “Justice Ethic” that focuses on cultural rules or moral codes to be enforced with punishment of violations or a “Care Ethic” which views transgressions as mistakes that can be lessons leading to spiritual or personal growth. Every teacher wields a mix of both, which is why we recommend the following guidelines when talking to a student who you may suspect of academic misconduct:

  • ALWAYS give a student the benefit of the doubt, and properly treat them as innocent until proven guilty. Posture yourself as an advocate for student integrity, not a vindictive prosecutor.
  • It’s always better to frame an incident as a “lapse in good judgment” rather than a character flaw. Even good students can make poor decisions, so be empathetic. A defensive young student can quickly become a distraught and vindictive foe.
  • Always be fair and respectful. Treat every infraction as a problem to be solved together rather than an adversarial blame-game that emotionally escalates. Explore motives and focus on a shared solution instead of assigning condemnation.
  • Weigh and consider options for sanctions with a student so they maintain a modicum of choice in taking ‘the easy way or the hard way.’ This is particularly true for unintentional plagiarism. External review is usually harsher in punishment and will go on their permanent record. If you are perceived as helping the student to navigate an unfortunate lapse and primarily concerned with their education and well-being, they’re more likely to trust you for appropriate sanctions.
  • After a potentially contentious or sensitive meeting with a student, document it by e-mail with a summary of the discussion that objectively describes the incident and ends with agreed commitment to mutually solve or resolve the problem. Such a document, however, must be carefully crafted for both the student and a superior to review if necessary. It is not unusual for a desperate student to “go over your head” to superiors to gamble for leniency.
  • Be alert for signs of excessive emotional stress or disturbance, recommend counseling or other.

For additional suggestions and guidelines, we recommend this list of tips from David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture. After talking with many students from multiple campuses, he developed ten tips for talking with students about cheating. These tips address what Callahan considers to be the central question to deterring academic dishonesty: “What messages about cheating are most likely to change student attitudes and behavior?” He discusses messages such as talking about why cheating is harmful to students as well as others and provides ideas for talking about cheating in a context of world-wide injustice.

References

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.