EducationHigher EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Academic (Dis)honesty

Summer is winding down, and for many of us this means a return to teaching, complete with its associated joys and horrors.*

By far the worst of these horrors, at least in my opinion, is dealing with exam cheating and plagiarism. There is absolutely nothing about the whole process that doesn’t make me feel sick and/or generally miserable.

The trouble is, I’ve almost never been able to teach a class where it hasn’t come up at least once: in fact in the large lectures I usually teach, a case of academic dishonesty is basically guaranteed to come up on every single assignment and exam. (Note that this doesn’t actually reflect a high prevalence of cheating…in a 300 student lecture the rate need only be higher than .33% of students for there always to be at least one cheater).

Officially, course lecturers and professors are not supposed to handle these incidents themselves, but rather forward the relevant material to Academic Affairs. The trouble with this, however, is twofold:

1) It requires an inordinate amount of time and paperwork, usually taking several months from beginning to end.

2) So far as anyone can tell, students rarely face severe consequences for their actions. Then again, it’s impossible to know this for sure since the actual results of the inquiry are never revealed to the instructor who reported the offence. In fact, we are not even allowed to know the final grades they end up with for the whole course! While I understand concerns about discretion and confidentiality, it honestly seems absurd to lock professors out of this process entirely.

As you might imagine, many instructors find this process to be cumbersome and take things into their own hands regardless of policy. Usually this means offering students the “choice” of voluntarily withdrawing the assignment and taking a 0 in lieu of beginning official disciplinary action with the administration.

Screenshot from "The Godfather"

You know what kind of offer this really is. Image (c) Paramount Pictures.

Most students take this deal, but the fact that so many teachers offer it means that it is possible for serial cheaters never to come to the administration’s attention at all.

For this reason I nearly always take things by the book, and I warn students at the beginning of every term (and on the syllabus), that I forward all instances of suspected dishonesty to the dean, period. I also warn them that I normally do this before I notify the students themselves, precisely to avoid excuse-wrangling and sob stories (not that I haven’t had more than a few try anyway).

The only exceptions I make to this policy are when the evidence for cheating is less than 100% convincing, in which case I will normally ask them to redo the work.

For all the unpleasantness, I have actually learned some interesting things in dealing with academic dishonesty, especially since teaching electives gives me a decent cross-section of the student body as a whole:

1) By far the majority of cheaters (who get caught, anyway) major in business/management (shocker!)

2) Nearly all the other cheaters (who get caught) major in education (sadface.jpg)

3) Students are often very bad at cheating. One student actually copy/pasted from the programme notes to a concert that I wrote. For serious.

Picard-Riker double facepalm

Come on! I thought that shit only happened on TV! At least copy from Wikipedia.

4) All the invigilation measures, anti-cheating software, and disciplinary actions in the world are not enough to overcome cheating where it takes root as a cultural or institutional norm. In the times I have dealt with the administration of the management faculty, for example, they have always been overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases on their hands in any given semester. They are aware of the magnitude of the problem but clearly are unable to effectively address it through the current system.

What about you? How does your institution handle dishonesty? How do you handle it in your classes? Has dealing with cheating taught you anything interesting?

*Not for me, though! Thanks for the massive, dracoinan budget cuts, PQ!

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Previous post

Required Readings, 25 August 2013

Next post

Required Readings, 27 August 2013



Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

No Comment

Leave a reply