What I Learned from Students Who Cheat

We all know that feeling. That sinking, pit of your stomach feeling when you know you have seen this paper, problem, or quiz answer before. That feeling when you know you have witnessed academic dishonesty. Your first response might be anger. You may sigh because you know you have to investigate, fill out paperwork, and confront a student. Catching and acknowledging academic dishonesty can be disappointing, enraging, time-consuming, and undeniably unpleasant. It can end a student’s academic career. What’s more, academic dishonesty can make you question your ability as an educator.

The first time I caught a student plagiarizing, I was heartbroken. I took it very personally. I thought that the student cheated because I didn’t provide enough guidance or explain the assignment properly. I learned very quickly that this was the student’s choice, and that it was not a reflection on my teaching style or ability. When confronted, the explanation from the student was that it all came down to a lack of planning. The student did not allot enough time to finish the assignment over the weekend, so the paper was copied and pasted from a website. Despite warnings that each assignment was run through a plagiarism detection program, the student still chose to turn in a paper that was plagiarized. This choice had nothing to do with me. This was my first big lesson. Don’t take it personally. The student’s choice to cheat probably isn’t about you.

My next big lesson came from the same student. I took it for granted that the student learned a lesson from failing the first assignment. The second paper, as promised, was run through the plagiarism detection program, and again, the student was not the author. I was at a loss. I turned to the chair of my program, distraught and unsure how to handle the situation. My chair kindly directed me to our institution’s academic dishonesty policy. This was my second big lesson. Know where your institution stands on academic dishonesty. Unfortunately, cheating is a part of academia. That is why institutions have such policies. It is important that you are familiar with your institution’s policy, that you communicate it to your students, and, in fairness to all, enforce it consistently. In most cases your institution will back you in cases of academic dishonesty, as my chair did.

The second confrontation with the student was more uncomfortable and nerve wracking than the first, because this time, the student failed the course. That was my third big lesson. These instances are teachable moments, but they also should be accompanied by disciplinary action. Just as you reflect on your teaching practice, the student must reflect on their learning experience. Students are more likely to learn from their mistakes if a disciplinary action is taken. Of course, disciplinary actions vary by institution and offense, but it is a necessary evil. By calling a student out, we acknowledge the value in upholding academic honesty. Despite the discomfort of the conversation, hopefully the student realizes that these matters are not to be taken lightly. That is not to say a student automatically fails an assignment or course, but that some acknowledgement of the dishonesty is made. The disciplinary action will not always work the first time, as with the student mentioned above, but eventually it will sink in. Most students will learn their lesson after the first offense.

The most recent lesson on cheating that I learned was not from a traditional classroom setting, but from an online course. Cutting edge technologies have made online education a positive and effective teaching and learning experience at many institutions. There is a learning curve with online education, though. It is important to know your delivery system well enough to discourage cheating where possible. I had inadvertently made it way too easy to cheat on quizzes by not enabling a “shuffle questions and answers” option in my quizzes. This small oversight resulted in students engaging in academic dishonesty. This occurrence was different, however. More than anything, I learned the importance of knowing the online platform with which I worked. A simple checkmark and toggle to another choice when creating the quiz would have likely saved me from this entire scenario.

In my years as an educator, it has never become easier to confront a cheater. It is always uncomfortable, and cheating will never be completely eradicated. However, learning not to take it personally, recognizing where your institution stands, allowing the instance to be a teachable moment, and studying your learning platforms will help in easing some of the discomfort.

Melanie Trost is a lead instructor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tiffin University.