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Handling academic dishonesty

April 10, 2008, 9:41 pm

Virusdoc, always the prolific commenter, has left another comment that raises the issue of how a professor should actually deal with academic dishonesty when it occurs. What follows is my own procedure for handling these situations; I’m sure it’s not perfect, and I’m open to suggestions for improvement, but it’s worked pretty well for me over the years. 

The overall strategy for dealing with academic dishonesty is that the students involved should be confronted with the issue promptly after it’s been discovered, given a chance to give their side of the story, and then the professor can move forward on the dual basis of the evidence in front of her/him and the student’s own statements. This strategy is opposed to two other possible strategies: 

  • Avoiding doing anything about the academic dishonesty at all, either by simply looking the other way and pretending it didn’t happen, or else using the suspected academic dishonesty as an occasion to give an alternate exam or some kind of second chance assessment. I’m not against second chances or mercy in general, but look: academic honesty is bad. It’s more than just youthful indiscretion, like drinking too much at a frat party or sleeping through an exam because you were up all night studying (or drinking too much at a frat party). Academic dishonesty is a willful, intentional violation of trust, and if you are a professor and have a shred of respect for the life of the mind, you have to do something about it, even if it might earn you a reputation as a mean SOB among students. (This goes double for new faculty, for whom academic dishonesty is often perpetrated by students as a means of testing boundaries.) 
  • Executing a summary judgment on the basis of evidence alone, without the students giving their side of things, even if you are within your rights as a prof to do so and even if the evidence for academic dishonesty is overwhelming. First of all, I’ve had many cases of something I thought was academic dishonesty that could be logically explained away by students when I confront them with the work; or at least, I could see that the student was so scared and authentically sorry that I can at least scale my recommendation for their punishment back a little. Second, many times students will simply confess when they are confronted. 
So now, my means of working through an academic dishonesty situation goes like this: 
  1. Make a paper trail. Make photocopies of all the suspected dishonest work. Make copies of the syllabus policy or any other pertinent document where the rules against cheating are stated. Make printouts of the Wikipedia article that was copied. Save and print any email exchanges on the subject that you have with the students. We do all this because you should never underestimate how litigious a situation like this can get. I’ve never been sued for writing someone up for cheating </knock on wood> but I have had angry parents show up in the office before, one time with a firearm. But that’s another story. At any rate, having good documentation takes a lot of pressure off. 
  2. Contact each student individually for meetings to discuss their work. And phrase it that simply: “I’d like to meet with you to discuss your work.” No mention of academic dishonesty yet. And if there’s more than one student involved, don’t meet with them in a group — because they will likely meet before your meeting to get their story straight. Or, phrased more positively, if it’s a group of students involved and they all have the same explanation with the right details even when meeting separately, you can be confident they are telling the truth. 
  3. Start each meeting by getting the student to discuss the work itself. This will help you gauge the extent to which the student really understands the material, and consequently how likely it is that the student actually cheated or plagiarized. 
  4. Then, after you have gathered some information about the student’s skills with the material, shift the discussion to the academic dishonesty. Something like this: “I had something else to discuss with you about this work. Here’s your work. [Lay out the student's work.] And here’s [another student's work | a Wikipedia article | a website | whatever]. These are very similar as you can see. Can you give me some context for what happened here?” I’ve seen this called “the reveal” ala Trading Spaces. In other words, confront the student with the problem: They’ve turned in something that appears to have been lifted from something else without attribution, and you would like to know what the deal is with that, from their perspective. 
  5. One of three things will happen at this point. You will get (a) a believable explanation, (b) a crap explanation, or (c) a confession. If (c), then that student’s case is, sadly, pretty straightforward from this point onward. If either (a) or (b), then you will eventually have to weigh the student’s words against the evidence. But for now, all you do is listen and ask questions to clarify what the student is saying. And make notes — make notes and add them to the paper trail. Above all, be nice. The student is probably about to crap his or her pants out of fear and uncertainty, and so being a professional who is merely seeking understanding of a questionable situation will make the student more comfortable and more likely to think straight. 
  6. Once you’ve met with all the students and heard everything that needs to be said, you now have to take the evidence in the work, each individual student’s words, and the interactions between the words of different students, and figure out which student crossed the line into academic dishonesty and how willful and bad that crossing was. I can’t offer any rules or procedures for that, other than general advice to be professional and to seek a proper combination of justice and mercy. Also, I’d say that if you have any doubts about whether a student crossed that line, then it’s better to err on the side of mercy and give the student the benefit of the doubt — along with a serious lecture about how close they came to getting their grade nuked for cheating — rather than administer a punishment you’re not sure is deserved. 
  7. Finally, based on (and partially guided by) your institution’s procedures for academic dishonesty, you probably have to write a report and send it up the chain of command to the Dean. At my college, we profs have the option to suggest restricted punishments for academic dishonesty if the circumstances merit it. The standard penalty is a 0 on the offending assignment, a lowering of the semester grade by one full letter (on top of grade damages caused by the 0), and expulsion upon the second offense. If my interview with a student leads me to believe that they were guilty of academic dishonesty — but their behavior was closer to indiscretion than it was to cold-blooded cheating, and they were not giving me a crap explanation in step 6 — then here’s my chance to suggest they not be punished as badly. I almost always have plenty of cause to call for mitigated penalties, because students are usually pretty forthcoming in their interviews. 
I wish I could describe some specific cases I’ve dealt with to show how my way of doing things usually leads to conclusions that I can feel relatively good about, but there’s FERPA and all that. But suffice to say that while every academic dishonesty investigation for me has been distinctly unpleasant — it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to do things this way — I’ve never come away from a case feeling like I did the wrong thing, either letting someone off too easy or being too heavy-handed. 
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