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To give some background, I am a TA at UCLA for a lab class. They submit their assignments to TurnItIn, which you may know highlights any text pulled from another place.

I made it clear that they are not to work together and that no text in their reports should be found "anywhere else in the universe."

After the first week I caught a group of two plagiarizing. I repeated the "your text should not be found anywhere else in the universe" talk. I gave a long speech about academic honesty and such. One of the plagiarizing students dropped the class herself. I didn't take action on the other, besides a stern talking-to.

This week, two more students blatantly copied chunks of the other's paper. Whole paragraphs. I couldn't believe it -- I had just explained to them the week prior how easy it was to spot plagiarism. I brought them outside class one at a time and asked them what happened. I showed them the highlighted TurnItIn gradereport and their reports side-by-side. They each said they worked together, but didn't copy (slim chance. And still against the rules.)

Now the issue:

The professor that oversees my class doesn't have time to talk to me; hence I am here. He has given me two options: do nothing, or report them to the Dean of Students. If I do the latter, the punishment will extend beyond their grade -- they will probably fail the class, or even be suspended.

I want to punish them. But I don't want to ruin their undergraduate lives. Is my professor right -- I only have two options? (I cannot find any school-specific information about this.)

Or is there a better, less obvious way to handle this?

Update:

I talked around. It turns out that this kind of violation is serious, but it's not going to destroy their life. The Dean of Students people tend to be pretty reasonable when it comes to sanctions from what I hear. So I'm reporting it to them.

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@aeismail assuming this isn't a kindergarten class, the students should be capable of a) understanding, and even writing down, things said to them by their teacher and b) not copying from each other without realizing it. –  jwg Apr 22 at 9:36
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The professor that oversees my class doesn't have time to talk to me — Yes he does. Make an appointment. Camp out at his office door if you have to. Complain to the department chair if you have to. –  JeffE Apr 22 at 10:59
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I don't agree @A-B-B. If students cheat they should face the consequences in case they get caught. If they can't accept that and drop the course, too bad, they won't be missed. The way of teaching should never be tailored to the lowest denominator of students. Separate the wheat from the chaff as early as possible. This helps everyone who is serious about learning. Higher education should focus on students that want to learn, not those that want a diploma. –  Marc Claesen Apr 22 at 20:13
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@A-B-B Calm yourself. The student dropped the class because she got caught and feared the consequences. That has nothing to do with me. –  sadTA Apr 23 at 4:30
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@A-B-B You miss the point entirely. It's easier to do the assignment than it is to plagiarize so effectively that I won't detect it. If they go through all the work to plagiarize a boneheaded lab report so well that I can't detect it, then they probably learned all the relevant material along the way. The problem is straight copying -- they don't learn anything when they do that. –  sadTA Apr 23 at 8:32

10 Answers 10

This sounds like "I want to punish them but not really". Fact is that these students have cheated even after multiple warnings. You are not teaching little children. Responsibility and accountability are important and adult students should have both.

If you are sure they plagiarized the only correct course of action here is to report them. It is then up to whoever handles such issues to assess the severity and appropriate punishment.

The students knew the risks of plagiarizing and decided to do it anyway. Giving them a milder treatment now will encourage other students to behave similarly since the consequences become less severe.


Note: are you sure the students copied from each other or is it possible that they are using the same source?

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I do want to punish them, but I personally feel like the penalties for cheating are extreme. –  sadTA Apr 22 at 6:24
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@sadTA whether or not the punishment is too extreme is not your decision to make, it is university policy. The rules (and consequences of breaking them) were clear and they broke them anyway. Giving them a milder treatment now may feel good to you (though it is unfair in my opinion) but be aware that this will encourage other students to behave similarly since the consequences become less severe. –  Marc Claesen Apr 22 at 6:39
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I suggest you to add "Giving them a milder treatment now ... will encourage other students to behave similarly since the consequences become less severe." to your answer. –  scaaahu Apr 22 at 7:03
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@scaaahu thanks for the suggestion. I've updated my answer. –  Marc Claesen Apr 22 at 7:15
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@sadTA While I don't agree with MarcClaesen's "only correct course of action," I do agree that accountability is a good focus. You did have options, and I think your ultimate choice was a good one. Hindsight: might reporting them sooner have even helped them see real consequences were more livable than what they imagined... and prevented the dropping-out? (FYI, I'm particularly grateful to a professor who gave me a failing grade for not completing, while being in communication with me: it felt like being parented... and helped me learn being accountable without harshness on myself.) –  Doug_Ivison Apr 23 at 16:48

Report them. It is precisely the job of those working in the office of the Dean of Students to make judgment calls of the sort you describe. They, also, do not want to ruin students' undergraduate lives.

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I agree. As a TA you do not compensated for making judgment calls of the sorts. You have to earn your own respect because you lectured the class on plagiarism and gave warnings. If you want your word to be of any worth, you should report them. Moreover, what's preventing you from testing the water by asking the dean directly? When I was TAing, we had to report any misconduct without delay. In turn, the dean would tell us what course of actions would be needed, if any. –  okiharaherbst Apr 22 at 16:16

Firstly, I think it is not OK for professor to present you with options. He/she should have decided what to be done and it is actually funny that he gave an option that clearly conflicts with honor code.

If the cheating is provable, then you are paid to carry out the rules so you should report them. No person should be above the rules of the university, and I am sure the rules are clear. Your responsiblity is to grade homeworks and report them if they cheated. Anything else leads to corruption in any organisation, which is also misuse of power.

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Yea. I specifically asked him for guidance and he brushed it off. He seems to be too busy to take responsibility for the class. –  sadTA Apr 22 at 7:36
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@sadTA, To be perfectly honest, that is something I would want to talk about just as much as the cheating. Resolutions would differ based on the professor's position (head of department, etc.) and whether he's got tenure, but he shouldn't be doing that to you. It's probably worth a question of its own. –  Brian S Apr 23 at 16:23
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@BrianS I found out his wife is having a baby today so I am letting it slide. –  sadTA Apr 23 at 17:55

Just give them no credit at all for that assignment. Since even copied homework takes time, and it's very likely that they will be caught, it's not going to be worthwhile to copy and not get any credit.

If your professor asks, you can say that you chose to do nothing, but that of course they could not receive credit for that work, which you assumed was what he implied in his advice.

If the students complain that they want to be able to make up the credit or feel they should get a grade, tell them categorically no. If they insist, refer them to the professor. This puts the ball in their court - they are unlikely to want to make the effort to complain about you, when they will be drawing attention to their cheating, and probably end up in a position where they have to openly lie to a professor.

If this does happen (because the students are spiteful or lack all sense of proportion) don't worry about it. Students sometimes think that an incident like this can be made to reflect badly on a TA. Even if they do pursue a complaint, even if it is upheld, and even if it is shown that you did the wrong thing, it is not going to be held against you. It will be accepted by faculty and anyone else involved (all of whom probably realize what PITAs some of your students are) that it is a the very worst a minor misjudgement of the type that everyone makes in their first few teaching experiences.

Just make sure that you are consistent (so that you can't be accused of discrimination) and clear (so that no-one can say they didn't understand the rules). If you get bounced into making an exception, immediately make it clear what the rules of exceptions are ('Everyone gets one chance', 'one chance only on the first homework' or 'one person got one chance, but now you have all been warned' etc.)

Lastly, don't take it personally. It is disappointing to try and treat people like adults, and then find that they treat you like you are an idiot. Ultimately it is a reflection on their immaturity not your teaching skills.

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I would add: next time, have your rules written down, preferably in a small "Notes" section underneath the description of each coursework. State clearly what measures you are going to take if you detect plagiarism (no grade for the coursework, no grade for the whole course, etc.). –  nplatis Apr 22 at 10:07

I'm also at UCLA, and have worked for profs that weren't willing to escalate when cheaters were caught. Many of them just assume that cheaters will drop or eventually fail the final or whatever.

My only advice is to remember: you're primarily here to do research and get a degree; TAing just pays the bills. Cheaters are upsetting, but choose your battles wisely and without getting emotional. In the long run, it probably isn't worth pissing off your advisor by going over their head.

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Thanks Neal. He is not my advisor, just a professor supervising my class. The issue is, I just want to give them a zero. It saves me time and I think it's more fair. But I don't think that's an option. I think I have to do the whole "escalation" thing. Which I don't want to do for the reasons you stated. –  sadTA Apr 22 at 17:14

If the rules of your institution are told to you by this professor, and you choose not to follow them, then where does that put you relative to how you think of the students' behaviour with respect to the clear rules on copying?

Either you have discretion to decide the punishment or you don't, and it sounds to me like you're being told that you don't. Your professor may be incorrect in this, but if you can't find it written down either way then the only way to determine that is to contact another authority in your institution for another opinion.

It's possible that by "do nothing" your prof actually meant do the thing you want to do -- fail the assignment and nothing else. If so then you're home free, and I think you could probably establish that by asking the prof, "If I do nothing how should I grade the substantially-copied assignments? Give them both 0?" This doesn't require a long conversation, anything that can be handled by a 1-minute email is probably good for the prof.

Otherwise you're in the position of a cop who has been told by the captain, "If you think they've broken the law this goes to the DA. If you think they haven't then forget about it and cut them loose". You're saying, "well can't I just issue them an on-the-spot fine or something?". No, you can't, not if the person in authority says you can't. You can acknowledge the offence and follow procedure, or you can knowingly overlook the offence because you think the procedure is unjustified. And, I might add, good luck with that as a long-term strategy...

That said, perhaps you could contact the Dean of Students (or their representative), and ask whether they are prepared to ratify failing the assignment but not the class. Of course if you do this you pretty much have to report them if the Dean says "no, they must be expelled, this is a zero-tolerance issue for us" or whatever. What you can't do is decide on behalf of your institution that copying just one assignment isn't sufficiently bad to justify failing the class. The Dean of Students has clearly impressed on you that their opinion is otherwise or you wouldn't be able to predict their response.

Speculating wildly, I would guess that the reason the Dean's response is so stern is that many TAs before you have been through the process you're currently in. The class is told the rules against copying. Someone copies. The class is told the rules against copying again. Someone copies. Now what? The Dean of Students can probably list more things than you can that have been observed not to work.

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Academic honesty cases are very serious for two reasons. First, academic dishonesty strikes at the very foundation of what makes education work in the first place -- namely the idea of mutual trust. Second, academic honesty cases all too frequently degenerate into legal battles that cost the university time and money. For this reason of seriousness, it's paramount that the professor of record take responsibility for this situation and not leave it up to you as a TA.

Go find your university's academic dishonesty policy and read it very carefully. In all likelihood you will find two things that are relevant here: (1) only the professor of record has the authority to act on an academic dishonesty case in her/his class, and (2) more to the point, if academic dishonesty occurs, the professor is contractually obligated to report it. This is how most university's policies work. You might find yourself in a situation of having to remind the professor of this fact -- the prof might have freedom to handle punishments however s/he wishes, but the prof must make a report anyway, for the student's record. (If the student is a repeat offender, the student may be expelled.)

If the prof has this responsibility and still won't listen, go to the department chair with it. This sort of thing really can't be ignored. But I repeat -- this is probably not your responsibility. The thing to do at this point is to find the person who is responsible for investigating it and make sure they move on it.

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To add to everything else that's been said here, you SHOULD talk to your professor about this. If for no other reason than to make sure that all sections of the class are following the same rules. If there is no clear policy then you can't be expected to enforce the rules.

Also remember that a lot of students won't understand why it's cheating and you have to create that understanding. Putting something in the student's hands that explains the policy is key. Refer to the student handbook as appropriate. My handout usually says something like "This is your one and only 'warning.' After this if you plagiarize you will have crossed a line you cannot uncross." After I started handing that out and going over it very clearly on the first day of class I never again had a plagiarism problem.

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Forgot to add, I usually also say something like "The easiest way to avoid problems is if you're not sure whether or not something is plagiarism: ASK." –  Dave Kaye Apr 23 at 16:44

I agree with the answers that suggest you should report them to the dean, and come what may. But I would like to raise a consideration in case you decide not to. It is very likely, per university regulations, that you personally do not have the right to punish students.

We had a situation like this in my department, when the chair wanted the students punished but without involving the disciplinary board (for irrelevant administrative reasons). We had to be extremely careful in letting the concerned students know that their project had been graded 0, not as a punishment, but simply because they hadn't followed the instructions which stated to work in 2-person teams.

In case you decide to "punish" them yourself without reporting them to the dean, you should study the applicable regulations to make sure what exactly your rights are. You wouldn't want to get into trouble to protect undeserving students.

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Firstly it depends on the assignment; I had to do labs in my computer Sci degree with a partner, each person then had to produce a write up on our own. We created one document with all the results in that we shared, and then wrote up the rest ourselves. There was no point in both of us writing down the same numbers and then typing the same numbers into ms-word. So text like the headings on a results table would be the same between the two of us.

Maybe give the students the option of.

  • Being reported with all the risks that takes
  • Or withdrawing their assignment and getting no marks for it.
  • Or putting in a formal complaint themselves, so reporting themselves.
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protected by aeismail Apr 22 at 16:54

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