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I am at the moment dealing with an academic dishonesty incident in a class I'm teaching (a few groups of students submitting identical code, when the class policy forbids getting help from another person on a graded assignment).

When I noticed indications of plagiarism, I emailed each affected student something along the lines of:

The code you submitted is nearly identical to another student's work. Can you comment on this?

Their reactions mainly fall into three categories:

  1. "I made a mistake and I take full responsibility for it, I hope you will let me make it up but I understand if you can't."
  2. "I talked about the assignment with another student, but I didn't copy anyone's code." But then when I inform them they're getting a zero grade for the assignment, they don't argue.
  3. "I didn't do it! You can't give me a zero grade for the assignment when I didn't cheat, I refuse to accept a zero grade."

Assuming I have evidence that all of these students cheated, is there a good reason to adjust the penalty based on whether students own up to their misconduct, or continue to lie about it?

On the one hand, I appreciate honesty, and doubling down on a lie seems like something that should be punished. On the other hand, I've never heard of anyone adjusting penalties like this, so I'm wondering if there's some reason I shouldn't.

It's also not clear to me what the relative difference in penalties should be, if there is one. I thought about it and it's hard for me to come up with one penalty that's appropriate for Group 1, another penalty that's appropriate for Group 2, and a third penalty that's appropriate for Group 3.

I would very much appreciate answers based on research and/or experience with policies like this, rather than just opinion.

(My school has no official policy on the matter.)

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One thing which was rampant on my university was the stealing (and sharing with friends) of assignments other students made. So there may be actually 1 student who didn't copy. –  Pieter B May 13 at 12:23
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This question can be spun differently: "Is it ethical to give a higher penalty to students who lie about cheating after they are caught?" At some universities (not mine), the lie would be a second violation of academic integrity policies. –  JeffE May 13 at 13:52
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How similar is the code, and how simple were the assignments? Is it possible the same solutions can be arrived at independently, for example, requiring the implementation of specific data structures? I guess the question is, what burden of proof do you have for cheating prior to calling them out on it? –  leonardo May 13 at 13:54
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You should strongly encourage your school to adopt a policy. Policy is a tool which allows you to spend your valuable time thinking about interesting things rather than making everyone have to solve this irritating problem from scratch over and over again, inconsistently. –  Eric Lippert May 13 at 15:59
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I seems like in case 2) you assume that the student is guilty and therefore knows arguing will not help him/her. However, you should consider two cases: First, you could be wrong, especially because the person denies sharing code, but admits discussing it. Code can be very similar after discussion (but it does not have to be; infrequent, but identical variable names are a good sign). Second, some students will not talk back to a professor/instructor, out of respect - This is no sign of being guilty/not guilty. –  dirkk May 13 at 18:37

11 Answers 11

up vote 47 down vote accepted

TL; DR: We adjust the penalty.

I sit on my department's Academic Misconduct Committee so unfortunately I see a lot of these cases. The University policy has created two similarly sounding, but different terms: academic misconduct and poor academic practice, with academic misconduct being much more severe than poor academic practice. Every student suspected of having engaged in poor academic practice is called into a meeting with the Academic Misconduct Committee. This committee looks at the evidence supporting academic misconduct/poor practice and hears the student's case which generally includes what training they have had about good academic practice, how the incident happened, and any evidence of extenuating circumstances (e.g., death in the family).

Based on this process we can come to one of 3 decisions:

  1. not poor academic practice,
  2. poor academic practice,
  3. academic misconduct.

If we decide that academic misconduct has occurred we can apply one of a number of different penalties to the work: no reduction of the mark, remark the work with the offending material removed or reduce the mark commensurate with the misconduct (anywhere from a 5% penalty to a 0 for the piece of work). A second incident of academic misconduct results in the penalty being decided on by a university panel and starts with a zero for the class and can go as high as a zero for the year. In this way there is a big difference between poor academic practice and academic misconduct with no reduction in the mark since poor academic practice does not count as a first offense.

Within this framework the committee is faced with how to handle the students who admit the issue and the ones who deny the issue. Those who argue they didn't cheat and have no explanation as to how their assignment matches the work of someone else are almost always found guilty of academic misconduct since they are not willing to help us create a case for poor academic practice. More often than not they receive a 0 for the piece of work since we have no evidence to mitigate the penalty. For students who admit what they did, we are often willing to consider poor academic practice as an outcome since they have described what they did and realize it was wrong. Sometimes the offense is just to blatant to let off without a reduction in the mark, but generally saying what you did wrong and how you will not let it happen again reduces the penalty.

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We adjust the penalty. - I would agree. Look at the legal system as a whole. Plead guilty, get a lighter sentence. Not that much difference. –  WernerCD May 13 at 19:04
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@WernerCD but in this case it is very different. It is not a plea bargain. It is much more like the defendant looking and sounding remorseful and getting a lighter sentence, or even being found not guilty. –  StrongBad May 13 at 19:11
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Of course this does create the perverse incentive to admit to things you haven't done. Although most country's legal systems have the same issue –  Richard Tingle May 14 at 10:00
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An important possibly deserving further emphasis: failure to own up to an offense de facto means the student is unable to provide evidence for the lighter sentence, which means in many ways the committee isn't applying a harsher penalty: the students are just shooting themselves in the foot. –  KRyan May 14 at 20:18
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Wow. These are super-lenient punishments. At my university, if you were caught cheating or plagiarizing, you had to have a disciplinary hearing, where you'd either have the entire course failed/removed or be expelled. –  Jeff Gohlke May 15 at 15:51

Depending on the response, you could punish subsequent lies. If someone cheats, gets a punishment. When confronted about that, if they recognize it, you don't take further action. But, if they give you a blatantly false explanation, they may get punished for it.

A (sadly) real case example: one student submitted exactly the same report than a previous one. When confronted about it, he claimed that he had done it, but when generating the PDF, it was somehow transformed in the other student's report, with only the name changed. This is being caught in a lie and try to avoid it treating the instructor as stupid.

Adding some research: Wikipedia links a paper where some subjects were falsely accused of academic cheating and offer a lenient punishment if they recognised the fact. 56% of them plead guilty to avoid the risk of bigger punishment.

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That's a very interesting paper, thanks! –  ff524 May 13 at 15:59

Here is a criminal justice perspective (I have not had to deal with such egregious situations in the classroom.)

The motivation for punishment generally falls under the philosophies of retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation & restoration. The US's penal law system is based on retribution; that is you've committed a wrong against society, and it is societies duty to exact a punishment somehow equivalent to that wrong. My experience is people tend to frame the motivation for punishment de facto in retributive terms, even if it is not really appropriate for the situation.

All institutions I have been associated with have official committees that evaluate student misconduct - and cheating is their main calling. Assuming such a committee exists in your school, you should report the students behavior and it should be clear in your syllabus that is the consequence of cheating.

It is likely the said committee will cover any retributive actions necessary to fulfill any harms to society, so the question then becomes what do you do to the students in response to the behavior? This depends on your goals of the punishment to begin with. I strongly feel your role should not be to exact further retribution beyond what the schools official academic policy calls for - so that leaves deterrence, rehabilitation & restoration. (If you even have discretion at this point beyond your schools official policy for cheating.)

Studies in criminal justice tend to find that the severity of punishment is only weakly linked to deterrence - the probability of being caught is a much stronger influence on whether the student will commit the behavior. Pretty much any sort of note to the individual student that you caught them cheating will likely prevent future cheating. Even absent of punishment, this is a strong signal that their probability of being caught is high. My limited experience just letting students know "Your homework looks an awfully lot like the student who sits next to you." - effectively ended that behavior (although your situation is clearly beyond that point.) So you need not be worried about "letting them off the hook" (especially if they have been referred to the student misconduct panel).

Assuming letting the student know they have been caught is common-place, that then just leaves rehabilitation and/or restoration. Punishments oriented towards these perspectives often go hand in hand. One immediate example that comes to mind is to have the offending students lead a classroom discussion on the material they cheated on (this would be better for only one or two students though). Others may be extra-curricular activities, especially those that give back to the rest of the class (e.g. make them host a study session). Public shaming is an incredibly strong deterrent, e.g. just making them stand up in front of the class and admit their wrong-doing, but I am not sure if this violates other privacy mandates about grades and such things. (Restorative justice on its face may seem awkward since it is a victimless crime, but that doesn't make the potential punishments I suggest here any less reasonable.)

Anyway it is preferable that in the future to be very specific in your syllabus about what will happen. Otherwise it appears ad-hoc and can be construed as prejudiced toward any particular student.


In terms of relation to "admitting a wrong" - this philosophically should not have any bearing on the punishment that the offender receives. It is unfortunate a few conflations are being presented here in terms of plea bargaining - which is really a negative externality of the criminal justice system and the need to triage. When you plea bargain you concede to receiving a punishment for a lesser crime - you don't even have to admit you did anything wrong (e.g. you can plead "no contest").

The significance of admitting a wrong though is often placed on the other end of the system. It is often a requirement of parole that the offender admit their wrongdoing in front of the board before they are granted parole. In terms of restorative justice a key event is often just placing the offender in front of the victim and having the offender admit their wrong-doing. (Cooperation tends to be higher for offenders than you might expect - typically victims have a lower rate of cooperation.)

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All institutions I have been associated with have official committees that evaluate student misconduct - In my university, a specific range of penalties (localized to the course) may be imposed by the professor at his/her discretion without involving the academic dishonesty committee. The student can then appeal to this committee if they want. –  ff524 May 13 at 16:41
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Same here, except that I am also required to report all infractions in my classes to the committee (to detect serial cheaters, and as a sanity check against egregious penalties). –  JeffE May 14 at 11:24
    
A more international perspective based on criminal justice: here in the UK, it is an accepted part of criminal sentencing guidelines that sentences are reduced for an early admission. Our system is more based on punishment as a method of encouraging rehabilitation rather than for retribution, and admission is taken as a sign that the process of rehabilitation has already begun. That it also simplifies the job of the courts is a (somewhat intentional) side-effect of this. We don't have plea bargaining, nor do we allow "no contest" pleas. I believe this is somewhat typical of most of Europe. –  Jules May 18 at 0:59
    
@Jules - prison itself is only associated with retribution (rehabilitation is associated with specific treatment(s) - prison not being one of them). I wouldn't claim to be an expert on international penology, but on its face the thing that most separates the US system from its counterparts in Europe is the length of sentences, not any bureaucratic label for the motivation of punishment. –  Andy W May 18 at 12:23
    
@AndyW The UK specifically introduced the notion that prison is intended to be rehabilitative quite a long time ago now -- in fact, it is one of the earliest divergences between UK & US legal history, having been introduced by the Penitentiary Act 1779. See: politics.co.uk/reference/prison-rehabilitation –  Jules May 18 at 15:38

This seems tricky to answer but I'll try put some thoughts out there ...

Assuming I have evidence that all of these students cheated, is there a good reason to adjust the penalty based on whether students own up to their misconduct, or continue to lie about it?

The objective part of the equation boils down to you incentivising honesty and deincentivising dishonesty. You will set a precedent that "owning up" lightens the punishment so folks are more likely to "own up". If students owning up increases the effectiveness of your teaching/course administration, then that's a win.

It's also not clear to me what the relative different in penalties should be, if there is one. I thought about it and it's hard for me to come up with one penalty that's appropriate for Group 1, another penalty that's appropriate for Group 2, and a third penalty that's appropriate for Group 3.

On the other hand, you have to balance leniency with punishment: if a student just needs to "own up" after a crime to mitigate any punishment, then you are not deincentivising the original cheating enough any more. The punishment should fit the crime: thus you need to decide the severity of the original crime versus the claims of the different groups.

I would very much appreciate answers based on research and/or experience with policies like this, rather than just opinion.

The principle is identical to why people plead "Guilty" in court. They get some leniency in return for simplifying the courtroom process. So maybe there's something in the legal literature that could give you an idea (random search result).


Anyways that was the abstract answer. To give a more concrete suggestion ...

Assuming I have evidence that all of these students cheated

... you could tell the students that you have proof that they cheated and tell them that they will get 0 marks for every assignment until they own up. This seems like a nice way of matching the crime for the punishment: the longer they continue to lie and cheat, the more they are punished.

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tell them that they will get 0 marks for every assignment until they own up - I would never do this. –  ff524 May 13 at 6:33
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This comes across to me (from student's perspective) as "I am powerful because I am your instructor. So I am going to keep giving you zero marks on assignments you actually did, because I want to hear you say you were wrong and I was right." (Not to mention, if somehow I am mistaken, this encourages students to lie and admit guilt in order to avoid excessive punishment, just as the plea bargain in the legal system does.) –  ff524 May 13 at 6:37
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If the students have cheated then I would have thought this is a disciplinary matter and there is probably a disciplinary procedure which you should follow which will decide on what should occur (e.g. set marks of assessment to 0). The severity of the punishment will depend on whether the students are repeat offenders and this could only be determined by some higher level process outside the course itself. On the other hand if you wish to make it an academic rather than disciplinary matter you will need to build it into you assessment scheme (e.g. 50% own work means 50%xmark). –  John May 13 at 7:24
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@John if I delete even 1 percent of a perfect program the resulting program will likely not meet any of the requirements and get a grade much much less than 99% –  StrongBad May 13 at 9:04
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In relation to the literature in criminal justice, it might be expected that the incentive to confess will produce a proclivity to false confessions. This is especially worrisome for younger students (who still have not reached cognitive maturity) and the disproportionate position of authority the professor and institution holds over them. –  Andy W May 13 at 15:36

At my uni, almost every assignment has to be orally defended in front of the T.A. after it was submitted. This defense proves that the student understood the assignment and has acquired the necessary knowledge from it. When students cheat, this can be found out before the defense (by reviewing the assignment) or at the defense, due to insufficient knowledge demonstrated. In one case or the other, the T.A. decides on the actions taken. In most cases, the offer is standard "If we continue/begin with the examination, and I arrive to the conclusion that there was "cheating" involved, I'll take it up with the Academic Committee. However, if you admit and explain now, I'll fail you the assignment this term and you can redo it yourself for the next." Of course, the exact circumstance wary based upon the conduct, manners and attitude of the student.

Keeping this in mind, my friends roommate, took the homework from some student which took it from some other, ... etc the result being that for that term ca. 5 identical versions of the same assignment were handed. When the defense came, he had additionally the bad luck that the professor himself was examining. The course of the initial conversation went something like this: "Did you do this by yourself?" "Yes, of course." "Did you borrow your code or granted insight to other students." "No." the professor takes 3 identical copies under different names from under his desk and lays them on the table "Would you care to explain this?" "I have no explanation, my assignment is my own and has nothing to do with these" "So it's just a coincidence then?" "I guess so"

Then the professor proceeded to examine him, which lasted for more than 40 minutes (instead of the usual 5-10), but did not fail the guy in the end, because he took effort to learn what was going on in the assignment and what was required.

In the end, the professor seemingly valued more his knowledge and confidence than the fact that he took someone's assignment and blatantly and shamelessly lied his way through the examination.

This story also points to the obvious pitfall in the above approach, i.e. to prove from which of the students the assignment originated, as he requires special treatment in any case and can't be punished ad hoc.

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I had a roommate steal my assignment once. It was for a Technical Writing class. My tech manual was in color, his was in black and white. His girlfriend stole it too. They both received a 0 for the assignment. I received the actual grade. This was after the professor told all three of us to come and admit who actually did the assignment and she will give the person the grade. I started password protecting my files after that. –  staticx May 14 at 15:27

That's a really good question, that I generally often wonder about myself when dealing with plagiarism. As such, I don't have a fully fledged answer, just some thoughts.

Assuming I have evidence that all of these students cheated, is there a good reason to adjust the penalty based on whether students own up to their misconduct, or continue to lie about it?

AFAIK, most courts are supposed to lower the punishment if you plead guilty of a crime, so there is certainly precedence for this. That being said, looking at court practice also gives a feeling of the downside of this. In general, people accused of a crime tend to plead Not Guilty as long as they see a reasonable chance of getting away, and plead Guilty if it is clear that they will be sentenced anyway. Pretty much the same thing also tends to happen for plagiarising students - they will deny until presented with sufficient evidence, at which point they own up.

On the one hand, I appreciate honesty, and doubling down on a lie seems like something that should be punished.

I don't know. The honesty thing basically flew out the window when they were trying to cheat the first time, right? I don't see a huge difference in honesty levels between either of the three cases. As discussed above, I don't consider somebody smart enough to recognise a lost case as significantly more honest than somebody who has a strategy of denial.

It's also not clear to me what the relative different in penalties should be, if there is one. I thought about it and it's hard for me to come up with one penalty that's appropriate for Group 1, another penalty that's appropriate for Group 2, and a third penalty that's appropriate for Group 3.

I see the same groups of students in my cases of plagiarism, and for now I generally treat them the same. I am open to good counter-arguments, though.

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The honesty thing basically flew out the window when they were trying to cheat the first time, right? - I do see some non-trivial honesty e.g., when a student says "I copied X's code without his knowledge and without any intent on his part to share it with me, please don't blame him because my code is the same as his" –  ff524 May 13 at 7:30
    
@ff524 Yes, but then you wouldn't change that guys punishment, only the punishment of the person he copied from, right? At least that's what I do in such cases. –  xLeitix May 13 at 7:31
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It's just an example of the kind of honesty I'd like to incentivize. Currently the penalty system does nothing to reward this, or to punish the guy who just denies (possibly throwing the guy he copied from under the bus in the process). In fact, the denier benefits if I can't prove who copied from who (or whether the source deliberately shared the code) - I would have to let both students off then. –  ff524 May 13 at 7:34
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"I would have to let both students off then." I don't do that. 0 points for both in that case. –  xLeitix May 13 at 7:39
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If X and Y submit the same code, either could (technically) have copied from the other without the other's knowledge, and both X and Y deny wrongdoing, I can't punish either unless I have some evidence that one or the other copied or deliberately shared the code. –  ff524 May 13 at 7:42

I don't like this practice for two reasons. These concerns are based on my experience serving on an academic honesty committee; for reasons of confidentiality, I will not go into further detail about this experience.

  • You are creating an incentive for an innocent student to falsely confess, if they believe that they will be found guilty in any event. False confessions are much more common than most people believe, and a student in an academic investigation is under pressures similar to a suspect being interrogated by police.

  • You raise the question of whether you are taking the confession into account in a fair way. If students contest your actions, the issue of whether all cheaters were treated equally will arise; each factor you consider in making your decision will make this more complicated.

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You need to be absolutely sure who the parties are and exactly what their involvement is. Having two (or more) identical papers is often not enough to know who cheated. Further, sometimes the shame involved is not enough for someone to confess in order to try again. Finally, as we've learned from other areas, sometimes people will confess to things they never did just to try and get past the problem.

My approach in the situation where I suspect cheating is to do the following:

  1. Call each student in for a review. This should be back to back, but behind closed doors. Preferably where each student didn't know the others were also there; although that may be difficult. I'd recommend having two people present during the review in order to try and be unbiased in the analysis. Take notes and discuss after you have heard everyone.

  2. Have them discuss the work with a focus on how they arrived at their paper.

For anyone that was successful in defending the work, I'd give them normal marks. For anyone that was unsuccessful I'd give them a zero and a warning.

I wouldn't ask any of them if they cheated. However, if during the course of the review someone confessed then I'd ask for the full details.

If they attempted to blame others, it would still be a zero. If they took full responsibility for their actions then I'd give them 24 hours to complete the assignment themselves with an 80% being the max possible grade. If it ever occurred again then I'd escalate it per university guidelines.

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I am not a law major, but from an ethical standpoint I say same crime same penalty, anything else would be unethical. The motivations for the offense, likewise the reactions after being caught is irrelevant in the eye of the fact that the student in question did cheat and s/he did know that it was unethical.

What you can, and IMHO should, adjust is how to handle these students afterwards. The students who were sorry for having cheated or had some understandable reason for having to cheat might be given a chance to prove themselves. You can, for instance, have an extra session where the material at hand is reviewed lightly, focusing on the questions which baffled the students the most. In that way, they still get a chance to learn the material (that is the main motivation in giving assignment in the first place, right?).

In the end we are dealing with adults who should have a sense of reasoning, and consequences of their actions.

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Ever heard of plea bargains? –  Willie Wong May 14 at 8:24

Is it naive to propose a solution along these lines?

If everyone denies cheating i.e. situations 2/3 you outlined (which may all be lies, or one guy/gal having their work copied by the others, with/without their permission) 0% for everyone. They get the opportunity to submit a new assignment but with a cap on the maximum mark say 70%, or a mark rescaling e.g. they get 60% but their mark is rescaled from out of 100 to out of 70, so their grade reads 42%.

If an involved party owns up i.e, situation 1 you outlined, the involved parties get 0% but the opportunity to submit another similar assignment with no mark cap/rescaling.

I am not sure of the relative workload for you the assessor of having a few 'extra' possible assignments available for this kind of circumstance, but as I see it, a solution along these lines accomplishes several things:

1) Cheating/collusion when inappropriate is punished heavily, either resulting in 0% or a lot of extra work to try and make the marks back. This will act as a strong dissuasive influence for cheating both on individual and group levels.

2) The genuinely penitent (perhaps those who had something else on their plate and are otherwise diligent, one-time offender types) will have an opportunity to 'right their wrongs' and achieve a maximum mark (in theory, in practice they won't have as much time to do the assignment as it will overlap with other work, so their mark will likely be lower, again acting to dissuade a repeat offence as they struggle with the time cost).

An alternative, harsher implementation of such a solution would be to allow no resubmission if no one owns up, and submission for a lower cap/down scaled grade for honesty. This results in lower workload for you as the assessor, while still clearly rewarding honesty, strongly punishing cheating and being more balanced than just awarding 0%.

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I don't think the punishment of a particular student should depend on the actions of others. –  Davidmh May 13 at 11:23
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@Davidmh it is already dependent in these cases e.g. when it was copied without permission. In principle I agree, but in practice it would be more absurd to have the honest copier be given a chance to resubmit without penalty and the copied party have to submit with a mark cap (when, absolutely speaking, they are speaking truth when they protest that they haven't copied anyone). –  Sam May 13 at 12:15
    
my statement was badly worded: I don't think it should depend on the confession of other people, on their actions post factum. You are right it depends on what other people did to cheat, and be careful not to punish the unauthorised copied. –  Davidmh May 13 at 12:27

That is horribly unnecessary.

There is no need to play some kind of morality police that to commit an offence and admit to it is better than committing an offense and no. Like some kind of parent. Stressing them out with an interrogation.

A wonderful response is a professor at my uni did. He said "You have the same program as this guy, you just changed XYZ to bluff me. I will give you each half so you share the mark between you!".

That's enough of a disincentive to copy if you only get half the marks.

What had happened really was the whole class had copied off each other.. There were only about 2 proper ones going round. But two copying students posted theres in a little bit late together, one copied off the other, not making many changes, and after he had already collected the bulk of them and not picked out any plagiarism, it was easy to spot the copying in those two. He was very good natured about it and didn't stress the two students out.

Also in those days, the grades in the first year didn't count. (eventually one guy intentionally failed all the exams in the first year, because he said there's no point. And they changed the rules the next year and made the first year count!)

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That's enough of a disincentive to copy if you only get half the marks. - Actually, if you don't know how to do the assignment or don't have time, it's worthwhile to copy (and possibly get half credit if caught) then not do it at all and get zero credit. –  ff524 May 16 at 0:39
    
@ff524 the person that does the work is not going to be so willing to pass his code around. –  barlop May 16 at 5:42
    
In the incident that prompted this question, several students were, in fact, willing. –  ff524 May 16 at 5:45
    
@ff524 as can happen before a penalty, and as happened in the situation I described. but the source person won't be so willing(to pass around the code he hands in!), after getting caught and sharing his mark with the other guy. –  barlop May 16 at 5:52

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