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I have just found that a student has posted one of their assignment questions on a forum and is seeking help in getting a solution.

I have a good idea who the student is, but no definitive proof. How would you handle this situation?

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Always use different forums than your teachers! –  gerrit Dec 12 '12 at 17:18
    
Being a student, if my professor accused me of cheating (based on something un-definitive) when i actually had not, i would never really want to sit in that class again, because clearly my prof does not consider me capable to be doing this course on my own and this will weigh on his judgement every time i submit anything throughout the course. Also, cheating is not the only reason a person might ask something online. –  AsheeshR Dec 13 '12 at 3:14
    
This question is perfect for this SE new site: undergraduates if you find it useful you can follow it and help us in spreading the word about it. –  Daniele B Jan 21 '13 at 11:10
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This is more a temptation than a real answer to your question: post a correct answer on the forum using non-standard names/symbols/terminology. Wait to see it submitted back to you :-) –  Steve Jessop Mar 15 at 0:38
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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Identify the offline equivalent of the observed behavior, and then act as you would normally. Remember, that the burden of proof for academic dishonesty likely resides with you. This includes verifying that the poster is indeed the student you accuse.

I find this situation to be pretty common: http://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/2753/how-to-derive-partial-gas-equation. Most stackexchanges have a homework policy. I would consider homework questions posted to stackexchanges to be no worse than asking students who have taken the course before you or asking another professor. How you deal with it is up to you.

What would your response be if you saw a student collaborating on the problem in a study group? How do you respond if you find out that your student asked another instructor or a grad student in your department for help? If you learn the student worked on that problem with his/her tutor? If the student looked up the answer in the textbook or the solutions manual? All of these are common and to varying degrees accepted (if not liked).

I would guess your irritation over this is somewhere more than the student asking one of your colleagues (who being nice will actually do the problem) and somewhat less than the student stealing another student's answer. Identify the offline equivalent, and then behave as you would normally.

EDIT - I missed the last part of the question.

I have a good idea who the student is, but no definitive proof. How would you handle this situation?

If you do not have proof, then suck it up and let it go - this time. Next time put something in your syllabus. Either write a pretty severe sounding policy that exists to deter the behavior (because your policy will be basically unenforceable), or write harder questions and encourage them to use online forums with the caveat that they document all of their interaction. The second option shifts the burden of good behavior to your students.

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Implicit here is the fuzziness of the line between seeking resources and advice on one hand and trying to get others to do the work for them on the other. –  dmckee Dec 12 '12 at 20:09
    
Depending on what country you're in, information acquired by "outside" observation of students' behavior may be inadmissible evidence, too, ... even if you weren't deliberately snooping. I'd second Ben Norris' remarks... and reiterate that (a) this is just a ramped-up, way-more-effective version of "getting help" in old-fashioned ways (b) you can deter, but not prevent, and maybe be unable to "punish", getting info from the internet by "prohibiting it". The latter may just make you look silly, though. Do require acknowledgement of all sources, with or without enforcement mechanism. –  paul garrett Dec 12 '12 at 20:28
    
@dmckee - Which of course is an old problem in academia. It is not new to the information age. –  Ben Norris Dec 12 '12 at 21:07
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@paulgarrett - I'm a fan of allow it, but only after you have talked with them about academic integrity and why claiming the work of others as your own is bad. If students see academic integrity as a positive, then they will take ownership and be responsible. –  Ben Norris Dec 12 '12 at 21:10
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@BenNorris - Yes, since access to information is not only a fact, but is desirable, there is something disingenuous about pretending to operate in a vacuum, or to require this. But, yes, being "up-front" (a.k.a. "honest") about sources is a must... and students are not necessarily aware. –  paul garrett Dec 12 '12 at 22:18
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