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In a previous test one of my TAs discovered a fraudulent pattern in six of the exams. The answers were uncomfortably similar, actually identical in many places. I called the students to my office and brought two colleagues to help me "interview" them individually (ask them questions about the test, gauge their level of knowledge about the subject, ...)

One of the students reacted very explosively at my one and only question: "Could you please tell me how you solved 'problem 2'? He told me he felt threatened by the question and that I had no right to ask him questions after the exam. To what I reply: "do you or do you not know?"

At that point things spiraled very fast out of control, he reacted violently, stepping out of the office while muttering some insults. On the way out he hit the door. I tried to calm him down but he got only angrier and the color of his words became redder. After seeing this, the other students refused to continue the interviews with my colleagues and left.

I definitely don't know if I should have approached the situation in a different way. Should I make them repeat the exam? Start a disciplinary process?

EDIT (Jan/09/18):

In case of suspected misconduct I should bring the case, along with evidence, to the Dean. He then reviews it and decides whether to bring it to the Academic Council or stop it there. They ultimately have the power to decide what to do. However, almost a year ago a colleague also faced a situation that involved fraud during a test, and the Dean decided to not do anything because the potential punishment for the student would be too harsh (he might be expelled)

EDIT (Jan/10/18):

Just to add some details into the situation: At the moment of the incident I was talking with one student, and each of my colleagues was doing the same with a student. The six of us were in the same (big) room. And the other three students were waiting outside.

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    The six of us were in the same (big) room — Ah. That's an incredibly important detail that wasn't clear in your original wording. Questioning a student in the presence of other students is a really really bad idea. Each student's guilt, or even the suspicion of their guilt, is none of the other students' business. – JeffE Jan 10 '18 at 16:30
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    @JeffE Worse than it just being none of their business, I suspect that discussing this kind of issue in the presence of other students likely runs afoul of any privacy rules the school has or possibly even laws. The OP may have put themselves in a very bad position by doing so. – jpmc26 Jan 10 '18 at 19:34
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    @JeffE This arrangement for oral exam is usual in some countries, e.g. Russia. The customs are different in U.S. and UK, of course. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jan 10 '18 at 19:41
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    @caverac: The police question suspects separately so they can't hear each other's answers. It makes it harder for them to tell a consistent lie and have all their answers match if they don't hear each other answer. Questioning them separately is still the best strategy to catch them. You might need to check the rules about bringing up specific other student's names, because you're not the police and this isn't a criminal investigation (and I only watch cop shows on TV anyway). But you want to ask them separately about what they did with each other. – Peter Cordes Jan 10 '18 at 21:21
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    Anger, particularly excessive anger, when questioned about a subject is a typical deflection mechanism. While some people do become angry/offended when their honesty is questioned, it's usually a low-intensity. IMO, it's significantly more likely that excessive anger indicates guilt. Like basically all such things, it's just an indicator, not a certainty. – Makyen Jan 11 '18 at 3:22
71

Report the student and his problem behavior to your honor council or academic conduct officer, as appropriate at your institution and let it be their problem. At most schools, your responsibility as an instructor is to report suspected cases of misconduct, not to form a final judgement.

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    This is certainly true throughout the US -- acting like a detective grilling a suspect is no longer viewed as an appropriate response to suspected academic misconduct. Rather, there are designated university officials whose job it is to investigate this. But the OP may be outside of the US (e.g. I would guess that English is not his native language) and things could be very different in other parts of the academic world. – Pete L. Clark Jan 8 '18 at 23:35
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    @caverac: For this type of question, I think you need to be geographically specific to get useful information. – Pete L. Clark Jan 9 '18 at 0:10
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    Even in U.S., this advice varies by location. E.g., Our institution's academic integrity policy explicitly says that a faculty member "shall review with the student the facts and circumstances of the suspected violation whenever feasible" as a first step, and the process is then streamlined if "the student does not contest either his/her guilt or the particular reduced grade" at that time. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 9 '18 at 4:46
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    Thanks for your reply. There are certainly stablished steps I should follow, beginning with the Dean, but in a similar situation that happened about 1yr ago he decided not to do anything because the punishment would be too harsh on the student (expelled). – user85612 Jan 9 '18 at 12:51
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    @caverac I still think it is worth reporting to the Dean and following the procedures as to make records straight. Whatever the outcome in the future only the reported cases will remain and any retrospect analysis will be inconsistent. – Scientist Jan 9 '18 at 13:23
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It is a good thing you had two colleagues present. As far as the cheating part is concerned, it is now time to escalate (in the bureaucratic sense of the word) the process, that is, hand it over to someone higher up the hierarchy. Ideally, this is someone or some committee who is specifically appointed for that purpose. But when that is not the case, discuss this with your colleagues who are knowledgeable of what that might be.

As far as the language is concerned, you need to make a judgment call. I would take into account that as an instructor part of your duty is to maintain a safe and unthreatening work environment for your students and for yourself. If you feel that that language imperiled that environment, then it is certainly legitimate to take action against that. Again, in this situation, I would not try to handle it yourself, but instead hand it over to someone higher up the hierarchy.

For the future discuss with your department what a standard process is in such cases. Following a standard process makes it easier to defuse the situation; you can deflect the anger away from you to the process.


In reaction to your edit: You should have brought this to the Dean without your own "interrogation session". Whether and how to investigate was her or his decision, not yours. Trying to create an unofficial "pre-Dean stage" in this process can easily backfire, as you have noticed.

If you are unhappy because she or he is too lenient, then you should discuss that in the appropriate committees. It sounds like the Dean does not have enough sanction options, either do nothing or expel and very little in between. Fixing that would be a possible way forward.

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    I certainly appreciate your answer. The situation as whole was rather uncomfortable, specially after seeing how my student reacted. I added an edit to my original post that may contribute to the discussion. Thanks! – user85612 Jan 9 '18 at 13:08
24

I've had similar situations arise many times in my 20+ years of teaching, and I have gotten confessions 100% of the time. Everything is easier with a confession -- you don't need to worry about a trial or dispute later, the student doesn't get mad at you, etc. My technique:

  1. Establish rapport with the student(s), through casual conversation about unrelated topics.

  2. Explain that the purpose of the interview is for you to understand issues with the exam.

  3. Present the exams (or copies) side-by-side, and show the similarities. Explain that the likelihood of this occurring due to chance is very small (below 1%). Ask the student(s) how they think this might have happened.

  4. Usually at this point there is a confession. If not, I state that without a confession or mitigating factors, the evidence is so strong that I will be forced to punish all parties to a very high level. I then explain all the various punishments available, and how I have substantial flexibility in my choice.

  5. Guilty people want to tell their story. Also, one party is always less guilty than the other (or even completely innocent), and the guilty person doesn't want their friend or classmate to be punished unfairly. Hence, there is a confession.

  6. Only once have I faced both parties completely denying everything, and I moved forward with punishing both. The next day, after reflection, one of them made a full confession exonerating the other. They were not friends, so this was not an agreement between the two of them.

Note: I only pursue these cases if I am over 99% sure that cheating occurred. If not, I keep copies of the exams and wait for the next exam to see if it happens again.


The unfortunate situation described by OP was caused by the misguided interview question "how did you do this problem?". It challenges the student to solve the exam question again, spontaneously, in this stressful environment. This is the wrong question to ask, for several reasons. Most importantly, it doesn't get at the heart of the matter, whether or not there was cheating (and who was responsible). Students who don't know the right answer can get lucky sometimes, and students who do know the right answer can fail to reproduce it later. Also, as the student was pointing out (explosively) it is unfair to repeat portions of the test, with the lower of the two grades applying. The interview should not be about the content knowledge of the students, but solely about the issue of academic misconduct.

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    Interestingly, this is exactly how professional interrogators extract confessions according to a book written by three professional interrogators who have consulted for intelligence, defense, and law enforcement agencies for decades. That said, it may be that some universities have a policy against any action taken by the professor in these cases, so this is probably a great strategy (and seemingly effective!) as long as it complies with university policy for anyone thinking of going this route. – Todd Wilcox Jan 9 '18 at 19:17
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    @ToddWilcox it's also how investigators extract false confessions, so YMMV. – fectin Jan 9 '18 at 23:13
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    @vadim123 The described technique does too: "Explain that the likelihood of this occurring due to chance is very small (below 1%)", "without a confession or mitigating factors, the evidence is so strong that I will be forced to punish all parties to a very high level", and "Guilty people want to tell their story. Also, one party is always less guilty than the other" – fectin Jan 9 '18 at 23:41
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    It is hardly surprising you always get confessions. Being confronted with your options, it is always the better choice to confess, even if no illegal activity was conducted. You being sure about it, only makes you less likely to accept the 1%. Harshly put, you probably ruined someones life. – Thaylon Jan 10 '18 at 12:45
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    @vadim123 Assume the 1%. Either they will "be punished to a very high level", or they lie that they have done something wrong because they are powerless before an authority figure, and will still be punished. How would you feel? Angry? Sad? Depressed? What would it do to someone already at the edge? - You feel yourself confirmed because you always get confessions, but should you not expect 1% error margin? That seems unacceptable to me. – Thaylon Jan 10 '18 at 23:52
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I have 30 years experience teaching at the college level. Angry, aggressive reaction to having been caught cheating, while not common, is not all that rare either, in my experience.

Some people seem to think that attempts to intimidate will work. Make absolutely sure they don’t. Calmly stand your ground, and let the person know that you will report aggressive, abusive, or otherwise inappropriate behavior to the relevant dean.

Additional advice:

  1. Become thoroughly familiar with your institution’s policies regarding academic misconduct and follow them. That protects both you and the student. At my university we are instructed to talk with the student directly and privately first, before reporting it formally.

  2. At the beginning of each semester provide a written (usually in the syllabus) explanation of your approach to academic misconduct, including your policy of reporting it to the dean (or other administrative authority).

  3. Avoid any potentially humiliating conversation with a student within earshot of any other student(s).

  4. Any test re-taking or paper re-writing should not be taken as proof of guilt or innocence, but rather discussed at the end of the process as a possible form of partial “restitution” to be completed a few days later.

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    Thank Judy, probably it is lack of experience from my side. I've been teaching just two years and never faced a situation like this before. It definitely caught me by surprise, but you are right: being explicit about the rules from the beginning would have helped a lot. Thanks – user85612 Jan 10 '18 at 17:22
4

Many people have addressed the procedural question regarding handling suspected cheating.

However, your post and comments indicate that a student, when asked a perfectly reasonable (albeit, potentially challenging) question:

  • Raised their voice
  • Cursed
  • Struck an inanimate object (a door, I believe)

This indicates a significant anger management problem. This kind of behaviour, if repeated, will result in the individual losing jobs, friends and, potentially, get them into trouble with the law.

If your school provides any kind of counseling service, I would recommend talking to them (without mentioning the student's name, to begin with) about getting them engage to talk to this student.

This is probably not the first time that this student has reacted so inappropriately and this may be part of a broader pattern that will not end well.

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    I don't know if you wrote this before the Jan 9 update. OP says the stakes are very high at this institution -- possible expulsion. Look, I've heard of students committing suicide when facing possible academic ruin. Students are only human. If this student raised his voice, cursed, and hit a door... what we can conclude is that he is a human being. I don't condone such behavior -- but when the stakes are high, it is understandable. Take-home message: set students up for success, and do not put them in temptation's way. Proctor the exam scrupulously so that cheating cannot occur. – aparente001 Jan 10 '18 at 18:14
  • It might be understandable, but that does mean it's acceptable in a professional environment. I wouldn't advocate for a student to be punished for that behaviour, but they certainly need to learn how to manage themselves under high stress situations, for their own benefit and for the benefit of their current and future peers. – Dancrumb Jan 11 '18 at 2:09
  • Me, I'd rather invest society resources in supporting student success than in trying to rewire students' brains so they don't get upset when facing possible academic ruin. – aparente001 Jan 11 '18 at 2:43
  • Perhaps, but I'd like to reiterate that I'm not talking about the student being upset, I'm talking about their response to being upset and being under pressure. These can be relearned and a violent outburst is never appropriate to professional pressure and will have negative consequences for them in the future. – Dancrumb Jan 11 '18 at 3:05
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    Agree to disagree :) – Dancrumb Jan 11 '18 at 20:50
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I used to work as teacher assistant and tell you for sure - if student refuses to give answers - he is cheating. Student who does know material has no fear.

In this situation - ignore what happened or give a second exam for everyone. On next exam give everyone individual tasks. Just unique tough questions which can only be solved if student knows the subject. Yes, get ready to see a lot of F marks. It is better to do on finals when mark has more weight. Failing exam will be a good lesson for cheaters.

You are not mommy, you don't have to teach students how to behave or control anger. This is not your job.

If students don't respect you and cheat - give them some lesson. A tough one. This is the time. Smart students will respect you, others - hate, don't care about them.

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    Smart students would think you're overreacting to a situation that has plenty of precedent for being handled appropriately, and resent the waste of their time as well as getting a low mark after putting in the effort the first time to earn a better one. Not to mention that even trying to give a second exam may not be an option at all. This is a terrible suggestion all over. – Nij Jan 11 '18 at 7:17
  • This terrible suggestion is an observance from practice of the best teachers I saw in my life. They completely ignorant to students who is trying to cheat. Also they normally know smart students and don't punish those. – zoonman Jan 11 '18 at 21:48
  • Your first paragraph is a false statement - there are many reasons why a capable student wouldn't or couldn't answer when put on the spot. Your second paragraph contains two further terrible suggestions: individualised questions and "unique tough" questions. The first makes marking extremely difficult for very little gain, the second defeats the purpose of a standard exam. Your last statement there also demonstrates antagonist attitude towards students generally, being okay with a lot of failure grades just to teach a lesson to the potential rare cheater. – Nij Jan 11 '18 at 21:57
  • I've already pointed out the issue with the last paragraph. Smart students do not respect having their time and effort wasted by staff that see themselves as police detective first and educator second. Further, it is the professional (and technically, legal by virtue of the employment) responsibility to care about all students regardless of personal feelings. – Nij Jan 11 '18 at 21:59
-4

Your initial action to speak to all the students together was correct and well done for getting some of your colleagues to sit in. This will help you to make a case if need be at any disciplinary action. However, from the student's perspective he/she may have felt embarrassed as this was happening in front of some of his/her friends. That would have probably overwhelmed any sense of guilt/regret or simple acceptance the student may have felt in this scenario.

I would give the student another chance, this time in a one-to-one tutorial. If at all possible (perhaps you see this student regularly) try to speak to the student without contacting them and booking a time - that may simply result in no reply or a refusal. I would try to catch them in passing in a corridor, at the end of a class or if they are in an open lab area on their own. This will already show the student that you are concerned about the situation. Take them somewhere where you can speak to them discreetly and privately. Tell your line manager in advance that you are going to do this and if you are particularly worried about the student, if they have a track record in any way or you feel you may be threatened or they may use the private space to their advantage (e.g. later state things that did not occur) perhaps locate the tutorial somewhere where their is cctv - just in case. Explain to the student the seriousness of cheating and plagiarism and your obligation as an academic to report any suspected incidents. Explain that if the student refuses to discuss it informally (the tutorial is their opportunity to do so) what occurs when an incident is formally reported - the worst case scenario. Try to make them understand that it is in their interest to discuss it.

Report back to your line manager or the head of department. If the student admits cheating/plagiarism and this is a first incident by that student it is in their power to deal with this without escalating it to a formal disciplinary action. For example, I had a plagiarism incident in the past where the student had no prior incidents and what they plagiarised, while clearly plagiarised and evidence was provided via Turnitin, was a small percentage (less than 15%) of the body of work they produced. They admitted it and the decision was taken by the head of department to deduct an equivalent percentage from their overall grade. Formal disciplinary action was not taken however the student did fail the assignment and was required to repeat it during the summer in order to progress to the next year. All-in-all this seemed very appropriate, the student learnt their lesson, it did not end their opportunity at university and they did not plagiarise again on their degree.

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    After the blow up, I would strongly recommend that the instructor never again interact with the student about the issue or alone regarding any issue. One time attempt was reasonable; a second attempt would be folly and dangerous ("fool me twice, shame on me"). Definitely hand off to others at this time. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 9 '18 at 15:28
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    "Your initial action to speak to all the students together was correct" How can you say that without knowing the precise rules of the institution concerned? (By the way, the question only says the asker spoke to all the students individually. Speaking to them all together would seem dubious, to me.) – David Richerby Jan 9 '18 at 16:16
  • @David Richerby - yes it does say individually however the question goes on to state "After seeing this, the other students refused to continue" so the other students (perhaps not in the room) were aware, which is why I suggested the student may have been embarrassed. No institution I've ever worked at would want to take formal disciplinary action without speaking to the students first - especially not for a first offence as it seems this is and given the comment about the dean it seems that is also the case here. – garrettlynch Jan 10 '18 at 2:32
  • The situation has now been clarified by an edit to the question: in fact, all the students were in the same large room at the same time, each being interviewed by one staff member. – David Richerby Jan 10 '18 at 19:56
-4

If you do not want a student who feels alarmed and threatened to react like a cornered rat, I suggest that you not corner him or humiliate him.

Students make mistakes. I think our goal as teachers should be to help students learn certain facts, skills, habits, and ways of thinking and analyzing, and provide useful feedback in a fair way. I don't think our goal should be to create a cornered rat. If a student appears to have cheated on a midterm exam, but we don't have proof, then let's step up our proctoring on the final exam, to minimize the chances that a student could cheat without our realizing it.

(As a TA I once faced this situation. Two students handed in identical homework. But there was no proof of misconduct. Solution: the department scheduled my class's final for a special room where I was able to put the suspects in isolated seats widely separated from other students. One student got a D and the other failed the final and had to repeat the course over the summer.)

If a student cheated in the midterm, chances are very good that if s/he is prevented from cheating in the final, s/he will fail the exam.

If not -- if the student manages to demonstrate the desired knowledge and skills in the final, without unfair assistance -- that's a good thing, no?

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    An exact quote from the question: my one and only question: "Could you please tell me how you solved 'problem 2'? I fail to see how this can be read as "pushing to extract an admission of cheating". – Stephan Kolassa Jan 9 '18 at 7:39
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    @StephanKolassa it was pushing because the implicit question was: "and the only reason I'm asking this is because I think you cheated". If the student was guilty of cheating the only way out for him with a chance of a good outcome was exiting that room and not answering the question. He basically plead the 5th. – Pieter B Jan 9 '18 at 12:56
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    Downvoted as there is no indication any student was harassed in the way suggested by @aparente001. All being adults and within the law, reacting aggressively to a direct technical question by an instructor inside the institution is unacceptable behavior. – Scientist Jan 9 '18 at 13:27
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    @caverac Wait. You asked them how they solved problem 2 while they were all in the room together? I think it would be helpful if you edited your question to say exactly what you did and who was in the room at the time, since people seem to be interpreting your question in different ways. – David Richerby Jan 9 '18 at 16:21
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    Cheating is not "making a mistake". It is premeditated and fraudulent. Please do not normalise it. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 9 '18 at 17:05

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