So I lecture at a university on the department of mathematics and statistics, and this year I am teaching calculus for future mathematicians. One good thing about the mathematics course is that very seldom I have seen students cheating, since people who choose the academic path are more bound to be interested in learning the subject rather than just trying to obtain a diploma.

Well... At least until now.

There is this small group of students who sometimes whisper during the tests. The other times their class had tests I thought they were asking for an eraser or something like that. But this time they were whispering more than usual and they started stopping after I glared at them. I thought it was suspicious so I waited until the end of the test and went to check their sheets and ditto. They all wrote the exact same thing. (For those familiar with maths they didn't copy a thing or two, but two actual entire theorem proofs.)

Now next time we have tests I could try separating those guys, asking them to sit on other chairs, staying behind the class in order to make it difficult for the students to cheat and stuff like that, but in all seriousness... Those measures make it look like I'm dealing with kids. I'm not a teacher. I'm a professor. I shouldn't be dealing with kids.

Basically I want to do something about this but I don't want to start making the class look like a high school. Those guys are future math teachers/professors and I'll be damned if I have to organize the class preventing future professors from cheating like this was a normal occurrence.

So what should a professor do in this situation? Are there any things you fellow professors have done and worked? Thanks in advance.

  • 75
    Why "next time"? You have entire theorem proofs from them that are identical. That should be enough evidence to throw the book at them already, even if you had no idea where they were sitting. Heck, you don't even need to mention that you saw them sitting next to each other and talking unless they try to claim otherwise. (P.S. Are you in the US? Because how much you can expect to be dealing with adults can differ depending on the location... I have heard people refer to college in the US as "high school 2.0".)
    – user541686
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 9:08
  • 8
    The students who cheat, for the most part, are probably not the ones with any decent chance of becoming "future math teachers/professors". Or more relevantly, they're really not displaying the level of maturity that I, for one, would expect from a future professor. I'd suggest detaching yourself from that impression of your students a bit. (Also, most of even the good students will never wind up being professors, but that's a whole separate issue. Not that they deserve to be treated any differently because of it.)
    – David Z
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 11:47
  • 41
    Why the hell are students who whisper during exams not punished on the spot? If I were caught whispering during an exam at my university, I would be lucky if only the current exercise I was working on would be invalidated, its usual that my whole exam would be invalidated and I'd be escorted out of the room, immediately.
    – Polygnome
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 15:33
  • 1
    Does your department or university have any policies related to cheating or academic (dis)honesty? There might be an honor code or similar for students, as well as some policies for faculty. If so, you should start there.
    – 1006a
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 15:59
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    Punish them exemplary. Let every student know that cheating means failing.
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 16:32

13 Answers 13


Unless you have very weird exam regulations or are allowing people to take exams in groups, no one should be talking to anyone else except via the proctors. I would view this as an infraction of the exam regulations and stop them from proceeding with the exam, and file for the appropriate sanctions.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 20:43

I thought it was suspicious so I waited until the end of the test and went to check their sheets and ditto.

I think you made a strategic mistake here. If you want to prevent cheating, you need to intervene on the spot in the moment it is (or appears) happening.

In this case you would not only stare at the students but walk up to them and say "You are not allowed to talk to each other or whisper during the exam. Do not do it again." If you hear whispering again, go there again and repeat but amend with "If you talk to each other or whisper another time you fail the exam." If you hear whispering again, they fail.

Of course, it is your job to prevent cheating. This does not mean that you have to everything possible but it also does not mean, that (because you deal with adults) you don't have to do anything. Just be there at the test and take action as soon as you observe any suspicious behavior.

To prevent any whispering from the start you should explicitly announce what anybody needs to bring. Also, be prepared yourself with some paper and pens. Then announce, that people raise their hands if they need anything and seat them such that you can reach everybody. This should lead to no need of any talking between students whatsoever.

  • 2
    Hoping this gets upvoted to the top. It's the most succinct, best answer to date. Esp. the assertion in boldface. (And also the exact same mistake I made my first semester teaching.) Commented May 11, 2018 at 11:23
  • 2
    You should also edit in your comment from the other answer, that students should raise their hand if they need replacement supplies (which really, they should've been prepared and brought spares). There should be ZERO talking/whispering during an exam. I'm not even a professor and I know that.
    – Doktor J
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 13:56
  • 3
    Honestly, I don't get the evidence with equal solutions. The students could still insist on independent work during the exam and argue that the solutions are equal since they learned together. Without confession, I don't see how to proceed (but this matter may be a worth a different question anyway). More importantly, not intervening gives the impression that whispering is ok for the rest of the course and for further exams.
    – Dirk
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 20:10
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    Agree with Dirk on the latter point. Lacking direct experience, but I think it likely that members of my school's academic integrity board might say, "Aren't math problems supposed to have just one correct answer?". Commented May 11, 2018 at 20:34
  • 1
    @Ray: I know that; you know that; Dirk knows that. But I'm concerned that the non-mathematician academic integrity officer may not know that. Better to have active evidence and ideally a confession that everyone involved can understand. Commented May 14, 2018 at 18:13

So what should a professor do in this situation?

There are probably all sorts of things you should/could do, but one big thing I would advise you to do is to work on your own mindset and free yourself of several misconceptions and false premises that I think are implicit in your question. Specifically, you write:

Those measures make it look like I'm dealing with kids. I'm not a teacher. I'm a professor. I shouldn't be dealing with kids.


I'll be damned if I have to organize the class preventing future professors from cheating like this was a normal occurrence.

The false premises here are:

  1. A professor is not a teacher. Well, My dictionary defines “teacher” as “a person who teaches, especially in a school”. I understand that you wrote “teacher” but probably meant more specifically “schoolteacher”, but this is a good opportunity to remind yourself that as a professor, you are actually a “teacher”. Part of your job is to teach, and part of teaching involves mundane tasks like giving exams and enforcing rules of academic honesty, and occasionally disciplining students who violate those rules. If you adopt the mindset that such tasks are beneath your dignity because “I’m not a teacher. I’m a professor”, I foresee a lot of frustrations in your future “professing” career.

  2. Only kids cheat. That’s objectively false. Many kids are dishonest, but it’s a fact that many adults are also dishonest and try to cheat their way through life. Your expectations that because your job is to teach adults you “shouldn’t be dealing with [dishonest behavior that you think only kids exhibit]” are unrealistic. Again, if you don’t break free of this mindset and adapt your expectations to fit reality, I predict that you will suffer a good deal of disappointment and frustration down the road.

  3. Cheating is not a normal occurrence. Sadly that’s not true in places I’m familiar with. Cheating is a fact of life (though thankfully relatively rare where I am), and dishonest behavior among students is merely a reflection of the broader societies we live in. Until our society changes drastically you should expect to continue to encounter cheating on a fairly regular basis. In my opinion, having realistic expectations is again key to not allowing this to drive you insane. Good luck!

  • 6
    This answer mostly argues against the statements made in the question, which seems to make it more of a set of tangential comments than an answer. It mostly address the fact that OP will encounter cheating and does need to deal with it, not how to actually deal with it, as the question asks.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 11:22
  • 7
    @NotThatGuy my advice for OP to adapt his/her mindset to fit the reality of his/her job is an actionable suggestion that I believe will lead OP to have a more successful and fulfilled career as an academic. I’m not claiming it’s necessarily the best answer to the question (or even a good answer), but it’s definitely an answer.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 15:05
  • 1
    Still a useful answer in my opinion. It's not an answer about what to do, but about dealing with the a set of preconceptions that prevents OP to take appropriate measures in such situation and to be a more effective teacher.
    – user21264
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 18:03
  • 3
    Surely the question of what to do to prevent or remedy cheating has been well discussed at this site. But step one for this OP is dismounting their horse. +1
    – Mazura
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 18:17
  • 1
    @Mazura Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum though. The OP asks what to do next time this situation comes up. Anyone searching for that answer expects to find a specific answer to that. Not general advice on how to be a professor. This is at best a very lengthy comment.
    – pipe
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 11:19

I'm a professor in the US. At most of the universities I have taught, this (witnessed whispering, identical proofs on exam) would be enough to file a report about academic dishonesty. Possibly your university will require you to speak with the student before filing this report, but not necessarily.

File the report. Give a zero on the exam (or at least on the problem, if you are feeling generous). The only thing to prevent students from cheating is for there to be consequences. If you just give them a stern warning, the best you can hope for is that they won't cheat again in your class, and will start again next semester. Most of the real consequences will then be decided by the university based on whether or not this is a first/second offense, etc.

(In all likelihood, if they do not already have an infraction on file, which they probably don't since many professors won't file them, their consequences will be minor. But it's important for you to put this one on file, otherwise there is not much that ends up getting done about repeat incidences.)


I am answering this question in a student's perspective. It's been three years now since I graduated from Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, as a Chemical Engineering Bachelor.

I have a ton of friends that were avid cheaters during college. That was their most comfortable game. Your students that you caught during this exam are complete newbies in this world, and their technique is totally lacking. My colleagues would set up truly intricate schemes to avoid being caught.

However, I can assert with significant confidence at this point: those are the ones that have been struggling the most since they've been out of college. There is no possible cheating when you enter the job market. There is no 'answer sheet' waiting for you somewhere to be copied from. The very scarce opportunities you will find to shortcut difficulties will usually have a percent chance to put you in jail.

That said, I believe that your best lesson, as a professor, is to take the test from them and assign a zero. Make them fail the course by breaking the rules, and you will be providing them a much more valuable lesson than mathematics: you will be teaching them to do the right thing and assume the consequences for their lack of preparation and dishonesty.

Transporting a lesson from the startup world: fail cheap and quickly, so that you learn your needed lessons fast and at a low cost. Let them have this opportunity.

  • 5
    As a software developer who has spent a career interviewing new graduates, I completely agree. I have often interviewed MS CS graduates who apparently managed to obtain a degree while doing no independent creative work. They are subsequently unable to find employment with any selective company. In my opinion the departments that granted them degrees defrauded them of their tuition. Their department should have required them to produce independent work as part of the requirements for graduation, and properly informed them of the expectations of the market. Commented May 12, 2018 at 6:51

Like you say, you shouldn't be (and aren't) dealing with kids. Before the next exam, remind everyone of the cheating policy and the punishments for violating it. Even put it in writing exactly what the consequences of violating the policy is. Then, at the next exam, if they violate engage in cheating, follow through with the punishment.

If the punishment is to assign a 0, then do that. If you feel the need to do so, you could even take the offending parties' exams immediately and ask them to leave so they do not disrupt the other students. As stated before, these are not children. These are adults entering the real world of real academic integrity laws. Going easy on them here will do no good.


In my Year 10 computing class, I did an assignment quite easily. What I didn't know was that the rest of the class had all copied from the other bloke in the room who also found it easy. When I say copied, they actually passed a 3 & 1/2 inch floppy around the room and duplicated the text file. So, of 30 students, 29 of them provided exactly the same response. When class came the next day EVERY student except me was given a fail mark for the course and asked to write to the parents to explain why they chose the lazy path. While I felt a little maligned by the approach (I was made out to be the 'teacher's pet'), not a single one of them ever cheated again on a test (to the best of my knowledge) - they knew it wasn't worth it. A few of them had to explain why they left someone else's name at the bottom of their report... #idiots. So, immediate action and consequence made its mark. The teacher they all thought was 'easy' suddenly had a backbone and they knew they couldn't get away with idiocy anymore.

  • This. Your instructor treated you all like adults and punished the rule-breakers. karlabos should also treat his students as the adults that they are.
    – Qsigma
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 10:33

Unfortunately, cheating is a reality in higher education. You may have to make some small changes in your classroom if you want to combat cheating.

1. Know your institution's policy.

At some institutions, professors cannot determine the penalty for cheating or sometimes even whether cheating has occurred. At my institution, we are to collect evidence (e.g. student testimonial, photographs, video - yes, with our phones) that cheating has occurred, then turn that information over to a committee that reviews the evidence and decides the fate of the student(s). Before you assign some sort of punishment, be sure you can actually do so.

2. Make expectations clear.

In the syllabus, put a small paragraph on academic honesty. If your university gives you the ability to punish those who cheat, then outline how you will do that. Refer students to your institution's page on academic honesty and point out the consequences of violating the honor code during the first week of class.

3. Create more than one version of your exams.

I'm also in a mathematics department and occasionally do this to prevent - or, at least, to complicate - cheating. Creating multiple versions of exams can be as extensive as having completely different questions or as simple as reordering the same collection of questions. Many of my colleagues also print different versions of their exams on paper of different colors. Some even make only two versions of an exam but in four different colors to trick students into thinking there are four different exams.

4. Place yourself near the problem.

When you suspect a student (or, in your case, a group of students) is cheating during an exam, walk toward them, pause in front of them, and look directly at them. When you are quite sure cheating has occurred, stand in front of them for an uncomfortable amount of time and make eye contact, if you can.

Don't be demeaned by enforcing academic honesty policies, and don't let cheaters take advantage of you. Instead, do what you can do to make sure cheaters don't prosper.

  • 1
    "When you are quite sure cheating has occurred, stand in front of them for an uncomfortable amount of time and make eye contact", and then what?
    – pipe
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 11:22

I suppose you’re in a big lecture hall? If the ‘cheating’ is just verbal communication it’s hard to deal with, save for splitting groups up. You might consider recruiting some grad students to stand proctor, walk around a bit to cut down on it. Consider also the form of your tests. Multiple choice is easy and quick to communicate. Essay and show-your-answer is way harder to cheat on. For multiple choice, creating multiple versions might help.


To minimize cheating in the future, I recommend the following techniques that I used:

1) Assigned random seating. 2) Alternate versions of the exams between seats 3) Absolutely no communication during exams with anyone but me (or other proctors). 4) Constant vigilance. Don't just sit at the front while they take the exam, wander throughout the exam. They shouldn't feel comfortable doing anything but keeping their head on the exam.

If your students were able to produce the same answer because they studied together, good for them. If they were able to communicate an entire proof during your exam? You're not proctoring.


Speaking from my university experience here (it was in Germany if that matters). Preventing cheating without making it into "dealing with kids" as you put it is basically impossible. It is a constant game of cat and mouse, and you are always on the back foot. Open book exams might help, or permitting one page of paper (be sure to have exact specifications) as 'cheat sheet'.

For exams our professors would get large rooms and enforce seating policies. As 'high-schoolish' as this sounds, 'Use only every second row, every third seat' and assigning seats per student number makes whispering and passing notes pretty hard. You need something, even just an eraser? Raise your hand, ask a TA, otherwise you risk getting disqualified. One strike, next one and you are out.

They would also never be alone. In our smaller courses (30ish students) were two TAs supervising, for the larger exams we had up to six.

Empty desks, bags in the empty row in front of you. (Needed tools, water, snacks... permitted ofc.) Paper was provided by the TAs, usually stamped or marked in another way.

Only one person to the bathroom at a time, managed by the TAs.

And still plenty of students managed to cheat. This is a very recent case from Singapore, and they already ahve airport-style checks at the entrance: Singapore Tutor uses skin-colored earpieces to relay answers to students (April 2018)

  • It's in Singapore, not China. You mixed them up.
    – Nobody
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 10:05
  • 1
    fixed, thanks. got confused by the fact that chinese students were affected
    – Andreas_B
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 10:43

You should set different exams with each having different questions and make sure students sitting next or close or around each other should not have the same exam. I remember my biology teacher always use this technique and cheating had to stop because different question implied different answers.


I suppose there is a rule "Thou shalt not plagiarise” and your case is a form of plagiarism - one claims the other's work as their own and vice versa.

Show the papers to your colleague, the professor, who grants the lecture or dept head, if you both assess the tests same then when returning graded papers to your students show anyone publicly the tests and prove them same. Therefore plagiarised. And mark their works as unattended.

At the time of the test, when you catch anyone whispering, you can ask them to finish their discussion, which is obviously more important to them than the test is, in the caffeteria and leave their unimportant tests on the table as is.

Be consistent in your decisions and show them you are not an boring robot but a human who was young as well as them.

If you are really annoyed by their behaviour, you can show your displeasure less conveniently, yet acceptably in your region. You can staple their tests together and ask them to close the door from the other side. You can make a rubber stamp with large letters "DQ", "Disqualified", "plagiarised" or any other cheater-mocking text and stamp it on their papers. You can throw their student IDs through the window (be sure there is no pond they can sink in or there are no workers mowing the grass, etc.) and order them to follow. The point is to show the cheaters you are definite in your decision and show possible future cheaters that the attempt to cheating is a big no-no.

  • 8
    IANAL, but throwing someone's ID out of a window presumably makes you responsible for anything that happens to it until the student finds it (if they ever do) (which may even include identity theft in the worst case). That doesn't sound like a good idea, not to mention that you might have some difficulty actually getting your hands on their IDs.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 11:36
  • 5
    Was going to upvote until the "throw the IDs out the window" sentence. I get the point, and yes they should leave, but don't throw their IDs out the window.
    – SH7890
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 12:26
  • @SH7890 That was the most epic cheater expelling I have witnessed. This strongly depends on the cultural backgound and whether it is within the university bounds. This happened at department where they greet strangers by "Welcome on 6th floor. Only in fairytales for small children the hell is deep down under."
    – Crowley
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 13:20
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    @Crowley Did you go to college in medieval times?
    – SH7890
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 18:27
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    Almost none of these actions would be considered acceptable in my experience at any time, especially not as penalty for breaching exam conditions. You can't mark someone as absent when they cheated, you can't throw possessions out windows and say "go get them", and you don't share assessment papers publicly. You use the appropriate channels as directed by department or institution and respect what dignity they may still have
    – Nij
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 22:20

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