Imagine this scenario: you're in an exam. Somebody asks for your help to answer a question. You help them (whisper the answer, slip them a note, whatever). You get caught. You get punished.

That's fine. You're not allowed to help others cheat. You broke the rules. The university is liable to punish you. All of this makes perfect sense so far.


In my experience, it is often the case that this student who, remember, did not cheat on their own exam, often receives a punishment directly related to that exam, i.e. they fail the exam.

This does not seem to make any sense at all. The wrongdoing of the student has nothing to do with their performance on the exam. They did not cheat. Therefore, their exam is a separate thing entirely, and punishing them by failing them seems like an arbitrary thing to do.

Let me give you an example. Say a student punches a teacher. Would this student ever receive a punishment like "oh now you have failed your exam in Abstract Algebra!"?

No. The punishent will be general (suspension, etc), but the exams are not touched.

So, in the above example, why is the student who helped others cheat being punished on their exam, when their exam performance involved no cheating at all? What is the justification for this?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion or answers to the question; the discussion about the assault analogy has been moved to chat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 11:48
  • 10
    Helping others cheat is cheating.
    – MPW
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 11:59
  • 9
    An interesting case to help this question would be: how do you punish a student who helps another cheat, when the helper isn't sitting that specific exam? Why is that punishment different from how you punish a helper who IS sitting that exam?
    – dwizum
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 12:31
  • @dwizum: the university has probably an "Examination Code" (or whatever it is called) whose rules most likely prohibit communication between students during the examination. So the helper who is sitting the exam is not exactly in the same situation as a helper who is not sitting the exam.
    – Taladris
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 14:16
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    "Therefore, their exam is a separate thing entirely" no, it isn't. They have helped devalue the exam by helping someone else and as such, even if they didn't get help on their own, have done damage to the quality of the exam results.
    – UKMonkey
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 16:07

15 Answers 15


Probably the main issue that makes this policy logical is that when two students are caught communicating during an exam, there is no foolproof way for the instructor to tell who copied from whom. The communication may have been one-sided, or it may have been two-sided, or it may have been one-sided but in the opposite direction than what the instructor suspects. Thus, by the mere act of exchanging information with another student, in any direction, the student undermines trust in the value of their own exam as an indication of their knowledge. Giving them a failing grade is the only policy that guarantees that they will not get away with getting illicitly-earned points. Since as you yourself said, some form of punishment is definitely logical, giving that specific punishment becomes logical both as a deterrent and as a defense against a student getting away with copying.

In other words, the policy makes perfect sense, and is pretty much the only rational way for universities to address cheating on exams.

  • 16
    The important point: An usual exam has a "no talking" policy. This means even when they talked about the weather it would be a reason for punishment. Of course there should be common sense involved when someone asks for a pen, but longer conversations should be forbidden.
    – allo
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 9:07
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    @allo It really does depend. Is there something written on the pen? Is there a roll of notes in the lid? Does the act of asking for the pen impart some pre-defined knowledge exchange between the students? :-)
    – Peter K.
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 13:52
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    "and is pretty much the only rational way for universities to address cheating on exams." Not necessarily. Automatic failure of the entire class or expulsion from the university are also perfectly rational ways of dealing with people who cheat on exams, IMO, especially if it's a repeat violation. If the student got caught this time, how many times have they cheated in the past and got away with it? If the student has proven themselves to be academically dishonest - especially if they have a pattern of such dishonesty - there's no way to trust any of their past or future work, either.
    – reirab
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 21:13
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    @reirab: It's not rational to speculate on the infinite number of things someone might have done in the past, let alone punish them for it, just because you caught them once. If it's a repeat violation, sure; you have evidence of a pattern at that point, so kick 'em out. Otherwise, the only things you can rationally address are the instance before you and the knock-on effects of the act and/or your reaction to it.
    – cHao
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 22:33
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    I'd be willing to wager quite a large sum of money that if the teacher in question would know who had been cheating from whom.
    – Basic
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 13:35

A security guard who intentionally leaves a door/building unlocked to enable/facilitate a theft never actually "steals" anything in the literal sense that they do not remove anything from the supposedly-secure area, but they are still guilty of being involved in a theft.

This is still true even if there is no direct benefit to themself, and will likely be sacked/dismissed from that place of employment at minimum regardless of whether they are otherwise an excellent guard.

In the exam example, the person supplying answers has enabled/facilitated/committed academic fraud/dishonesty - even if they have not directly benefited from it themself. As such, punishment in that area of work (i.e. the subject/module) is warranted and I suggest that the assessment where this occurred is a logical place to start.

Edit: Note the distinction between the corrective action of removing any illicitly-obtained jobs/goods/grades/marks removed from them, in contrast to the punitive action of removing legitimately-obtained jobs/goods/grades/marks (the latter applying to both the thief/cheater and the facilitator).

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    I don't think this is a good analogy at all. The "job" of a student taking an exam is to produce (their own) correct answers on their paper. It's not their job to stop others from cheating. And also, reasoning about information copying and fraud based on physical theft is not convincing. Copying information doesn't destroy or remove the original copy, but stealing a crate of TVs does. I don't disagree with the 2nd half of your answer, but the analogy is too much of a stretch to tell us anything. Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 0:06
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    This security guard is guilty, but not guilty of theft. It's a different offence even in this example, and so deserves different consideration and different punishment (maybe even harder one, depends). That's the point of the OP.
    – Zeus
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 9:28
  • The act of enabling or facilitating cheating/collusion(/any other academic offence) during an assessment violates the integrity of that assessment. There is no way for that to be returned. Yes, violating the integrity of an examination MIGHT carry a different punishment to being in receipt of/using information that is not from your own head/memory, but both involve academic dishonesty in an incident that relates to a specific examination (where a punishment related to that examination is entirely warranted).
    – kwah
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 13:01
  • @kwah: right, that last comment is a good reason. Make that your answer and take out your security-guard analogy because it doesn't hold up. Not letting people steal things (or break in and alter documents, or whatever) is one of the primary parts of their job, so of course they'd be fired for intentionally failing at it. The reasoning required to argue that an exam-taker has similar responsibilities basically stands on its own. Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 0:18
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    But the security guard would not be charged with "theft" themselves, so how is it the same? I think we agree a punishment is deserved, just not the same punishment.
    – ESR
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 3:42

Giving the answer is always considered to be a form of cheating.

For example, Fairfield University's website says:


Cheating is the most well-known academically dishonest behavior.

But cheating includes more than just copying a neighbor’s answers on an exam or peeking at a cheat sheet or storing answers on your phone. Giving or offering information in examinations is also dishonest.

Turning in someone else’s work as your own is also considered cheating.

Emphasis mine.

See also:


Collusion, such as working with another person or persons when independent work is assigned is considered academically dishonesty.

While it is fine to work in a team if your faculty member specifically requires or allows it, be sure to communicate with your faculty about guidelines on permissible collaboration (including how to attribute the contributions of others).

  • 53
    This answer simply repeats the premise of OP’s question, that helping others to cheat is forbidden. It does not answer OP’s actual question of why the particular punishment of failing the exam is the common response.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 22:17
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    would -1 if I could: as @DanRomik points out, the behavior may be dishonest, but the test turned in by the cheater is an innocent representation of their work alone.
    – Sam
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 23:09
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    @Sam You seem to misunderstand what cheating is. See my response to Dan.
    – Peter K.
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 23:21
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    @PeterK. Cheating does not require two people. I can bring a cheat sheet and look at it. The other person also does not need to be involved in the test at all - I can help you cheat in an exam without taking it, for example. If I were found out, you wouldn't insist on marking some of my exams as failed, or giving me a failed on the exam I wasn't taking in the first place. Also, if I write clearly and legibly, and fail to prevent my co-test-takers from seeing it, do I thereby cheat?
    – sgf
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 13:58
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    The bolded quote is phrased in a way that can be interpreted as "giving info is not cheating, but a different kind of dishonesty" ("also dishonest"). Second quote directly classifies it as "collusion" and not "cheating". So I the conclusion that "Giving the answer is always considered to be a form of cheating." is entirely disproved by given evidence. Downvoted as self-contradictory. Cheating is a subset of dishonesty but not every dishonesty is cheating.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 16:37

The justification is that:

(1) If the punishments are different for providing and receiving answers, the students may try to put cooperative game theory into practice and collude to both get the lesser punishment.

(2) Providing answers in an exam is very much an exam-related misdemeanor, as it subverts the integrity of the exam, erodes students' trust in the system and unfairly affects the result. Therefore there's no contradiction in giving an exam-related punishment.

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    This is the best answer, in my opinion. If some students do an honest job, and others cheat, then are the exam results valid? Can the instructor have any idea how effective the exam is in grading students' knowledge if some students' results are from cheating? Cheating cheapens the exam for everyone, so it makes sense that anyone who helped cheapen the exam would suffer an exam-related punishment.
    – Kyralessa
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 20:18

I think my perspective on this is more a practical one: As a professor, my options for punishing inappropriate student behavior are pretty limited. Unlike the legal system, I don't have the option of fines, imprisonment, community service, etc. If the infraction is severe enough, I can petition to have the student removed from the class but, short of that, the only tool I have is negatively impacting the student's grade. Since that's the only tool I have, it's the one I'm going to use.

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    That is indeed practical in this case, but I believe it could be problematic otherwise. By the same logic, the reverse case could happen, i.e. a professor could negatively impact the student's grade for a behavioral misdemeanor, since (s)he has few other tools. Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 4:25
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    A few years ago, a student stole books from the university library. Her sanction was academical: her grades for the year were removed. Some professors raised the issue that this wasn't an academical foul but a penal one. The school replied that we can give academic punishment but not penal punishment. Furthermore, this was the more effective way for her to learn an important life lesson instead of ruining her life. The punishment for helping to cheat is the same.
    – Pere
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 14:13
  • @user153812 Yes, I absolutely could do that. In fact, professors do it all the time when they use attendance as a factor in students' grades.
    – G. Allen
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 2:11
  • @pere If the student stole books from the library with the intention of making books unavailable to other students, the infraction is an academic infraction. It was a pretty common practice before everything was available electronically. Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 14:34

The incentive view of the law.

The reason for punishing cheaters is not to right some wrong in the moral universe, it is to deter students from cheating and to deter students from enabling cheating. The goal is less cheating, not the balance of good and evil.

The ideal punishment is a punishment that has never to be carried out since it is so effective in deterring that it never has to be actually applied. This is a rare thing to achieve, but it is the basic goal.

Given that the goal of punishment is deterrence, there is little reason why it should be directly tied to the "crime." Indeed, it rarely is. We don't punish arsonists by burning down their house. People go to prison for reasons other than illegal restraint.

So yes, punishing students this way is a fairly arbitrary thing to do. But so is pretty much every other form of punishment.

Note: I did not go into a discussion of the severity of punishment, which is clearly an important constraint on the form of punishment to be applied.

  • 1
    I think "less cheating" is an intermediate goal, not "the" goal. The ultimate goal is to defend the integrity of degrees granted at a university. Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 13:56

Let me explain the problem with a very good situation in German law.

You are severely drunk with 2 per mill alcohol in the blood. So you leave the car, but use a bicycle for riding to home. The police stops you and tests positively for alcohol.

You are able to lose your driving license.

Why? You did not drive a car?!
Yes, but German law says that someone with such a high alcohol level is not able anymore to use any vehicle securely and you are endangering other people (Easy example: You cannot perceive a car on collision course, the driver startles, tries to evade and drive the car against a tree). The ability and willingness to risk hurting others is sufficient, not the existence of a real accident.

Another situation: Referees in many sport disciplines are not only able to punish players on the field, they are allowed to discipline you as spectator outside the field. If you throw a beer bottle on the field, such a referee has the right to stop the game and order that you are escorted out of the playing field. If you are even a player in private doing such things, the referee has the full rights to punish and disqualify you as player for future games.

But it was not in the rules? You were outside the field? Does not matter. Your behavior shows a lack of sportmanship and professionalism which is required for participating in further games. You are unfit as sportsman.

So you are not punished for trying to cheat, but you are punished for the missing discipline expected in academic circles. It's the very same for plagiarism: If you use a copied text, it does not matter if a copyright was violated, if anyone was harmed or even if the author allowed you to use his work. It means that people cannot trust you that your work is done with your very best and honest efforts. If you allow others to cheat, in what cases could observers decide if an article has been honestly reviewed or created? They can't, so they lose trust in you.

Now that was quite a big talk and I know that humans are fallible. But in the end: You cannot claim innocence if you are caught helping others to cheat.

  • 4
    But here's where the analogy breaks down: If I help a student cheat on an exam that I'm not taking, people won't come and mark some other of my exams as failed.
    – sgf
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 7:20

The basic issue here is that helping someone else to cheat is also a form of academic dishonesty. It may not quite rise, in your estimation, to the same level of seriousness, but that by no means exculpates the student who enabled the cheating. Perhaps you may believe it should reduce the anticipated punishment, but that should be a policy-level decision rather than something entirely discretionary.

I would not be very charitable to someone who enabled others to cheat, as I believe it is just as unethical to enable others to cheat as to cheat oneself. In some respects, it’s even worse, since you’re not just being personally dishonest, the helper is contributing to making the problem of cheating worse in general, and should not be rewarded for it with a lesser punishment.


An exam is a very specific and defined event based in an implied social contract between instructor and students. That instructor's obligations in this contract are: to set and indicate the date of the exam from the start of the term; to remind of the date of the exam; to create and distribute at the appointed time a fair, appropriate exam that is a valid tool for assessing course knowledge; to proctor the exam appropriately; to grade all exams fairly; to hand back the exams; to go over the exams; and to field any follow-up questions or correct grading mistakes.

The exam-takers' only obligations are to take the exam under exam conditions, which are a specific set of behaviors that are quite different from everyday social behaviors. These are designed to ensure that every exam taker has a fair opportunity to do as well as any other exam taker.

Now, let's say you were an instructor and, prior to an exam, four students came up to you and said, "We are going to refuse to take this exam under exam conditions. We are going to be talking loudly, and playing music, using our cell phones, as well as shouting out answers occasionally, some of which will be wrong." Would you allow these four students to take the exam? No, it would invalidate the entire exam, for all students. They would be breaking the implied social contract.

In the same way, a student providing answers to other students is breaking exam conditions. If one student were to announce, prior to the exam, that he was planning on sharing answers with three other students, would you allow him to take the exam? No, again, it would be completely invalidating the fairness of the exam, in that the 25 students who weren't whispered to were at a great disadvantage compared to the few who were.

So you can't let this person take the exam, at least in the normal way--agreed?

So, how can you then evaluate this "protesting" student? You could go out of your way to provide another exam that you proctor yourself, but are you sure that is as fair as the original exam conditions would have been? And, further, why should you have to do that?. The process of "examining" students fairly and well is challenging enough--why should an instructor have to spend appreciably extra energy to accommodate students who refuse to adhere to the social contract? And if the instructor chooses to expend his/her limited supply of academic energy, is that fair to the other students, who are adhering to the social contract? The reasonable position is to make no accommodation, and to disallow taking that exam at all.

Now, what you're asking about is this same situation, except the student doesn't announce ahead of time that he is planning to invalidate the whole class's exam. He just does it secretly--but is caught.

Do you really think the instructor should respond, "Agh, had you told me you were going to do this I would not have let you take the exam, but gosh, now that you have, I guess I have no choice but to allow it as a valid exam."?

No, instead, the social contract and the consequences are defined well ahead of time, for all students. If a student breaks the social contract, their exam is invalidated, just as if they had never taken it.


Seems like most of the responses answer whether the student who helped should be punished, and you are asking why manner of punishment is this instead of that.

The reason is pragmatism. Suppose it has been determined that A helped B achieve a much higher grade than otherwise, while A's exam score did not benefit at all. In the situation you regard as ideal, B would get a zero, while A's exam would be scored as if he or she had not cheated, but A would then also be disciplined by whatever process takes care of misconduct outside exams. The problem is that this "whatever process" really does not work well. It takes time and there's a lot of bureaucracy. It can easily punish too much, or too little, and there is often much ado about not much. Many professors feel that all of this is unnecessary, and being that they are the instructor of the course, they are the person most suited for both adjudication and determining punishment.

With the current system, all the instructor has to do is to type in "0" on their spreadsheet where they would have otherwise typed "78". It even saves them time because they don't need to actually grade the exams. The punishment is isolated to that specific course, and the student is allowed to "bounce back" by not cheating again.

With the ideal student, there must now be a lengthy and involved process* where the matter is investigated and punishment meted out. This will drag on for weeks after the exam. When finals are done, people don't want to follow some lengthy cheating investigation. They want to type in the grades and move on to their other work. Meanwhile, the students both get a permanent "cheater" mark on their record which they cannot easily escape. As these things become more widespread, surely society would get used to it and understand that just because someone has made one bad decision once doesn't mean they can't change, but today being officially disciplined is rare enough that you can get an exaggerated negative perception from others.

Basically, giving a zero is an ad-hoc system in the time between cheating emerging as a problem and formal processes for dealing with it being put in place. The formal processes exist now, but they don't work well enough, so instructors prefer to revert to the seemingly better ad-hoc system. I suspect that they also like to have the authority of being the ultimate arbitrator of everything in their class, which they are reluctant to give up.

  • Note, this isn't necessarily true. In principle, there can be an efficient and effective system for dealing with academic misconduct. In practice there often isn't.

Some remarks:

  • Firstly, it is untrue that, as some have suggested, you can never know for sure who cheated and who "only helped". A common situation is that the cheating student sits behind another one, who holds their exam so as to be clearly visible. Another is if the first student finished answering a 2 hour exam in 50 minutes, and only after started helping a friend cheat, never once touching their pen or paper.
  • The same logic could be applied to the student who does benefit from cheating: Suppose they cheated only on question 7, 8 and 10 but answered 1, 2, 4, 5 honestly and correctly. Why take away the points they earned fair and square? In this case it is even harder to determine which questions were answered honestly, but even if it were determined, the practical difficulties of punishing it remain such that giving a zero an even more practical option.

Consider a situation in which a student cheats only on a part of an exam.

If you caught the student cheating, examined the evidence, and found that they only cheated on a specific section, you would nonetheless fail not only the section they cheated on, but also the rest of their exam. Therefore, it is the breaking of exam rules, rather than simply receiving underserved credit, that gets them the fail.

By this logic, you should fail anyone who participated in cheating, regardless of where they chose not to cheat.

Moreover, breaking exam rules carries additional penalties that go beyond exam failure. These vary with the institution, but should be be equally applicable to both students no matter what logic you apply to the exam itself.


I think you have a point, but I would go further. I think the problem is that we'd punish either of the students with failing the exam. We only do this because the administration is too lily-livered to do the right thing and seek civil charges against both of them. They are, in fact, committing fraud in attempting to get credentials under false pretenses. I believe that some countries do prosecute cheating under fraud laws, but not in the U.S. They should be doing some soft time in the county lock-up. Heck, getting a zero isn't even really a penalty, if you don't know anything. If you don't cheat, you get a zero. If you do cheat, you might not.

So we fall back on the only option left to us and make the penalty academic for both students.

  • I believe that some countries do prosecute cheating under fraud laws - which countries?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 23:14
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    @DanRomik I don't know. I just remember someone on another forum asserting that in his country cheating was a legal matter. It's been a while, but for some reason I think he might have been from Jordan.
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 23:36
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    Ok. Your view about prosecuting cheaters is interesting, but I suspect you aren’t really taking into account the full implications of criminalizing such a huge swathe of human behavior. Many forms of lying can be reasonably argued to meet the definition of fraud - lying on a date, lying on a job interview, lying to your spouse or friends, etc. Are you seriously suggesting that all people who engage in such behaviors (probably most of humanity) also need to “spend some soft time in the county lock-up”? If not, what makes academic cheating more severe than those behaviors?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 5:19
  • @DanRomik In China, college entrance exam is considered national exam. Those who assists in committing fraud is punishable by law. Light cases is 3 years in prison. Serious offence will be punished by 3 - 7 years in prison and fine. Those who are benefitted from the fraud will be expelled from the university and will be disqualified to take national exams in 1 - 3 years. Effective 2016. I do not have reference in English. Here is the reference in Chinese. Sorry about my sloppy translation. (I did my best, though)
    – Nobody
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 9:59
  • @DanRomik Certainly there's "exceeding the posted speed limit by 5 mph" vs. "deliberately endangering everyone by going 120 mph and weaving in and out." If you look on Craigslist under Services/Lessons, you'll see some pretty slick ads for "homework help." They'll take your on-line class for you. Those people need to do time. The girl who sleeps with a boy as payment for him to take an exam for her....yeah, a week in the slammer for her.
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 11:47

I was once administrator of a computer based test that university students could complete at any time. One student took multiple attempts at the test (which was fine) and then gave their answers to most of the rest of the class. The other students did an hour long test in only a few minutes and all provided the same answers (it was multiple choice). The entire group were disciplined in the same way.

The cheating of the others would not have been possible without the first person enabling them to cheat. Unfortunately this sort of thing is all too common. Often a student will help others to cheat and then expect the same back in other classes. No doubt some would not have cheated if the first student hadn't facilitated it and made it so easy.

EDIT: as it was mentioned I didn't answer the question. Someone who facilitated the cheating of other students should also be made to fail that assessment. The assessment was not done ethically and honestly and is a process corrupted by them against the values of the University that they have accepted by being a student there. Someone who helps others cheat is themselves cheating the system, and others who are doing the right thing. The punishment needs to be focused on what the person did, in this instance they've wrecked the fair assessment of the exam so they deserve to be punished for that exam.

  • 2
    I don't see how this answers the question. The question already accepts the premise that this is cheating and should be punished. The question merely asks why the punishment is to fail the exam, rather than some other punishment.
    – D.W.
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 21:14

I think you are making a fundamental mistake about what cheating is: cheating is an attempt to lie to people in the future: John Doe has mastered Blah, as evidence here is a degree in Blah from X where he earned a GPA of 3.7.

If he is cheating, then he probably has not mastered Blah, and if he cheated (without being caught) he certainly did not EARN the GPA.

Helping someone else cheat is participating in that lie. While the helper may have mastered Blah, it is fair to devalue their mastery by the same amount as the actual cheater -- because that is how much they were trying to devalue the evidence that the cheater had mastered Blah.

Consider, would you want a degree from a university that you knew allowed students to set their own grades? As an employer how much would you value a degree from a university that you knew allowed students to set their grades?


Even when people tell that the one who has helped to cheat doesn't make a mistake, there are always many reasons to tell that he has done a mistake because

  1. If he helps, what happens? He may help his friend but in the end his friend will be motivated by this and will repeat this many times. So he was an obstacle to his progress which means he has committed a serious mistake.

  2. If you help cheating you are on the side of promoting cheating. So you should be also punished.

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    I don't see how this answers the question. The question already accepts the premise that this is cheating and should be punished. The question merely asks why the punishment is to fail the exam, rather than some other punishment.
    – D.W.
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 21:14

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