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I'm a TA for a freshman calculus class, and I've just finished grading the first homework set.

It's fairly clear that there has been some collaboration going on, which is disallowed in my institution. For instance, a pair of students both put exactly the same (very) incorrect solution to a trig problem, and a group of four whose work is next to each other in the pile (i.e. they sat near each other in recitation) have all made the same (more common) errors.

The course started last week and this was the students' first ever assignment: it was set on the second day of class and due on the fourth day of class.

I'm aware of what I "should" do, i.e. report it to the instructor and let him follow the necessary disciplinary procedures. But is this necessarily the right course of action? It would probably be just as beneficial to these kids' academic integrity in the long run to tell them I'm onto them and never to do it again, as it would be to have them officially disciplined. It's likely that many of these people (should but) don't know the policy on collaboration.

Advice would be greatly appreciated.

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    I'm aware of what I "should" do...But is this necessarily the right course of action? — Isn't that the definition of "should"? – JeffE Sep 1 '13 at 22:31
  • @JeffE: I guess the italics and quotation marks were my way of abbreviating "I know what it is dictated that I should do". Anyway, the matter is resolved, wahoo! (For now.) – Troubled TA Sep 1 '13 at 22:33
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    I recommend always doing what you "should" do as a TA. The job becomes miserable if you try to assume responsibility for things you don't have any authority over. When I was a TA I constantly reminded my students that it was someone other than me that was requiring the homework assignments and writing the exams. – Anonymous Sep 2 '13 at 2:26
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    "the matter is resolved" ... Well? How? // There are a number of assumptions here - about the students' intent, the prof's response, the school's policy (both written an actual) .. If I had my way, the students would have received sufficient warning already, and would at least fail the assignment. But, given that they're first year, and it's the first assignment, a class-wide warning/reminder might be OK - or 'only' failing the set, and no further action. / IME, TPTB's course of action - even for more egregious examples - was a lot more lenient than I would like. In the US, there's liability – hunter2 Sep 2 '13 at 11:23
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I personally follow the rule "once is nothing, twice is a habit". I think a warning would be a good way to start. I do, however, think that it is still a good idea to run this by the instructor. I assume he/she is responsible for the course and the decision is up to him/her. You can explain your point of view and perhaps get some feedback on the matter. In addition, by taking up the discussion the problem is in th eopen and it makes it easier to catch repeat offenders. If you keep it secret, the culprits, in the worst case, can get by repeated cheating for each new teacher they encounter.

Cheating is an abomination but I think people are allowed to make mistakes. I also think most people learn from mistakes and will not easily do it again. But, it is necessary to make sure they understand their attempt has put them under scrutiny, that is probably "punishment" enough.

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    Thanks - I've taken your advice and sent an email to the instructor saying what happened and giving my point of view. – Troubled TA Sep 1 '13 at 22:25
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    Defining collaboration as cheating is a bit excessive, no? We all appeal to others to learn. There is no other way to learn! The only real problem is when people learn things incorrectly (or not at all) through such practice. – Stumbler Apr 10 '18 at 19:14
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The course instructor is the person ultimately responsible for all aspects of the class, including proper implementation of departmental and university policies. As a TA, it is not your role to decide which policies should be followed and which can be ignored. Therefore, regardless of your personal feelings, you should report any issues that arise to the instructor.

  • Very good point, thanks. I've emailed the instructor. – Troubled TA Sep 1 '13 at 22:26
  • I totally agree. When I was a TA and was marking the assignments, I asked the course instructor explicitly what shall I do in case of plagiarism/collaboration detection. He told me his policy and I followed that. And it didn't matter how personally I felt about that. – Rabbit Sep 2 '13 at 14:09
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As others have said, it's important that the instructor know about this. It is ultimately her responsibility to handle the situation, and your job is to make sure she has the information she needs.

Note, though, that just because you report it to the instructor doesn't necessarily mean that a formal disciplinary case will result. The instructor may decide to handle it informally, by having a talk with the students about appropriate and inappropriate collaboration, etc. Under the circumstances, I think that is what most people would do. Note that such a talk will probably have more of an impact on the students coming from the instructor instead of from you.

When you report the matter to the instructor, you can certainly point out that it is the students' first college assignment ever, and that you believe leniency is appropriate. But of course it is the instructor's decision in the end, and you will need to respect it.

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there has been some collaboration going on, which is disallowed in my institution.

That's an inappropriate, and in fact somewhat preposterous, policy - as opposed to a "no copying other people's work" policy. Friends who study the same course will definitely collaborate, as in fact will be the case for random sets of people sitting around a desk in the library working on the same HW assignment.

For instance, a pair of students both put exactly the same (very) incorrect solution to a trig problem,

If you believe one of them (never mind who) copied the other one's answer, I suggest (for lack of other policy):

  1. Calling them both in.
  2. Saying that you believe the answer was copied.
  3. Offering them partial score for the problem - for a single person, to be divided between them as they see fit.

Be open to the possibility of them convincing you they didn't actually copy - that can happen (albeit rarely).

And a group of four whose work is next to each other in the pile (i.e. they sat near each other in recitation) have all made the same (more common) errors.

If the wording of their submissions is not the same, I'd say I wouldn't lose sleep if I happened to convince myself they weren't really collaborating. If you know what I mean.

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I believe that attempting to "handle this informally" (either by you or by the course instructor) is a bad idea.

Suppose a student does this offense in five different courses --- how can they be caught, if there is no communication between all the people involved? I believe that the proper course of action is to gather all irregularities in a single place and only then decide to be lenient and make first-time exceptions.

Letting them get off without reporting the issue only encourages them to do it again, because the next time the teacher will also think "it's their first offense, I'll just scold them and let them go".

Maybe in your university the disciplinary committee is seen as a last resource only for repeated offenders, but my opinion is that it should be the other way around. Strict teachers/TAs/invigilators and a lenient disciplinary committee is a strategy that works; lenient teachers/TAs/invigilators and a strict disciplinary committee is not.

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Belt and suspenders.

  1. (first) Talk to the kids and warn them.

-AND-

  1. (second) Turn it in to the professor.

The reason being that schools are too LAX at investigating and prosecuting cheating, not too strong. By following course (1) in addition to course (2), you will at least have scared them a bit in case your prof wimps out on course 2.

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