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An undergraduate course that I teach has roughly 50 first-year students, and without trying I noticed several egregious examples of cheating, both on assignments and on a recent midterm exam. Given that the students have only very recently entered university -- they occasionally behave as if they were still in high school -- I'd like to have a discussion with them about academic integrity and cheating.

Has anyone else here had such a conversation with a class of theirs, and would be willing to share some advice? If the above-referenced incidents had been referred to a university committee on the matter, the students would almost certainly fail the course, or perhaps suspended. The department, however, gives the faculty some flexibility in deciding whether to refer particular cases to this committee.

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    "If the above-referenced incidents had been referred to a university committee on the matter, the students would almost certainly fail the course, or perhaps suspended." Then why would you not fail/suspend them? If you let them get away with serious violations now (by just having "a talk"), why would they change their behaviour later? – asquared Apr 30 at 12:42
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    You might find this Q&A interesting / relevant : academia.stackexchange.com/q/129837/72855 – Solar Mike Apr 30 at 15:16
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    Has anyone else here had such a conversation with a class of theirs, and would be willing to share some advice? — Yes. Have the conversation on the very first day of instruction, every term, in every class, especially with first-year students. – JeffE Apr 30 at 19:32
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    @asquared - speaking with the class is certainly not meant in lieu of punishment, and the particular cheaters were indeed punished (though perhaps not as harshly as you might have liked). Given that these students are barely out of high-school, it seems important to me that we speak with them about academic integrity directly. So I was asking for advice from those who have had such discussions. – Menachem Apr 30 at 22:29
  • @JeffE - since you have experience with such conversations, would you mind sharing some advice? What do you emphasize to the students? I'm concerned that if I focus on integrity and ethics, some students will not care at all. Do you typically focus more on how getting caught could ruin their lives (in addition to being morally wrong)? – Menachem Apr 30 at 22:34
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Please carefully read your school’s policies concerning academic dishonesty before you do anything. Follow those rules carefully so that the students won’t be able to get away with their cheating on appeal. For example, at my school you’re expected to talk directly with the student to give them a chance to defend themself before you decide on a punishment, and you’re required to submit an official report which allows the school to decide on any larger sanctions.

I’d also recommend having a third party (e.g. course coordinator, director of undergrad studies, or TA) present for the conversation. This makes it clear that it’s serious, makes me feel safer, and prevents the student from lying about the meeting.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful input. I have spoken with or will speak with the students individually, though also plan to speak with the class as a whole, to discourage them from getting themselves into serious trouble in the first place. – Menachem May 1 at 6:18
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The most important thing is that you need to convince them that you care about their learning and not about the answer you get to any question. Remind them that you can do any task you set them, so the purpose is for them to do the task and learn, not to produce a "correct" answer. Too many students don't understand that and are a bit surprised when you remind them.

Too few people, students and others, understand what it takes to learn something. Many student practices are counterproductive. To learn something takes a physical change in the brain to move the knowledge from short to long term memory. That change requires reinforcement - practice. It also requires feedback so that you don't "learn" the wrong things. Even athletics at a high level requires practice and feedback. It isn't any different for learning.

One way to try to get the conversation going, is to ask them their opinions about why you set them these tasks. The answers you get will probably include, or even be dominated by, grading. Convince them that you are a teacher, not a grader. That grading is only a necessary by-product of the process, not the goal.

But convince them, also, that you will take whatever means are necessary to reinforce that view, including holding them to a strict honesty standard. And convince them that you do notice when they cheat. It isn't hidden at all. Convince them that you are willing to fail everyone if they don't take the tasks and the rules seriously.

However, if your grading scheme is high-risk then they will still be likely to transgress. Too much grading based on too few measures is high risk. No opportunity to correct errors is high risk. Any scheme that induces panic in the students is high risk. People don't always behave rationally in high risk situations. Find ways to reduce student risk.

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Talk with the "caught" students individually. If you only give a talk to a class, the cheaters will rationalize their actions and conclude that you weren't addressing them. Instead, you can tell the cheaters to come to your office (you may want a witness, particularly if there is a gender difference between you and the student), lay out your evidence, and explain that they could be suspended over this. That should get their attention. Then, you can say that you will be addressing academic integrity in class and they should be sure to attend and ask you any questions, as there will be no leniency in future.

Your university should have an option to report the incident without pressing charges. This ensures that the students have a record so that they can't have a new "first offense" in every class. When I did this, the students received a formal letter of reprimand from the dean, which scares them but has no practical effect.

Finally, you should address the class. I recommend saying only that you are aware that some cheating has occurred and it is being dealt with. Then you can discuss academic integrity in the abstract (might have been good to do this earlier...).

By the way, I hope you are giving some penalty to the cheaters besides a talk. Suspending them from college might be too harsh, but a zero on the assignment is likely appropriate (and, at my institutions, is required by university policy...as others mentioned, you should be sure to double check these policies before proceeding).

  • Your university should have an option to report the incident without pressing charges. — Careful. My university's system for cheating cases allows for the penalty to be a "warning", but the infraction is still recorded in the student's disciplinary record, which means it still potentially has impact if the student later applies for certain jobs, or law school, or a security clearance. For this reason, many of my colleagues don't give warnings through the official system. (On the other hand, if the instructor gives no official penalty, then officially, there was no incident.) – JeffE May 1 at 15:37
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In my place they have policies concerning cheating ("academic honesty code" or something like that) readily available online and they suggest that we include the reference to them in syllabi, which I find quite a reasonable idea for lower level courses. Usually it is enough to say that you would merely follow the rules to the letter if you catch somebody cheating (and to keep your word at least once) to scare the students enough.

If you want to be on the nice side, try to explain to them that the only persons cheaters can really cheat on a long run are themselves. It is not too hard if they take a course in some subject that later will become their bread and butter (like ordinary differential equations for engineers) and next to impossible if you teach something like business calculus for future administrators and politicians.

Explaining that learning is not just about memorizing the stuff that will appear on the next test with the intent to forget it right after is a great idea, but, to be honest, I have never succeeded in such explanations. Maybe I'm doing it from a wrong end, but IMHO, one needs to slow down quite a bit on many undergraduate courses and to stretch them over twice longer time periods doing plenty of recitation sections to convince anyone that learning is what you really care about. Also one should think carefully about what and how to grade because once the grade is involved, it immediately becomes the primary objective function to maximize, and you can then sing like a nightingale all day and night long about why grades are not the most important things without being listened to by anyone.

One more thing to keep in mind is that cheating is just a form of cooperation and you may try to encourage other, healthier forms of cooperation like study groups, class group work, etc. to reduce it. If you want to hold a conversation about academic honesty, it makes sense to remind the students that cooperating and helping each other are excellent things in general, only they should happen not on the timed test in the class and not in the form of mindless copying other person's work.

At last, one has to accept that cheating on the courses a person is forced to take pretty much against his will has always taken place and will, probably, always take place. The hardest attendance, academic honesty, etc. enforcers in the former Soviet Union were the teachers of the history of the communist party and scientific communism and we cheated like crazy on both subjects. Our history of the communist party professor was quite a reasonable guy and just told us that we should know what he tells us well enough to pass because if we could not memorize it, we would, probably, have no chance to absorb mathematics either. That was a relatively fair game. I don't know if you really want to be that blatant but it is always worth keeping in mind that in reality you cannot offer any better explanation to some of your students as to why they should take your course, and this fact has some bearing at least on my own attitudes.

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