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One of my TAs is accusing me of cheating.

The professor had shared a 2-question quiz through our online portal (Google Meet). One of the questions contained a 9-digit sequence. Somehow, I misread this sequence and ended up solving the problem using a different 9-digit sequence. My incorrect sequence exactly matched the sequence used on a different version of the quiz, which had been administered to a different section of the class several days before. I do not know how similar the two sequences were; I assume they were very different.

I understand how bad this looks, but I actually did not cheat. I am baffled as to how this could have happened given how careful I normally am about reading the question. I have no history of cheating in other classes.

I don't understand how I can prove that I did not cheat. The other question of the quiz was, of course, exactly as given on my quiz, so I'm thinking I may argue along the lines of "if I were to cheat why would I do it on only 1 question", although this seems slightly weak to me.

One complication is that the professor said that anyone suspected of cheating will be required to take an incomplete on the class and do the exam whenever university resumes. This is not ideal, as I am bound to forget a lot of material. On top of this, the classes I am taking next semester require this one as a prereq and this will derail by entire class schedule. I don't think there are any classes I can take for my major without this prerequisite filled.

The professor is offering that I can admit to cheating and then he'll give me a warning for the final and get a 0 on the quiz. Assuming the warning for the final does not come with the above requisite of webcam, should I falsely admit to cheating?

While I am normally against false admissions, I need to resolve this quickly, as the final is the day after tomorrow. Also, given how bad this looks, if I don't accept this and am found guilty, then I will probably fail this class and have to retake it anyways.

Update: For anyone who finds this later, I requested the Prof to let me take the exam without a webcam, given that it may be dropped later. He agreed and also stated there would be no need to drop it later. After the exam, I laid out many of the points given below, which the Prof said he would take into consideration and look into overturning the decision. I had an easy out, where I could take the 0 on the quiz and still get an A in the class, but there is a lot of good advice below for those who are still stuck.

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    Note this user has asked a series of questions about cheating. This answer might make more sense in context with those questions. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 at 0:46
  • @AnonymousPhysicist You mean it might indicate retaliation? – Captain Emacs May 4 at 5:57
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    @CaptainEmacs No idea. But I think the asker should be more patient. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 at 6:36
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    There was a ton of useful info in the comments, so I edited the question to fold in this additional information. – cag51 May 7 at 0:45
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    @eurieka Nope. I just wrote the step before the answer and the answer itself, so I imagine I messed it up somewhere before there. I ended up laying out most of what was said on this thread in one email. The prof seemed to receive it well and said he will look into overturning the decision. – anon May 8 at 1:08
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I'm panicking right now, as I was supposed to be studying for finals

If you did not cheat, you do not need to be panicking.

I recommend these steps:

  1. Tell the professor that you did not cheat.
  2. Tell them that right now you need to focus on studying for your exams.
  3. Tell them that you look forward to straightening the matter out after the exams.
  4. Request to take the exam at the normal time. Point out that the professor can always require you to take the in-person exam later, so it is possible to resolve the accusation later.
  5. Go back to studying.

After you have taken your exams, then learn and follow your university's procedure for resolving these disputes. Keep it calm and logical.

If you are still feeling panicky when you need to study, talk to your university's counseling service.

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    I thought this was brilliant and followed exactly this path, but the professor flat out refused #4 and would like to straighten this out right now but also is responding to my emails with significant delay. I'm concerned about taking this to the university because realistically who is going to believe a student who says "I promise I didn't cheat and the fact that my numbers are exactly the same as the same quiz given a day earlier is just a coincidence". – anon May 4 at 2:05
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    I suggest you go back to studying for now, and think about this after your exams. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 at 2:23
  • I think you can later get good advice from someone who has seen the quiz question. – Anonymous Physicist May 4 at 2:24
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    "If you did not cheat, you do not need to be panicking." ..it would be a great world if inncocents would never be wrongly convicted.. – user111388 May 4 at 13:24
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    @user111388 Indeed. Though, I still agree with the answer that - if indeed the student did not cheat - not to admit fault. However, they should ask themselves how they can explain such a rare coincidence. Having a good alternative scenario is the strongest case they can make. – Captain Emacs May 4 at 18:25
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You say you didn't cheat. I have no reason to disbelieve you, so I start at that assumption.

My position would be to refuse to go along with any coercive suggestions about "admitting" to cheating. I would say something like "You have the power to punish me for something that I didn't do, but you don't have the right."

I wouldn't try to explain how it might have happened that some answers were as they were. The paper stands for itself. The paper may lead to suspicion, but not proof, but I wouldn't even say that. You can't prove a negative. Don't even get into any conversation where you try to do that. You answered some questions incorrectly. End of discussion.

I would escalate it to the department or dean's level. I would demand a retraction, even an apology. "You don't have the right. I did nothing improper."

If they don't back down, talk to a lawyer. Don't threaten to talk to a lawyer. Just do it. It will cost you money, of course, but might save your reputation.

YOU HAVE NO RIGHT.


Background: The current pandemic situation has left many courses in chaos with instructors not yet having any valid way to evaluate students. People are falling back on things that (sort of) work in face to face situations and trying to adapt them to a new situation with no evidence of validity. I find this maddening. The system is now broken and more broken in some places than others.


Another worry I have is that admitting to cheating in these circumstances might (though I don't know) result in a notation in you permanent record.

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  • While this would be the solution I would normally take, I am inevitably stuck at a position where I must defend myself. Given the ridiculously low probability that I mess up numbers and I mess them up to exactly the same form as the other quiz, most reasonable people would probably think I cheated. On the other hand, this prof is not escalating the issue, simply giving me a 0 on this quiz; thus, this does not go outside this course. However, if I want to dispute it, I must ask the prof to officially report it, in which case it would go on my record if I lose the case. – anon May 5 at 1:42
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as the professor has said that anyone suspected of cheating will be required to take an Incomplete on the class and do the exam whenever university resumes

The university is likely to have standard procedures in place for handling cheating allegations. Look online for an "Office of Academic Integrity" or something similar.

If you decide to not falsely admit to cheating, you could contact this office, say that you've been accused of cheating when you didn't cheat, and ask for their advice. The professor's policy seems likely to be against the rules.

Moreover, I'd try to think about how you produced exactly a list of nine numbers which you presumably hadn't seen. For example, did this come from a homework question which you had solved, and which was reused for the quiz? Although you won't have to prove your innocence, you'll have an easier time if you can explain this coincidence. Good luck!

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  • This answer is very good! Certainly better than my answer. – Noah Snyder May 4 at 17:02
  • This is the main crux of the issue though. I have literally no idea how I got 9 completely different numbers from the problem and that those 9 numbers were the same as in a different version. Even if I do escalate the issue, how many people are going to believe "I promise I didn't cheat it was just a coincidence that I messed up my numbers and wrote down those 9 numbers that are exactly the same as in another version" – anon May 5 at 1:27
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First, some background. I think the larger context to your story is important and potentially gives you a fighting chance, not to prove your innocence (that sounds impossible), but to make the TA understand the very real possibility that they are accusing you falsely.

The context is, of course, the covid-19 pandemic. The issue is that professors and other teaching staff are now deathly afraid that with the transition to online teaching, the spread of student cheating is undermining the whole enterprise of higher education and their ability to meaningfully assign grades. I can tell you that I and all my colleagues are deeply worried about this and have spent a huge amount of time and energy discussing this and thinking what can be done. There have also been numerous discussions on academia.stackexchange on this topic in recent weeks. (If anyone wants to edit this answer and add some links to relevant posts, please do so - I don’t have time to do this currently but I think it could be a really useful resource for people in OP’s situation.)

The flip side of this coin is that some instructors have become so hypersensitive to cheating and so determined to fight it that we’ve also seen a number of complaints just like yours by students claiming that they are being falsely accused of cheating. Here’s a recent example (again, anyone, feel free to edit the answer with other examples if you have time to look for them). Faced with an instructor convinced that they are guilty and with little idea of how to “prove their innocence”, these students are, like you, faced with the Kafkaesque and unpalatable option of admitting to cheating they did not commit as a way of minimizing the damage.

Now to my actual answer: I suggest that you collect examples of stories posted online like the ones I pointed to, from academia.se, Reddit, or anywhere else you can find them, and send an email to your TA with links to these stories, to help make the case that in their zeal to punish cheaters they may unintentionally end up punishing some completely innocent students, and that they need to reconsider their approach. Tell your own story and include a link to this discussion as well. I don’t know if it will work, but it’s worth a try. The main point is that the fact that there are other students in your situation is strong evidence that instructors are overreaching in their (well-intentioned, of course) fight against cheating on online exams. Good luck!

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I think the other answers that emphasize not worrying about this while you study have a lot of wisdom, but if it were me I’d be trying to figure out what actually happened.. It’s frankly completely implausible that you “misread” the numbers and got all of them exactly as in the previous version. If each question has 5 reasonable answers the odds are 1 in 2 million, and if each has 10 answers its 1 in a billion!

So what actually happened? One possibility is you cheated and are lying to us. One possibility is this isn’t actually about a sequence of 9 numbers, maybe only 3 changed and then it’s plausibly bad luck. Or maybe the TA actually gave you the old quiz. If this were an in-person quiz it’s very plausible that the last quiz in the stack was from the wrong pile. But I don’t know how these were given out. I’d hope the actual truth had a better chance of clearing up the confusion.

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    I think the point of the post is moot if I was lying. Let us go on the assumption that I am not. I'm not sure how many numbers were different. I was just told that my sequence of 9 numbers was exactly the same as the other quiz's numbers. I no longer have access to either version of the quiz, so I cannot say for sure how many changes. However, I am assuming all 9 were changed. – anon May 5 at 1:30
  • Please note that "investigating" the issue can be (depending what you do, e.g. aquring the old exam and presenting it) dangerous since the standards for "proving" you cheated are probably not as high as in a court of law. Depending on your university, the standards for "proving someone cheated" might be "the instructor's gut feeling says so". – user111388 May 5 at 7:36
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    @user760900 "I think the point of the post is moot if I was lying" I think it's fair to assume that you might expect a benefit from lying: People will be more likely to give you effective advice if they assume you didn't cheat. I support this answer, as I find the whole story absolutely implausible (you assume that you messed up all 9 numbers - really?!) and it's likely that the professor will do the same. – lighthouse keeper May 7 at 6:31
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    Let us "assume good faith" and accept OP's premise that no cheating occurred. That said, it is fair to point out that their story (even if true) may seem highly implausible to the professor or other judges. – cag51 May 7 at 16:18

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