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A student (let's call them A) in my class that I just finished teaching asked me to write them a recommendation letter. I said yes, and the first deadline is Dec 15, as they often are (FYI, I'm writing this post on the very early morning of Dec 14).

Unfortunately for the student, as I was grading the final exam, I noticed that A and another student (call them B) seem to have exactly the same wrong answers (their wrong answer was pretty unusual, and in my class of 100, they were the only ones to have these wrong answers).

I've actually been suspicious of B for a while, as B kept coming up with the correct answers without actually being able to justify their steps, and in fact, their work was often wrong up until the final answer.

Upon comparing A and B's exam papers, A's solutions were more or less clear, and I'm sure that A worked it out themselves. B, on the other hand, has solutions that are more or less like A's solutions, but there are so many critical typos and mistakes in notation (showing that B has no idea what is going on in the course) that it should be impossible for B to arrive at the correct answer. I think the errors were introduced because B was sneakily trying to change some letters and such to a different letter, and changing a sentence structure here and there, etc.

So, I suspect that A is actually a decent student, but for whatever reason, A let B copy their answers for the exams in the course (there were 3, all 3 exams were strikingly similar).

I'm planning to submit this case for an investigation, but this takes a while, possibly longer than a semester. My questions are:

  • Should I still write the recommendation letter? On one hand, if A turns out to be innocent (not possible in my heart, but innocent until proven guilty) then I'm screwing them over by declining to write a letter so close to the deadline. On the other hand, if A cheated, then since I was aware of this before writing this letter, I don't want to not mention it.
  • How would you confront the student?
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    Is there reason to believe B could not copy A without A's knowledge? Perhaps exams are being taken remotely? – Anonymous Physicist Dec 14 '20 at 6:58
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    "innocent until proven guilty" Clearly that's your answer. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 14 '20 at 6:58
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    This happened to me at university many moons ago. A "friend" asked me to lend him my solution to a question to see what I had done but then proceeded to hand in an exact copy. Give A the benefit of the doubt but speak to both about the situation and find out what actually happened. – camden_kid Dec 14 '20 at 18:42
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    Even if A is guilty, he's still a good student and only guilty of helping a friend (he didn't hurt nor betrayed anyone). Is it that bad ? – Echox Dec 15 '20 at 14:01
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    @Echox Yes. It is participation in academic dishonesty. – Morgan Rodgers Dec 15 '20 at 18:25
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You agreed to write this letter, and it is due tomorrow (!). Reneging on your promise would effectively torpedo the student's applications, as they are very unlikely to find another recommender on one day's notice. Given that you haven't even confronted them yet (much less convicted them), this would be altogether unjust. (Clearly, your dilemma would be very different if this incident had come to light a month ago.)

Given this timescale, I suggest the following:

  1. Write the letter without any mention of your unproven suspicions.
  2. Confront the student.
  3. If the student confesses or is convicted, you could then consider contacting the programs to withdraw or amend your letter. This is a natural, just, and foreseeable consequence of A's decision to cheat in a class taught by their recommender.

One other thought: consider doing #2 ASAP -- you could ask the student if they are available for an urgent, important call regarding your letter of recommendation (that should get their attention). You can then confront them and also explain how this will (not) affect your letter. This conversation has a few possible outcomes:

  • You proceed as above. Indeed, I recommend writing the letter before having this conversation precisely so that your letter is not (even unconsciously) affected (as even innocent students may react poorly to serious accusations).
  • They withdraw their request for a letter. You certainly shouldn't pressure the student to go this route -- I wouldn't even bring it up. But it's possible the student will say that they prefer not to use your letter given the accusation; in this case, you should respect this.
  • They confess to cheating, at which point you can either rescind your offer to write the letter, or you can agree to write a letter that reflects this incident.

Note, if you do confront the student ASAP, you must be careful not to pre-empt the judicial process, nor to create an abusive, blackmail-like situation. Assure them that you have written a positive letter that does not mention your suspicions, and that you will not rescind or amend your letter until/unless they are formally convicted. Despite your best efforts, A will doubtless still be stressed; accusations of cheating are always stressful. But being transparent and giving A as much agency as possible is the best one can reasonably do under the circumstances.

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    Very tough situation, but I think "consider doing #2 ASAP" best covers the bases of moral responsibility. Great answer. – Tripartio Dec 14 '20 at 13:49
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    I disagree strongly with doing #2 before writing the letter. It's rusing a process and creating an extremely stressful (I would say abusive) dynamic over the urgency of the timing for the letter. Send the letter as promised, presuming innocence as you should, and follow the normal schedule for investigation. You can rescind the letter later if needed. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Dec 14 '20 at 16:04
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    "A may have another recommender they can easily substitute for the OP". On ~36 hours notice?? That seems highly unlikely. Do you write letters on such short notice? I would require a very compelling explanation of why the notice was so short before agreeing to do so. – Gregor Thomas Dec 14 '20 at 19:53
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    If you go with #2 (which I think is not a good option at all), I think it'd only make sense if you fully write the letter without letting the suspicion affect how positive the letter is. Have that positive letter ready, assuming complete innocence, then talk to A. Unless something dramatic (e.g. confession to cheating) happens, don't modify the letter (unless you want to make it even more positive). I'm saying this because the reaction of A to the "confrontation", which almost certainly would take place in very poor conditions unfair to A, might leave a negative impression on you. – nara Dec 14 '20 at 22:18
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    I just want to add to what R..GitHubSTOPHELPINGICE pointed out again about #2: The student might be completely innocent (and frankly, no matter how certain you think your suspicions are, as long as it's not proven or confessed, A is innocent and the suspicions MUST NOT negatively impact the letter you write for them and your help with their application!). Keep in mind that many students already go through a lot applying for grad schools. In this situation, even having that conversation with them in the nicest way might be detrimental to their mental health (as well as their career). – nara Dec 14 '20 at 22:28
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I am going to speak as one who was the student in a sort-of-similar situation. I was a 2nd-time-around undergrad in a linear algebra class. I had written up some proofs for a homework assignment. A guy I knew in class asked for help, and it being late at night and me being tired (I am not in my 20s anymore and can't handle this as I once did) I emailed him what I had typed up (my handwriting is pretty atrocious) and said "Here's what I did, and lord knows if you find mistakes tell me, I am going to bed."

Well, this guy passed in my work as his, without even bothering to copy it onto another sheet of paper. (I was the only student who tended to type up responses). The prof (a grad student) calls us over and says this was pretty dishonest, I was a little shocked myself. I even asked the other dude "what the hell were you thinking?" Instructor said it was trivial, ultimately, and didn't go I-will-report-you on us.

I am sure as hell glad that didn't happen to be an exam or something like it. And I would say to you that an online exam can be collaborated on in many ways, I assign take-home work that I want my [high school] students to work together on. (I try to make it unique enough that the usual internet searches will do little good - but working together will!)

All this is to say that your student may well be the one who was taken advantage of, or didn't know, or whatever. Often I find in copying situations among my own students the copier is more dishonest than the one being copied from.

To address the OP specifically and now that the deadline has clearly passed, it seems... I hope you chose write the letter, send it and treat student A as innocent in this, and then confront them later. In fact I would first go to the student B who you know copied stuff and say to them, "hey could you explain this bit..." and see what happens then.

My two cents as a relatively inexperienced high school teacher but with long experience as a reporter who had to separate truth from lies on a regular basis.

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    This is why assignments should come with explicit statements about what sort of collaboration is and is not okay. For exams, I would recommend something like "you may not distribute the questions or answers to any other person, through the internet or in person, until 24 hours after the exam." And then get the solution set up much sooner than that, so that students who honestly just want to see a solution to a certain problem have an honest way to do it. – David E Speyer Dec 16 '20 at 17:20
  • @DavidESpeyer yeah you need to be explicit. For HW assignments I just assume that students work together anyway -- few people attempt problems completely alone, I know I sure as hell didn't. And there is a difference between say, high school and college, clearly. (I learned that the hard way as a teacher). My go-to question is: does punishing a student do any good? (For example, will they benefit by failing a class/test? What will they learn?) If the answer is "don't get caught next time" we as educators are not doing our jobs correctly. – Jesse Dec 17 '20 at 14:22
  • @DavidESpeyer also to explicit-ness: so much of academic dishonesty policy is really not clear. Would it be academic dishonesty to have another student read my exam essay to check if it sounds good/reads well? A lot of instructors would say no, but the letter of the policy (if not the spirit) says yes, and if you need a freaking lawyer to figure it out you haven't written a clear policy. – Jesse Dec 17 '20 at 14:24
  • If you are asking my opinion then yes, I would say this is dishonesty. Exams should be your own work! – David E Speyer Dec 17 '20 at 15:35
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    But is is one's own work. I've been writer for 20+ years and very few write their best without an editor. Every academic writer has an editor (or should have one). And no editor would say that their suggestions make the work someone else's. If you did a PhD I suspect you didn't write your dissertation fully formed and perfect the first time, with no edits. There's a huge difference between, "Hey pal, is this essay grammatically correct, and does it make sense" and "could you write this for me" and a lot of academic honesty policies miss that. – Jesse Dec 17 '20 at 16:40
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Given the time frame and the fact that you made a commitment you should write the letter in spite of suspicions of cheating.

When students ask me if I'll write a letter of recommendation for them, I usually ask them to come meet me in my office. This helps a lot for tailoring the letter to the specific program or job they are applying for. I also try to give them pointers on their resumes. It's a win-win. The student's own part of the application is better. And the more cohesive a letter I can write for their application package.

As much as I like to write personalized letters of recommendation, there comes a point where it's not feasible. You develop generic boiler plate for when students aren't the easiest to write for to begin with. Given a situation like this, I'd just use the boiler plate and move on.

Per dealing with the specific situation outside of the letter. It's hard for me to give advice without knowing the temperament of students A & B. And what their relationship is like. Perhaps A feels they are being taken advantage of and it's a teachable moment about standing up for yourself. They just needed to be coached on it a bit.

In situations where I suspect cheating I try to approach students honestly, but without accusing them of anything or being confrontational. Something along the lines of "I'm not sure how to grade this for partial credit because it doesn't make sense to me. Can you explain it to me?" Depending on your poker game and how guilty the student feels in the first place a lot of times they will just confess.

P.S. When you suspect cheating, document everything and make a file. It comes in handy if for instance you had the file before you were asked for the letter. Or at the very least it's good water cooler talk for "you wouldn't believe what these kids thought they could get away with"

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    I think the challenge is the third paragraph. If they are innocent, writing a boiler plate letter is unjust (especially if the student would otherwise deserve a glowing letter). If they are guilty, then OP might not be comfortable even with a boilerplate letter (which presumably says "I am pleased to recommend the student..."). – cag51 Dec 15 '20 at 6:08
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    Ideally you wouldn't need boilerplate at all, but between not knowing students very well and having large classes (200 students for 2-3 sections + labs) makes that more difficult. When I write letters I don't typically talk about how I feel about the students. I usually talk about what they did and why those skills are applicable to what they are applying to. There is a list of things students will do in a class that lend itself to that kind of recommendation. Like asking questions out of curiosity and not because it's on an exam or guiding discussions with other students. – wuphysics87 Dec 15 '20 at 6:38
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Talk to the student, and ask how and why the copying happened. It's important to identify the motivations behind plagiarism - research has shown that some students view plagiarism as morally acceptable, and quoting an unattributed author's words can even be viewed as an act of respect. This is, of course, not shared by the traditional academic viewpoint, and hence can be a source of conflict.

Examples:

  • "The student did not think it was correct to rewrite an author‘s words since the author was well known and respected. Hence he/she included it in his/her text. This reverence for authority clearly comes from a cultural worldview where respect for betters and elders is paramount."

  • "he/she felt that his/her English was not sufficiently proficient to explain the point clearly enough. He/she felt that the original author‘s English was better."

  • "His/her interpretation was that copying from textbook was wrong, but that copying from the Internet was acceptable."

  • "what he/she had written was apparently acceptable in other academic circles."

  • "he was shocked as he had written as he would have done in his home institution. In (his) academic culture plagiarism is not considered wrong, but is widely accepted."

And:

  • "Students may believe that knowledge belongs to society as a whole, not to the individual. In other words, international students are taught that there is a right answer, and nobody owns it. Ownership, or rather non-ownership of ideas, also have philosophical foundations in the teachings of Confucius. Students may think that it is disrespectful to their teachers or readers if they cite their sources, as this may imply that they did not already know the source."

  • "it may be frequently regarded as acceptable in their home countries. Students in most cases are not attempting to deceive their teachers but may not understand what they are supposed to do or why plagiarism is considered wrong."

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    This is a good point in the Age of the Internet especially, where copying stuff has been less frowned on (it's hard sometimes for me to get across to students that I want them to word things in their own words for their benefit, to be sure they understand what they are reading). – Jesse Dec 16 '20 at 14:41
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You need to confront A. Do not threaten 'recommendation removal', but do point out that you would actively withdraw this recommendation on investigation being negative.

If on confronting A is convincingly unaware, then I would ignore it. B is the real issue here. Either not doing the work, or trying to coast through on someone elses.

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How do you even know for sure that A was even aware that his work was being copied?

In the past, where two students have had the same answers, and it was clear that there was copying going on, I have on occasion emailed both students and told them that if they would both email me in agreement an explanation about whose work it actually was, I would give that student 50% credit. The other would get zero. This has stopped copying in courses every time I used it, and in every case there was an admission and apology by both students for their part. But we should also recognize the distinction between students' academic and industrial realms.

The student may not be well as well suited for academia as he is for industry. This sort of "helping" others may be what an employer wants, by getting the job done and not worrying about who does it. But in academia the student needs to be accountable for each person doing their own work. They are very different environments. In industry the employee would be commended for helping his colleagues by providing information to them, and if that is a basic character trait of his, limit his punishment to the academic realm.

I'd go ahead and write a positive letter, maybe even hinting that he seems to like to help his colleagues even when it might cost him personally. But follow through with the investigation and handle it separately. Who knows? Even if he drops out of school for troubles with academic dishonesty, he may find success in the business world where sharing work with colleagues can be a very good thing. There are many successful dropouts (founders of Microsoft, Google, etc.), and if that's where he's headed, help him find success there.

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    -1 There's a massive difference between helping another student cheat and helping a colleague. The former is explicitely against the rules and unethical, the latter is not. Obviously, some employers might disagree, but if I was in their place, I would NOT consider it a positive thing. – JS Lavertu Dec 16 '20 at 14:41
  • @JS Lavertu: Certainly. If he was the one doing the work, his academic penalties are sufficient. Pursue a thorough investigation and strictly apply the academic dishonesty policy in addition to providing the letter as promised. In high school there was a mean kid who always copied. I would have been afraid at the time to stop him. In the end he found me on FB one day and apologized about how he'd treated me in school. I ended up teaching around the world and doing cool R&D projects while he eventually became a mechanic after trouble with the law. Who knows what pressures the student had? – Ted Shaneyfelt Dec 17 '20 at 1:03
  • brightfutura.com/20-billionaire-college-dropouts I hope the teachers of Bill Gates before he dropped out of college are proud of him. – Ted Shaneyfelt Dec 17 '20 at 1:14
  • @TedShaneyfelt worth noting that OP wrote the original post with all but one pronoun gender-neutral, and changed that one missed pronoun to be gender neutral. Clearly their intent was to make the post neutral. Additionally, there is zero issue with "agreement of number" when using neutral pronouns (unless thou would also complain about agreement of number when using "you" as a singular pronoun). "They" is perfectly correct when used in the singular. – Michelle Jan 11 at 13:40
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    Translate to Spanish what you just wrote while keeping it gender neutral. My mother told me when this first came up that it was silly to change mailman to mailperson and such because man is a gender neutral term when used like one. In your style of writing, they would not agree with you even though I'm only counting one person. That is awkward and unnecessary, and to me feels like it's bullying and overly legalistic - after changing the rules to be legalistic about. That's the sort of English with which Winston Churchill said he shall not put. – Ted Shaneyfelt Jan 12 at 17:19

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