So, this is an online test and some of my students have identical answers (including mistakes and typos!). My plan is to send an email to the class giving the cheaters a chance to come forward for a reduced penalty (scale down the grade based on the severity of the cheating). Otherwise, they will be reported to the university.

Is this an appropriate action? Any other/better suggestions?

Update: I reported the cheaters (~40% of the class). I believe it is the right thing to do given the reasons below in the answers. It is a bit disappointing though that many students have cheated (including who I believed were good students).

  • 48
    What is the thinking behind this scheme? Why not just report them?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 4:31
  • 6
    Good question. Simply because this is the first offense (it is the first exam though), so I don't think jumping to reporting them is a good action. I may be wrong.
    – user141974
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 4:37
  • 93
    Usually the school will have its own policies of what to do in the case of a first offense, which are probably no less lenient than what you have in mind. Generally it’s better if that policy is applied uniformly instead of different instructors each starting to come up with their own ideas which will likely vary a lot between the different instructors, leading to inconsistency and unfairness. And if you don’t report them, they can cheat again in a different class and that instructor will also assume that this is their first offense, giving them a mild punishment, etc.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 4:48
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    I think the question title is misleading. It somewhat suggests that it is already established that the students are cheating, and you're asking whether the punishment you have in mind is appropriate. However, the body of your question in fact means that you only suppose there is cheating going on, and you're asking if certain actions aimed at confirming cheating (giving them a chance to admit cheating) are appropriate. Don't get me wrong, it's a valid question, but it doesn't match the title.
    – sleepy
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 9:34
  • 18
    @sleepy Correct solutions may be very similar for independent submitters, but if they contain the same errors and typos, that's a smoking gun indicating copying from each other or the same source. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 11:50

10 Answers 10


Punishments for academic misconduct should be standardized across your university. Check the university policy and follow it. If you are still unsure, ask your academic dean.

Instructor discretion can lead to inadvertent or unconscious discrimination.

  • 44
    +1, although I think discrimination is not the main issue, but general consistency. Marking should ideally be Anonymous (hint, hint!) whenever possible, because discrimination does not begin at reporting misconduct. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 11:49
  • 14
    ...and an inability to track repeat offenders. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 22:10
  • 4
    @CaptainEmacs I do not understand your comment. Since it has a lot of votes, I am following up. It seems to me that you are claiming discrimination is not as important as consistency, but I think discrimination is the same thing as inconsistency. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 1:25
  • 6
    @AnonymousPhysicist: Discrimination is about student A being treated differently than student B by the same professor P. Inconsistency is about professor X handling cheating differently than professor Y. This is mainly about the latter.
    – Heinzi
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 11:58
  • 3
    @AnonymousPhysicist Heinzi described it well. The question is about cheating. You ideally want to treat all cheaters in the same way. Consistency. Discrimination is when you treat people badly because of their origin/appearance/etc. If the uni has a consistent treatment of academic offenses, this will reduce discrimination by discretion of individual instructors (which is your example). In short, in this particular case, preventing discrimination is implied in having consistent treatment. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 12:44

Being a professor is hard work and requires one to develop expertise and make thoughtful decisions about many different issues. Fortunately, modern universities have taken one area — the handling of student misconduct — out of the hands of individual professors and created a way to treat it in a uniform way across the entire university (typically through a dedicated unit with a name such as Office of Student Misconduct). This creates obvious efficiencies and frees up professors’ time to handle the work that they are actually expert in and that only they can do.

By coming up with your own policy to punish teaching students, you will be:

  1. Wasting your own time and mental energy on making decisions that others have spent more time thinking about, have more contextual information about, and are more competent to handle.

  2. Running the risk that your policy will differ from the university’s policy, creating a source of unfairness and inconsistency.

  3. Depriving the university of a record about the cheating students that might inform decision-making in the (near certain) event that some of them might be caught cheating again in the future by other professors.

These are the disadvantages of your approach. As for advantages, the only one I can think of is that the university-wide office for handling student misconduct is in some campuses seen by some professors as either inept, incompetent, needlessly strict, or needlessly lenient, and this creates a temptation for those professors to handle misconduct matters themselves — a kind of “vigilante justice”. I don’t know if this is your situation. But, if you don’t have information to suggest that your university will not handle the referral in a satisfactory manner, this argument doesn’t apply.


The correct course of action is to follow the university procedure.

  1. You do NOT want to stray from the university procedure as it would allow students to challenge any decision made in the case. Moreover, it could also expose you to technical administrative actions should the university become aware you did not apply properly the institutional policy.
  2. It is not clear that it is for you to decide if there is an academic misconduct. Certainly here it’s the job of the Dean or assistant Dean to verify and assess such allegations. You can accuse students of plagiarism, but you should not be the jury in the business.
  3. It is not clear it is for you to decide the penalty. It may be that the students have prior offenses that you cannot know of because of confidentiality. If the allegations are upheld, someone else should hand the sentence (albeit here there is consultation between the Dean and the instructor).

This is NEVER a pleasant situation, so tread carefully, keep all correspondence, and let the process follow its course: this will ensure greater fairness for all involved, and will give confidence to all that such situations are dealt uniformly and not in an instructor-dependent manner.

  • "it would allow students to challenge any decision made in the case" And in other cases, because as soon as the procedure isn't followed for one case, now students have precedent to point to when questioning whether the procedure is being applied fairly in their case. Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 4:06

As the lead faculty member at my college for anti-online-cheating efforts, I think the OP's initial plan is too lenient, and secondarily too subjective.

OP's initial plan:

My plan is to send an email to the class giving the cheaters a chance to come forward for a reduced penalty (scale down the grade based on the severity of the cheating). Otherwise, they will be reported to the university.

OP's motivation for this as per a comment:

... because this is the first offense (it is the first exam though), so I don't think jumping to reporting them is a good action. I may be wrong.

In line with other answers, I do think the OP should follow the standard institutional policy for academic integrity cases as soon as possible. In addition to the prior reasons, I would add this:

If these are university students, then it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that what's happened is a reflection of prior habits they've been following for... maybe 12+ years now? I'd say at this point it's naive to think this is truly "the first offense". What if these students are cheating at work in every single one of their college courses, and then pleading "first offense" or "didn't know" (very common, and should be disregarded as utterly unbelievable), and so are given this allowance continually throughout their program sequence?

My broad guess is that they've probably been given many "first offense" allowances over time, they've been either unpersuasive (or worse: evidence there is never any real penalty), and as a university instructor who cares about academic integrity (you've already spent the time to investigate this!), it's time to apply the putative penalty, so as to get the actual message across.

Moreover, as others have stated, the central Academic Integrity Officer is likely to maintain university-wide records, and decide or recommend increasing penalties for students who have had prior reports filed. (At my school, the available reports actually span 25 different campuses in our university system, in which transfers are common.) Having every instructor silo their own "first offense" process short-circuits that mechanism.

For these reasons, under the assumption that university students are expected to be previously aware of the rules (perhaps by reading syllabus information or other student materials, etc.), and also fairly long prior academic experience, I recommend assessing roughly the harshest penalty for cheating on tests possible. In my case, the default is a zero in any such case. I've found that assigning this as a "pending" null grade to the assignment makes students much more prompt about responding to cheating investigation inquiries (which otherwise go unreplied or "ghosted" in many cases). Perhaps more importantly, the OP's initial "scale down the grade based on the severity of the cheating" idea sounds vague and likely to result in bias or irregularities if they don't have a specific expected level of sanction decided in advance.

Also, I would generally avoid sending any course-wide messages out about the situation. That's because: (a) it's probably irrelevant, and possibly confusing, to the majority of students, (b) it fills the course mental space with negative chaff, and (c) it's probably a sign of instructor laziness, in that they couldn't bother to send a message to the specific students under investigation, which is the appropriate thing to do.

  • 1
    About the assumption of whether this is a "first offense": on the one hand, university students may find themselves under greater academic stress than they did in high school, so I'd be willing to believe that some of them had cheated for the first time. But the very first exam? I doubt they had time to build up that much stress. Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 2:57

I'm not going to pretend to know the "right" ethical and practical solution to your situation. I've never experienced this as an instructor before somehow. But the way I see it is that you have two options:

  • follow the ethics code exactly as written by the university; or
  • attempt to resolve the issue "internally" (i.e., keep it separate from the official disciplinary processes). this involves punishing the transgressors equally and befitting the severity of the misconduct (such as giving everyone involved a 0 on the exam), and then making it abundantly clear to the class, in a formal statement in front the entire student body, that cheating occurred in this specific way: if any student cheats again, they will face the possibility of an automatic failing grade for the class and possibly expulsion pursuant to the college code of conduct.

Obviously, the second one is trickier to do correctly, but more forgiving. So there's that trade-off. And in addition (this is going to sound disconcerting) it's probably safer for you to go with that possibility if you're tenured, in the event that something goes wrong with your internal solution (such as students claiming undue punishment, unfair or unequal treatment, or some kind of bias, even along racial lines or gender lines (I hate to bring these up, but accusations do happen, some of them true and some of them false)).

The key is to have incontrovertible proof that each person getting punished committed the "crime". And then punish them all identically. And finally explain exactly what happened to the entire class; the only thing that you need to omit is the names of the students who cheated.

As an aside, I want to tell a story of something that happened when I was a sophomore in Proofs, Induction, Set Theory, and Arithmetic class. A student posted a question from a homework assignment onto math.stackexchange.com – or maybe it was simply Stack Overflow or Stack Exchange at the time – and received answers. Viable answers. I was not aware of it. Several students copied the solution. It was a course / problem in which dozens of unique solutions could successfully evaluate in a sufficiently rigorous way. As such, it was obvious to the TAs and professor as to who copied the solution, at least to a certain approximation and confidence level.

The professor opened with a direct announcement the next lecture. He claimed he knew the full list of students who cheated (this may have been a little game theory and behavioral manipulation at work). His gambit was this, involving three possible outcomes:

  • the cheaters could reveal themselves immediately and apologize to the class for compromising the integrity of the course, and receive the least punishment
  • they could speak to the professor after class and receive a moderate punishment
  • they could do nothing and receive the worst punishment

I think they did the 2nd of those choices. But I can't be sure. All I know is that they didn't openly admit to the class. I don't even think he expected them to; it was partly a psychological game to get people to approach him afterwards.

I'm not saying this is the best way to handle your situation, but it was a memorable circumstance.

  • 3
    “Incontrovertible proof” is an almost impossible standard to meet and isn’t required even in criminal law to send someone to prison. The proof in this case needs to be reasonably convincing, that’s all (look up the term “preponderance of evidence”, that’s the standard most US campuses will apply to determine if someone guilty of cheating).
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 21:00
  • sorry, "beyond a reasonable doubt" Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 21:01
  • 3
    As I said, universities don’t apply this very high standard. Even civil courts require only “clear and convincing” proof for many (or all? IANAL) purposes, which is a lower bar than beyond a reasonable doubt.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 21:02

The key is that you're assuming this is a first offense. You don't know. Maybe they got caught cheating in every other on-line exam and they all get a verbal warning for a 1st offense, then again next semester. There should be a central academic dishonesty person who handles these things, and is good at it. They will know if it's a 1st offense.

Double-check you have a solid case (identical spelling errors is good), make notes, ask the students to come see you in a way that isn't too terrifying, figure out if everyone copied from Alice w/o her knowing, or whatever. Write it up with names and dates and the class name and what they said, and send it to the Academic Dishonesty person. Tell the students that for a 1st offense they will get yelled at, but nothing more. Mostly it gets written down (not on their diploma or anything like that, only for their time in college) so if it happens again they can't say "but I didn't know!" If they ask if it will show up for security clearance checks, it will, but it's no big deal. So as not to keep them in suspense, let them know it's your decision as far as grades go, decide ahead of time, and let them know if they confess (otherwise you have to wait. Most students eventually confess). Check their grades -- they may have been failing anyway, so it hardly matters. Let them know that if they retake the class with you, you won't take it personally (you're a busy person and don't have time to remember who did what last semester).

But don't believe me. See if you have an Academic Dishonesty person. They probably have a hand-out or something, or it's on the web page.

  • Re "identical spelling errors is good": The reverse can also be used - if it is too perfect (or the writing style is very different) for a particular student or group/type of students. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 15:42
  • @PeterMortensen Not so much. Identical perfect answers might mean you're a great teacher, they studied together... . But there's no way to explain identical "noise" (funny spacing, upper/lower, identical typos) except as copying. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 20:14
  • ^ I think both points here can be correct, depending on type/length of answer. E.g.: For a short-answer or a few lines of algebra, matching answers can be fine. But a 3 paragraph essay, or 100 lines of computer code, that are identical between students is a clear sign of copying. Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 13:07
  • 2
    I'd recommend checking with the Academic Dishonesty Person if it is indeed true that a first offence only gets you a telling off, before telling students that is the case. You probably don't want cheaters to be able to tell themselves that professors are also out to trick them.
    – HAEM
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 13:56

It may be a good idea to confront them with your findings and ask for their explanation. There just might be a reasonable one (I can't think of one, but...). You do not give them a way out, but follow school procedures. If they willingly cheated, they know also fully well, they have to face consequences. They may be dumb, but not THAT dumb, being allowed to study at a uni. You cannot cheat "a little", btw.


At many (most?) schools, faculty and students are expected to report all cases of suspected cheating they observe. You're expected to report everything because it's not your job to decide the case. That's the job of the academic conduct officer or perhaps an honor council. Your job is only to report what you see. If you later become aware that your suspicion was completely unfounded, many (most?) schools will allow you to retract your report with an explanation.

If you're faculty and reporting a student for suspected cheating, I don't think it's necessary to notify them before you submit your report. (Again, it's not your job to investigate or decide the case.) But I think it's good practice to notify the student that you have reported them and to provide a copy of the evidence you submitted (but redacted of any other students' names or identifying information, e.g., if the evidence is two identical exams) along with a link to a university academic policy page (if there is one) explaining the process by which the student's case will be decided.

  • Good advice at some places, I'm sure -- but like anything, this varies by institution. At my (very large U.S.) university, the faculty member is in fact required to contact the student, investigate, and even determine academic penalty (but not disciplinary penalty) before submitting a report on the findings. Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 18:52

The "cheaters please come forward now" scenario would require a lot of trust in the current (and possibly the future!) misconduct policy... maybe too much. And some cheaters might come forward, while others might decide to keep quiet. How would one handle that?

And report what? You cannot prove beyond doubt who was copying and who was authoring answers. And the author might have been cooperating, but might also still be completely unaware of the problem. Therefore I'd suggest this:

  • a unique and correct solution is worth full marks.
  • any identical submission appearing N times is worth 1/N each.

This addresses both sides: the author (lesson: "don't provide knowingly or accidentally a solution to others, it will lower your marks"), and the cheaters (lesson: "a copied solution isn't worth much").

If someone is unhappy with your suggestion, offer to forward the problem to the place which usually handles academic misconduct at your university.

  • 3
    The “author” is just as guilty of cheating as the “copier”, and there is no need to treat them any differently from each other. See this discussion.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 16:27
  • 15
    Your 1/N suggestion makes no sense. Grades are not a currency to be divvied up and and transferred between different people. The only logical grade to give someone known to have cheated on an assessment is 0.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 16:32
  • 4
    @DanRomik ...might make no sense to you at first view, but that's something quite common in Academia :) I'd refute the claim the "author" simply must be guilty, unless you can prove he or she shared the answers voluntarily or by being grossly negligent. For example, even security flaws in the test software are not without precedence. If you want to call someone a cheater, and take action, you should better be able to prove it. - The "division" method might even persuade a honest "author" to come forward and escalate the process.
    – jvb
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 18:25
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    How would this work? Suppose one answer was identical on 25 different exams because, without cheating, it's the most obvious and correct short answer? Your plan would have them penalize their grade despite no wrongdoing. But if two students turned in identical, down to the typos, five paragraph essays, you'd just each give them half credit instead of reporting them for cheating? Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 19:31
  • 4
    @jvb But if the author is not guilty, and cheating happened because of security flaws, then they don't deserve any punishment at all, neither 0 nor 1/N.
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 0:11

As suggested by the answers here, you should report that ! wait, you report what ? first degree cheating ? what about 2nd degree cheating and 3rd degree cheating as well ? the recurrent mistake made by professors, is that they only catch the easy prey while omitting the most wicked cheaters. Cheating has many ways, you could cheat by sitting and preparing the exam with your mate, you could do that in group as well (while many others prepare the exam alone (which is penalizing them)). Yes i consider that cheating in comparison with lonelisome students who do their hardest to prepare ALL by their own. Anyway you are only in doubt and that doesn't constitute a crime for the "cheaters".

  • So the most clueless cheaters get penalized. Sounds fair to me. In real world copying others is not an issue. If you cluelessly copy, then you lose. Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 7:21

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