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I am teaching a small class in my university. This is my first time, and as I am still a PhD student and the university was missing a teacher, I ended being selected to present it.

It is a programming class. During my first coursework marking, I found one answer to be suspicious, coming from a student. I checked online and found the exact same answer on Stack Overflow. It doesn't mean anything by itself, as it is a rather simple and short answer, but other small details led me to believe the student may have copied it online (which from the university guidance given to them is not authorised).

I raised my concern to my course leader, who told me to look at the misconduct guidance. I contacted the contact in the Discipline Committee in my school, and they told me to file a report to the Student Conduct Office which will investigate the matter, as staff and teacher should not investigate themselves.

I had to contact the student to inform them, and I now feel very bad about this whole thing.

It is only one question on the coursework and there is no clear evidence, only suspicions. The student had mitigating circumstances for the last few years and just returned to university this semester. I'm afraid that if they didn't cheat, I will make them very stressed.

I am aware that I am "simply following the procedure", and that as a PhD student I feel like I have even less margin of action than a regular teacher. But I can't stop this feeling that I am not doing something correct.

How do you justify possibly wrongly reporting a student for cheating/plagiarising/etc and causing them more stress other than the simple ethic that cheating is not correct?

Alternatively, was it even the correct choice?

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    "I had to contact the student to inform them, and I now feel very bad about this whole thing." Your brain is wrongly conflating "I made someone feel bad" and "I did something wrong". That's literally all there is to it. Nov 1, 2023 at 17:25
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    @AdamPřenosil it sounds so simple and easy when you put it like that. Thanks still, it helps a lot reflecting on it
    – JackRed
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:55
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    As an academic teacher your responsibility is to teach people and confirm that they have learned what they should have and not "make them feel good". Making people feel good (or, in particular, not feeling bad) seems to be a priority nowadays for a lot of people, which does much more harm than good. What I would do is to stress to the student that this is "a suspicion", then that "you are formally obliged to raise an investigation" and that "if he did not cheat, then he will not suffer in any way". Ensure (within your power) that the investigation is fair and that's all.
    – Spook
    Nov 2, 2023 at 11:50
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    It doesn't matter if you feel bad. What if the student had an arrogant personality that made you not feel so bad? This is why policies exist, so they are fair to all. Nov 3, 2023 at 2:22
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    @GregoryCurrie well look, I am human. It's easy to say "it could be like this, and it would be different". It's not. And it does matter to me if I feel bad or not
    – JackRed
    Nov 3, 2023 at 8:36

6 Answers 6

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You have been told exactly what to do, namely to follow procedures. This protects academic integrity, the student, and you as the "whistle blower". At most universities, convictions are only obtained with an overabundance of evidence, so that you do not need to be too concerned about your student. The student has ample chances to protest their innocence and will not need an advocate.

I understand that you are feeling bad because you are imagining scenarios where your accusation is false. But that is not quite true. You in fact did not make an accusation, you just noticed something that objectively would be seen as suspicious.

Since you accepting the teaching job, you accepted the responsibilities that go with it. This includes reporting occurrences like that. It is now too late to have second thoughts about these responsibilities.

On a human level, you need to stop taking responsibilities that are not yours. This will take time to learn, but if you do not learn it, you will not be a very effective member of society and of academia.

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    Thanks for the answer, and the last paragraph. Felt a bit harsh on the first read, but resonate with the experience I have
    – JackRed
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:48
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    +1 especially for the last paragraph. It's common in student/youth culture that if you do something wrong, get discovered, and suffer bad consequences, then it's not you who are at fault for those bad consequences, but the one who discovered your misdeeds. But people have to grow out of this way of thinking, or it will make it very difficult to become successful in the next stages of life.
    – vsz
    Nov 2, 2023 at 8:07
  • @vsz 'Steelman' take on that mindset: when there is a relatively haphazard link between effort and reward, people become more attuned to questions of moral luck and the illusory nature of certain rules. You can see this in the way that people in the higher echelons of power frequently take risks and break rules: they do so not just because they tautologically have power to begin with, but because they understand that rules are relative to power and that it's anarchy at the top.
    – Qwokker
    Nov 7, 2023 at 18:27
  • Likewise, a student might come to understand how playing the game truly relates to building a successful life and might reject the idea of academic rules for their own sake. In other words, some students might get caught and others not, but it's not a storybook world where applying or failing to apply the moral rules you are given results in reward or punishment. Note that this is distinct from the student reaction of just blaming the world for their sloppiness.
    – Qwokker
    Nov 7, 2023 at 18:29
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I agree with the vast majority of @ThomasSchwarz answer on a factual level, but actually, what a most disagree with is the last paragraph.

Feeling bad is a sign of compassion for your student. In a world where compassion is often not enough in evidence, compassion in an educator is a superpower. It might make you do and think about why this student did this. Are there any changes to the course design you could suggest that might have made it less likely?

In 10 years of teaching I have not stopped feeling bad when I have to flag students for investigation. Particularly if that student has had a hard time. But i do still flag people - that bad feeling is just part of being an educator.

Instead of trying to avoid this feeling by trying to learn that it's not your responsibility, sit with the feeling and reflect on what it says about you as an educator, and what it would mean if you stopped caring about the fact that a young person going through a hard time will now face the consequences of a bad decision.

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    I understand what you are saying. I think I am taking away points from both your answers. I think compassion is good, and I know myself enough, it is not going to go away. But I do think on some level what ThomasSchwarz said is right, and I have to draw a line somewhere, so I can act responsibly. But I join you on what you said, which is I have some responsibilities as an educator.
    – JackRed
    Nov 2, 2023 at 10:33
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    'that bad denning is just post off being an educator' should read 'that bad feeling is just part of being an educator'??
    – Rich N
    Nov 2, 2023 at 15:36
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    As well, there is nothing to stop you reaching out to the student and saying "the discipline thing is out of my hands now, but hey, if you're going through something that led you to some shortcuts, perhaps you need some extra help? We can spend some time on the stuff you're finding difficult... " Nov 2, 2023 at 16:16
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    @RichN , yes. Sorry writing in a phone first thing in the morning, in a rush while I wait for my porridge to cook, with added dyspraxia is a naff combination. Nov 2, 2023 at 16:30
  • You could add, (if you agree) that this is a moment where the student may be experiencing powerful emotions also which should clarify for the student how serious academic integrity is. For better or worse, even the appearance of impropriety can have consequences, and now the student should be aware of that. So the student should have learned from this experience and perhaps remembering that can be some comfort to the educators involved. Nov 3, 2023 at 12:27
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In the interests of making you feel less guilty I'm going to point to all the other students in the class who (almost definitely!) did the coursework themselves without any visible potential academic misconduct. On behalf of them, I will say "Thank you" for upholding the value of their work. Some of them will also be facing difficult circumstances. Think about how they'd feel if they knew some people obtained the same qualification as they did not by doing the work but by just copying stuff off the internet. You did the right thing for your part of the procedure and the institution's policies (enacted by people more experienced than you) should be robust enough to take care of the rest.

You probably still feel bad about the possible negative consequences. If it helps, look up your institution's policy (the academic misconduct procedure will be laid out very clearly so that students who are subject to it know exactly what is going to happen). The actual consequences might be a lot less impactful than you're imagining.

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For a conscientious instructor, handling academic integrity cases will probably always remain something of a pain point, and rightfully probably should.

Simply getting more experience will give some perspective. I've dealt with a lot of cases at this point, and I'm not so troubled as I was initially.

(For the following, note that the process at my institution is quite different than the OP's or many other institutions. E.g., at my university, the faculty are required to investigate and cycle with the student before filing a report. While there is a formal disciplinary process, the administration is broadly supportive of faculty handling the whole issue themselves to taste, with consent of the student.)

  • Part of experience reducing tension comes from getting familiar with the process. I've become aware of exactly what will happen, how considerate the Academic Integrity Officer is to everyone, and how broadly unlikely it is for really harsh punishments to be meted out.

  • Another helpful element is that I've developed my own flowchart/FAQ/template for email interactions at various steps with students in question. When an issue arises, I log it in a spreadsheet, and paste the appropriate email notification. This reduces time spent, and in a case where I might be a bit emotional or uncertain, I get confidence that I've previously thought out my responses and process at a quieter moment, and they've been battle-tested over time.

  • Also, I've come to see that in my context there's a very limited number of denials I get from students (really just two or three primary ones), and they almost always follow the same pattern of flipping when I present hard evidence. So now I have very little anxiety when I get the standard denials back, knowing the student is almost surely trying to gaslight me, and that's just one step in the usual process.

Obviously, you still want to cover your bases, be responsible, and if in doubt (if the case isn't ironclad), default to just letting it pass.

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It's okay to have conflicted feelings... even if the student DID cheat

Life can be pretty brutal so it's normal to feel guilt when you are bringing immediate harm to another person's existence, even if they set the events in motion themselves. This is especially the case when it is the result of a machinery of rules or a larger institution which you are beholden to and have no control over.

There is a strong element of moral luck in those situations. Ideally, you'd want to be able to apply rules that make for a better world, but in practice some people get caught and other do not, and the consequences are often disproportionate compared to the harm done to society. That student might have their life upended by their cheating, but the overall harm and justification for that punishment might not actually make sense even if on paper it follows the social and legal rules as they are laid out (cheaters not prospering). You know deep down that although the student brought it upon themselves, it is also the result of your decision to flag them that they will pay the price. There is no escaping your personal responsibility.

However, the system has evolved to take on these situations

Academic dishonesty is a well-oiled process in most institutions, and they are generally risk averse, requiring a high degree of evidence. The student might also continue cheating in various ways later on, so a wakeup call in a 'safe' context can actually be a blessing in disguise.

At the end of the day, systems such as these cannot be solely based on sparing people's feelings, otherwise they become meaningless and ineffective. It also introduces an element of unfairness, as then sensitivity becomes the barometer of the application of consequences: both that of the person who will suffer the punishment and that of the person who is worried about punishing others. Essentially a return of moral luck but where the luck has to do with the personality of the people involved.

Academic integrity is still a big deal since it underpins much of the price the institution can demand for their services, and much of the value of the diploma that results. The best path, moving forward, is to clearly analyze and come to understand the responsibilities you have been given, and to confront the harder decisions before you have to make them in the future. If you had done this moral and emotional prep work, this would perhaps have resulted in less intense feelings because you would not simply have come to rely on the argument of 'just following the rules' to assuage your guilt post-facto.

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You inquired if your choice was even correct? I say, it was. You discovered an anomaly, you reported it. As you were expected to when you accepted the responsibility of teaching a small class.

That you have empathy for your student is commendable and shows that you care deeply about what happens to them, That you took time to learn about the plight of your student reinforces, bodes well to your teaching future.

Consider the situation when you did not follow the procedure that was set up for situations like this. Would you have felt anything different when you later discover the student benefited from your 'inaction?'

Correct also signifies there was no error, no mistake. So your reporting of student misconduct was correct action on your part. What may be bugging you that you have doubts that your action was not proper, as in, morally acceptable.

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