I am co-teaching a relatively large class with two other colleagues in a big university. Each semester, most students are amazing, trustworthy, and well-behaved and it is a pleasure to work with my students. But there is a very small group of students each semester who cheat and I don't know how to deal with them.

The university has a detailed, strict, and elaborate policy for dealing with cheating. We send students suspected of cheating to a special committee where they decide if the student actually did anything wrong. The committee demands a copious amount of evidence before it convicts any student, yet at the same time, the university policy is so restrictive that we cannot collect evidence. For example, we are not allowed to do anything that indicates or suggest a student may have cheated. We are not allowed to mark their papers, move them during exams, or even talk to them. This means that most students get away with cheating if they are sent to the committee. Students who have copied identical answers from a neighbor over and over in quizzes got away with it in the committee. This process is so pointless that the course coordinator does not report most of the cases to the committee anymore.

I don't mind that a few students get away with cheating but the universities' restrictive policy shuts all the doors to any further discussion with the students. I am not looking for ways to punish my students. I want them to understand why cheating is unfair to other students and, hence, unacceptable. I want them to understand integrity and honesty are far more valuable traits than getting good grades in college.

Any suggestion on how I can communicate these ideas and their importance to my students?


I am sorry for not being clear. My question is not about how to prevent cheating. It is bout how to have a conversation with cheaters.

We do what we can to prevent cheating. We randomly seat students, make two copies of the exams, assign a good portion the final grade to labs, and use various other techniques. This question is about reaching to the cheaters and having a discussion with them.

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    I think the obvious answer is to change the university policy. Any luck with that? Are the restrictions for legal reasons?
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 19:53
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    I assign seating at exams, and the seating chart is essentially random. If I have reason to distrust a particular student, I set up the seating so that the untrustworthy student has no real opportunity to cheat. E.g., I put them in a front corner of the room, right under my eyes, and I don't seat an "A" student next to the cheater.
    – user1482
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 20:19
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    @BrianDHall: I totally agree that it is never 100%. But there are students who genuinely think cheating is not very different from helping a friend. Or they think cheating is just being smart. Again, this is big school with a diverse student population from different backgrounds. Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 21:23
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    @AlwaysAsking That's sensible, and indeed there are some cultures where what we define as cheating is not even considered a bad thing, as well as cultures where refusing to help a friend is a far graver offense, etc.
    – BrianH
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 21:29
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    You say "For example, we are not allowed to do anything that indicates or suggest a student may have cheated. We are not allowed to mark their papers, move them during exams, or even talk to them." You then ask "It is bout how to have a conversation with cheaters." It seems like your university has a very clear answer to your question: you're just not supposed to be doing that, no matter how much that sucks.
    – hvd
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 11:37

12 Answers 12


Since you speak of "a small group who cheat," it sounds like most of the students do understand the policies and importance of honesty. That remaining small group who cheats? Nothing that you do or say is going to convince them not to cheat.

Likewise, university policies often make it hard to actually punish cheaters, because they begin with the presumption of innocence, which is generally a good idea.

A better way to approach the problem is to adopt a "layered defense" strategy of a number of small actions that reduce the cost/benefit ratio available from cheating. Some of the sorts of strategies that I have seen include:

  • Increasing the separation between desks
  • Randomized assigned seating, which is likely to break up cheating conspiracies
  • Printing less questions per page, with lots of white-space for working the problems, so that an answer will not be visible for as long a period of time
  • Problems that are based on "showing your work" rather than obtaining the right answer.
  • Problems with many possible solutions, that convert copying into plagiarism.
  • Putting more credit into projects and labs, rather than exams.

None of these alone will solve the problem, but the more of them you can enact, the harder it is for cheaters to prosper. Some of them may even help the non-cheating students, by forcing them to engage more deeply with the material. The balance, of course, is that it all takes time and effort from the instructors and TAs, so you need to make your own cost/benefit analysis as well.

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    All your suggestions are good but they don't tackle the real problem. The real problem is that they don't understand why cheating is unfair. If they did, they would cheat much less. Being defensive or punishing them harshly doesn't make honesty an inner value for them. Once obstacles or punitive consequences removed, they would cheat again. Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 20:32
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    @AlwaysAsking I think jakebeal is arguing that you won't be able to convince them not to cheat ("Nothing that you do or say is going to convince them not to cheat."), so your only option is to mitigate the effects of their cheating. Some people insist on cheating even if they understand why cheating is unfair
    – darthbith
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 20:54
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    The real problem is that they don't understand why cheating is unfair. If they did, they would cheat much less. Cheaters bend rules, which are meant to protect the interest of the crowd in a fair manner to begin with; how would the enlightenment on fairness change them? And, what is "fair?" Many people can compensate in their minds to justify their action. "I come from a broken family and I need to get away from this bad neighborhood, I need to get good grades!" "My mom has cancer and I spent most of my week taking her to therapies, I didn't have time to study!" etc. What would you do/say? Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 21:11
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    @AlwaysAsking Regarding the statement "The real problem is that they don't understand why cheating is unfair" - As Penguin_Knight seems to be hinting at, the problem often isn't that students who cheat don't understand why it is unfair (or at least not any better or worse than other student), but rather because they place less importance on that fairness than the possibility of getting good grades - a possibility that in their mind increases with every 'successful' instance of cheating.
    – DTR
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 10:59
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    About labs - my experience with some undergraduate labs (in Physics) at one very academically rigorous and respected university was that they were extremely dishonest. There was a clear expectation by the majority of lab proctors and students I met, that people would fudge most unexpected/inaccurate results, go through the motions, and write lab reports as if we had had enough time and the equipment had worked flawlessly, even though both were usually impossibly inadequate. "Honestly" doing the labs was usually impracticable and would pretty much be punished by proctors and lab partners.
    – Dronz
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 16:41
  • Don't present it as a plagiarism/honesty problem so much as an originality/understanding problem. Problems need victims. The victim of my plagiarism problem might be a willing or eager one. Or maybe I paid him. Or maybe I don't care. The victim of my originality problem is myself, and my future, and my career.
  • Have them peer-review each other. Most students care about a professor's opinion, but they're stuck with each other for the rest of their lives, particularly if they're all going into the same profession to get published by the same journals or build the same industries. They can convince each other that tests are silly, temporary metrics and that cheating is no harm, no foul . . . but concepts of character and dignity will hit much closer to home for students who have to produce comments about each other's originality.
  • Have them produce questions about each other's codes, proofs, theorems, or whatever the subject matter is. If it's a technical class in which many answers are likely to look identical whether they are produced honestly or not, commenting on each other's work might be redundant. But producing questions requires creativity in every field, and answering those questions for each other requires basic conceptual understanding.
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    +1 I actually really like this answer because it doesn't presume that cheaters are just failed students you're unable to reason with. Though that may turn out to be the case, it seems more productive to at least try and change them. Introducing teamwork really accelerates the whole "the world needs people who can actually do their work, we can't have doctors who cheated" thing.
    – Prime
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 15:39

Serious question: why is cheating unfair to the other students? Do you bell your grades? If a handful of students get 90 who should have got 70, will all the rest of the students see their marks drop 1 or 2% to compensate? If you don't officially bell, do you do so mentally (class average on that midterm was 82; I had better make the second one a little harder) ?

If not, then how is it unfair to the other students that some cheat? It is unfair to themselves since they will have the mark but not the knowledge to go with it. They will probably blow a job interview or two. They may struggle in next year's courses that assume they know this year's material. They are hurting themselves compared to genuinely learning the material. They cheat for one of two reasons:

  • they don't care if they learn the material or not; it is of no value to them and they only want the mark
  • they are unable to learn the material in the time they can allot to doing so

If you want to change their behaviour, you'll need to change one of these two things. Either show them how what they are learning will be of value to them, or find a way to help them learn it better.

Examples of the first:

  • Today we will learn to normalize a database. This is a common technique when [whatever] and CSC 203, DSC 307 and most grad courses here all assume you're thoroughly capable at this technique
  • The next few lectures cover this history and motivations of the X technique. I've heard that students who know this material well do very well in job interviews for Y positions, because the interviewers are always asking about this topic
  • By the end of this term you will know how to ABC. This is the most common task assigned to new hires who've just graduated from our DEF program, which is why this course is required for all of you. While I hope you all get high marks in this course, what's really important is that you master the technique: there's about an 80% chance that you'll spend your first working year doing this, for an employer who won't help you if you find it difficult. The TAs and I are here to make sure you're comfortable with it by the time you leave us

Sure, this is work. As an adjunct myself, I don't always know what things I teach actually matter in what other courses the university offers - I don't have the curriculum memorized. I do have a little more insight into the job picture than some other profs. Still, you can figure this stuff out - ask the TA if you have one, for example.

Now the second part. Some cheaters are privileged self entitled brats who can't be bothered to put in the work. (My father taught someone who brought a servant to labs to do the actual physical work of the lab and couldn't understand why anyone would object.) Ignore them: whoever should have reached them at age 4 did not, and you probably won't now. But some are scared: if their average drops they'll lose their scholarship. They're finding it hard to keep up because they have a job as well as studying. Their parent or significant other is ill. They are hanging on to their position rather precariously and they do rash and wrong things because they think they have no choice. You can gain some insight into that mindset in another question: I was caught cheating on an exam, how can I minimize the damage? especially some of the earlier revisions where the OP explains why they decided to cheat.

So if you think someone has cheated and you don't want to use the official system, simply hand them a note that says "See Me" and a time and place such as "30 minutes before class, in our classroom" or "5pm today, in my office." When you have them alone say something like this:

I think you were really struggling in that exam. I have learned to spot facial expressions over the years and you did not have the material for this course cold, nowhere near. You may manage to pull off a decent mark, whether by guessing or some other approach, but I don't think you know everything you need to know. Don't think I'm calling you in to get you in trouble. I want to help you. What do you need to learn this material thoroughly? Would you like a one on one session to go over the test questions and be sure you understand how to solve them? I have some resources that provide the same material we cover in class but from a different perspective, would you like those? (Perhaps some prefer videos, some diagrams, some hands on practices etc.) Have you talked to the student resource centre about test anxiety, test taking techniques, studying techniques etc? Did you know that if you have demonstrable issues with, for example, multiple choice questions I can work with the student resource centre to construct an exam that's a more accurate measure of what you personally know?

The entitled ones probably won't even come to the meeting, but if they do, they will decline all your offers and get out of there as fast as they can. The desperate ones? You just might reach them.

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    I am glad that you mentioned "I was caught cheating on an exam, how can I minimize the damage?"(academia.stackexchange.com/questions/30539/…). This is good advice on how to deal with the cheater who receives help. Do you have any advice on who to deal with the students who gives help to the cheater? Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 3:22
  • Well, if less people want to cheat, less people will be asked to help... I suppose analogies about getting a cigarette for a friend who's trying to quit might be applicable, but I would focus on lowering demand rather than supply. Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 12:24
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    "...why is cheating unfair to the other students?" It cheapens their degrees. Employers will soon figure out that not all graduates of Acme U. can do what their degrees say they can do, and will look at all graduates of Acme U.with suspicion
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 19:12

I want them to understand why cheating is unfair to other students and, hence, unacceptable.

If I wanted to reason with a handful of cheating students, I wouldn't start by trying to convince them that cheating is unfair to others. I'd try to convince them that cheating is unfair to themselves.

Too many students have gotten into a mindset that they attend college primarily to obtain a degree. Instead, they should be there to attain an education. (There's a difference – and this difference often affects student attitudes and behavior.)

Students who aim to get a degree without caring about their education don't worry about how much they learn – they only care about what goes on their transcript. These students have no problem missing class, so long as they feel like they can get their hands on any "testable" material after the lecture. If they miss class for some reason, they will often ask, "Did I miss anything important?" (Translated, this means, "Did I miss anything I will need to know for the exam?" Sadly, it never seems to mean, "Did I miss anything that might come in handy for my first job?")

These students also have less qualms about cheating on an exam. It's all about getting a good grade on the test, which leads to getting a good grade on the transcript, which will lead to a good job down the road.

You might try reminding these slackers that they'll eventually be competing with students who did the work right and learned the hard way – and that some employers like to ask some tough questions during hiring interviews. Students who took their education seriously will probably have better success during those job interviews.

And even if they are lucky enough to bamboozle the HR interviewer and get a job offer somewhere, these students aren't necessarily out of the woods yet. Challenge them to gaze into the crystal ball, and imagine what will happen after that: when the company who hired them gets disappointed with their new employee, and more senior coworkers start to marvel at how that kid who had all those As and Bs on his transcript doesn't seem to know jack about anything, and can't write a decent memo to save his life.

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    I like this answer since it begins to address the fundamental issue, which I would argue is that students who cheat do so because the incentives are perceived to be greater for getting a high score than for achieving high understanding. I think a way to emphasize this is to increase the validity of the exam, e.g. make exam questions more obviously related to the kinds of things required in real life (even if we consider academia real life ;)
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 19:10
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    @Tim - I often do that on my exam's essay questions. I could ask, "Which is better, A or B?" or, "Compare and contrast X & Y." Instead, I'll couch those same questions in a word problem. "You're at your new job, and hear two people debating the merits and disadvantages of A & B. One of them notices you listening, and asks, ‘What do you think? What's your opinion on this?’" Or, "Your new boss calls you into his office and invites you to sit down. He says, ‘Don't tell anyone out there, but I've always been a little confused about the differences between X & Y. Can you explain that to me?’"
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 19:46

Your question was how to "communicate these ideas and their importance" to your students.

Sadly, you cannot. These students will cheat as long as it works for them, as you have already observed.

You can cut down on cheating by using jakebeal's suggestions in his answer.

I teach in the field of computing. The idea (of Jake's) that works best is supervised practical labs. Give the students homework, but make them come to the lab and produce a program. If they've cheated on the homework, they won't be able to do it. When they fail the lab, which should be a significant part of the grade, perhaps they will learn why they should not cheat. (My experience is that even that doesn't work. It does help cheaters pave their path to the exit.)

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    You could have the students' assignment be to write a simulation where simulated cheating students eventually meet a variety of simulated ill fates. ;-)
    – Dronz
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 16:44
  • @BobBrown While I appreciate the context in which your answer was offered, I have a quibble with your description of "paving a path to the exit" for anyone. As teachers, I feel we should be much more concerned with creating bridges to the entrance to our fields. These paths to the exit, even if they are well intentioned, can very easily turn into gating mechanisms that perpetuate the lack of diversity in technical fields.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 19:00
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    @Tim: We'll have to agree to disagree with respect to serial cheaters. While I certainly want to recruit the best and brightest to my institution, I do not believe anyone should be allowed to cheat their way to a university degree. I don't believe diversity has anything to do with the subject. Serial cheaters are serial cheaters.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 19:04
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    @Tim: I've been reflecting on your comment. While I believe professors should never tolerate cheating, it occurs to me that cheaters are paving their own paths to the exit, and I've revised my answer accordingly.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 13:29
  • @BobBrown I appreciate your responses, and moreso your willingness to consider your perspective. I also completely understand the need you describe to have and enforce ethical standards, so I should also qualify my statements.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 5:18

Randomize the questions on the quiz so that they can't cheat off their neighbors. You're approaching the problem administratively, when I think you can deal with it pedagogically.


If you print the tests with the questions distributed randomly, so that question #7 on one test is question number 17 on another, and the correct answer to each question is also randomized, that seems to me a good solution to students looking at one another's answers.


If you are worried about whether students copy each other answers on exam just split them into groups, with each group having different (but similary difficult) questions, then arrange seating in such way that neighbours will be in different groups. This will make cheating much harder.

This arrangement is quite popular in Poland.

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    Or just put students taking different exams of the same length in the same room. e.g. mix up 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students in the exam room.
    – Ian
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 0:01
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    There is no "just" to this at all. Exam schedules are super hard to do. Adding this complication would make it even harder. Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 19:05
  • Well it's not hard to set up at all. On my university on larger courses it is done habitually. Just give alternate materials to every other row.
    – jb.
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 23:05

I think, the real problem here is not the cheaters but the helpers.

You stress out that the cheaters do not understand that cheating is not fair. Well, it does not have to be! Because life itself is not fair and this is exactly the point of view of a cheater.

A student who lost his dad 4 days ago, a student who is sick and a student who is fully-fit taking the same quiz is not fair. What I mean is, cheater could have his/her own reasons for cheating.

Hence, the problem becomes telling the helper that cheating is unfair.

But which part of cheating is unfair? Now let's say cheater C, helper H and a non-cheater N is taking the quiz. It is unfair because a N either studied hard and took the same grade with C or did not study and got nothing even though C got a high grade. Well, in this case, H does not care what happens because he/she is helping a friend.

What I would do (actually did several times) is:

  • Ask questions that can be answered in so many ways and distribute the full points of each question equally between the same answers. e.g. if question is worth 10 points and 5 students have the same answer, each get 2. This also encourage students to improve their creativity. That will prevent helper to continue helping and cheater to take minimum benefit.
  • Give extra points to cheaters! When the results are announced, the helper will surely want to check his/her paper. But will not be able to find anything wrong and cannot ask to check the cheater's paper as well. Now, the hepler either will admit that he/she helped or will say no to further help requests.

In the long run, however, I decided not to care so much because university does not care as much as I do.

  • I love the suggestion of dividing points among similar answers. I think even encouraging students to work together to produce unique answers (i.e. "You can compare answers among yourselves") could be a really cool activity.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 19:08

It sounds to me that part of the problem is your university's policies, such as on collecting evidence and departments not reporting incidents. You may be able to collect evidence in a more roundabout manner (Can you make copies which you then mark up for evidence? Can you require that all graded materials be returned to you?). If you're still finding no way to effectively dissuade cheating and are getting no support form the university, you may need to consider looking for a different place to teach that actually cares.

One component of preventing cheating is making exams or projects where cheating is going to be very difficult. Having exams where students have to apply knowledge instead of just reciting memorized facts generally cuts down on students even being able to cheat (possibly with a fact sheet provided). Or, do like one of my art teachers did and actually assign a short portion of the exam period for collaboration. It'll honestly be a bit more like the "real world" if the end goal is application of facts instead of memorization.

As far as communicating good values to these students, I've had very little success at doing so myself. One statistic I've seen is that about 75% of undergraduates (and 25% of grad students) in one study self-reported cheating in college courses. For many students, the ends justify the means (consider tuition costs!). Ethics definitely would have to be presented to the class so they actually affect students' internal cost-benefit analysis. What will you be looking for that could get flagged as cheating? How would a future boss respond to fudged numbers or trying to submit someone else's work? How can applying yourself actually make tuition be worth it (or at least be less of a grievance)? How is this field applicable in the real world outside of the classroom?


I simply disagree with those who believe that there is nothing you can do and these students will continue cheating.

There can be many reasons behind this behavior:

  • some may fail to understand the importance of the course/topic

  • some may be desperate to get high marks because they are not in a good academic standing

  • some may have other issues, including family issues, etc.
  • some may be taking too many courses that they cannot allocate enough time for each
  • some may simply find it culturally acceptable.

I guess your best bet is to first identify the reason behind this behavior. Communicate with your students in a constructive way. Put yourself in their shoes and see what is the actual source. Only then you'll be able to effectively address these issues.

Clearly, finding the reasons is time consuming and requires a lot of effort from your side. But based on your question, I am assuming that you care about your students and are willing to take the necessary steps.

There are various ways to deal with each of the above situations. I'll be more than happy to briefly go over some of them if you are interested.

  • Thank you for the answer. I'd like to know how to deal with each of these situations, please. Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 17:20

In my own teaching, I do not distinguish between "cheaters" and "helpers" in the way that you seem to suggest. The helper and the helped are both cheaters.

That said, the helpers are likely to be better students (since they can help), and thus are likely to have further ambitions (graduate study, well-paying jobs) for which they can use your goodwill later. My own attitude (and that of some like-minded colleagues) is that formal grades are always given as a matter of course when someone completes the work defined for a certain course, but my further mentoring, letters of recommendation for graduate school, support for local awards, etc., are optional at my sole discretion, and must be separately earned by demonstrated scholastic ability as well as appropriate conduct.

I thus do nothing with regard to grading when I know that a student has cheated (either as the helper or the helped) but have no proof, but that student will not later get a letter of recommendation, or a friendly tip about an exciting job opportunity at a great company, etc., from me. My colleagues and I who serve on local committees for awards during graduation, etc., also vote down any student whose ethics are suspect. This is not published policy as such, but good students know that this is how things work, and it keeps them in check.

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