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Today I took my midterm exam for one of my classes. I saw that a student next to me was using her phone, and as I turned my head she hid it. At the end of the exam I wrote a note to my professor, I didn't mention the person's name, but I said that such type of behavior is not acceptable and that he should notice it next time.

I am kind of nervous that I will get in trouble for it, Did I do the right thing? What if the professor penalizes me? I studied really hard for this exam and I figured that it wasn't fair for my classmates and I to see a cheater get a good grade, and us a lower grade.

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    You will not get in trouble with your professor. Demanding that your professor see this next time, on the other hand, is hardly a reasonable request. I can assure you that they tried to spot cheaters. Knowing that cell phones were used might be helpful. I've never cheated and seen plenty of cheating around me. I find it best to just shrug, although others at Acad. SE will or might disagree on this last point. – gnometorule Oct 16 '15 at 2:56
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    You should state where this situation happened. Attitude towards cheating is matter of local "unwritten rules" and sometimes even varies from professor to professor. In some places cheating is major offense that may get you expelled. In others it's merely a nuisance and the worst thing that can happen is having another take at the exam. – Agent_L Oct 16 '15 at 9:39
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    @Agent_L Sometimes the local rules are completely written, as in the case of University honor codes, etc. – Todd Wilcox Oct 16 '15 at 12:16
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    @I think you're completely missing the point. Sure, there may be written rules, but how and if they're applied is completely a matter of local culture and traditions. In many cultures, what's written on paper may be completely orthogonal to what's actually happening. This may be especially unusual for people who come from cultures where the unwritten rule is that written rules are applied. – AndrejaKo Oct 16 '15 at 13:47
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    Much better to tell this to the professor in person, rather than writing a note. Ask your professor if he thinks you did the right thing in reporting it. You'll see what kind of environment you're in by the reactions. Also, why don't you have a chat with other students about cheating, and see if everyone agrees it should be stopped. – PatrickT Oct 17 '15 at 17:34
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You were right to inform the professor of cheating, and you shouldn't be penalized for that: your grade in the exam should depend only on what you wrote in your answers and nothing else.

However, I don't understand your motivation in writing the note. You should consider what you were trying to achieve by writing it. The way you describe it, the note sounds like it was lecturing the professor on how to do their job, rather than doing anything about cheating. You describe cheating as "unacceptable" but, by not naming the cheater, you show that you're more willing to accept cheating than the consequences of standing up to it. But, of course, it's your choice and your evaluation of the consequences is the most important.

You should perhaps consider other ways of dealing with the cheating. Other options include writing an anonymous note naming the cheater to the appropriate administrative staff. If you're worried that that would still leave you identifiable because the cheat knows you saw them, you could just start discussing the issue with other people in your class. If it becomes common knowledge that some unnamed person was cheating in the exam, peer pressure might stop that person cheating in the future.

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    "common knowledge that some unnamed person was cheating" ... I think this lynch mob justice / peer-pressure tactic is an awful way to handle this situation, which may not even be a case of cheating. Maybe the student had an urgent concern (unrelated to the test) that required checking their phone? – dionys Oct 16 '15 at 9:54
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    @dionys I have not advocated lynching or even threatening anyone. Furthermore, I see no legitimate reason for using a phone in an exam. If you're expecting urgent and extremely important news (for example, if a close relative is gravely ill), arrange in advance that you'll give the phone to the invigilator, who can take the call if it happens during the exam. – David Richerby Oct 16 '15 at 10:06
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    Most of your answer is reasonable; my comment is in regard to this advice: "you could just start discussing the issue with other people in your class. If it becomes common knowledge that some unnamed person was cheating in the exam, peer pressure ...". [I can't imagine the 'unnamed' person stays anonymous very long--might even be attributed to an uninvolved third party. So my opinion is this a situation to be avoided.] – dionys Oct 16 '15 at 10:08
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    Anonymous letters accusing someone - please no. We had so many of them during the communist regime and their secret police. Too easy to ruin someone's life with fabricated accusations. Anonymous letters belong straight to the bin. – Vladimir F Oct 16 '15 at 14:21
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    Maybe the student had an urgent concern (unrelated to the test) that required checking their phone? — Then the student should have approached the professor and said, "Excuse me, I have an urgent concern that requires checking my phone." – JeffE Oct 16 '15 at 19:38
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Depending on the university, there may be guidelines for what to do. My alma mater has this sentence in its full honor code document:

This includes an obligation to report violations by other students to the Honor Committee.

So at the university I attended, students are expected to report other students to the Honor Committee, not necessarily to a professor or anyone else. It is possible that some institutions or honor committees consider it a violation of the honor or ethics code to not report violations that you witness, although I doubt the punishment for not reporting is severe at all, in those cases.

If you have an honor code and/or ethics code or committee or anything like that at your university, then that's where you should look for next steps.

  • Great answer. Your professor needs more institutional support -- more proctors, clear policy and enforcement regarding electronic devices, larger testing location to allow for more space between students and greater mobility of proctors. – aparente001 Oct 17 '15 at 16:10
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First, I'd like to be clear that I agree with your opinion that cheating should not be tolerated; it is unfair to other students, and generally has a negative effect on both learning and motivation in coursework.

I think honestly informing your instructor about observations or experiences in an exam is generally helpful, and we are almost always greatful for the feedback. In general this should not be something you can "get in trouble" with your instructors over.

That said, I'd like to point out that you probably don't have any responsibility (or authority) to make judgements about your classmate, or the gravity of her offence. I know that when you are stressed by time-constraints and a challenging course load it is tempting react strongly to the thought of someone cheating. It appears that your classmate was doing something wrong, but the fact is that you don't know that for sure. If you think about it in that light, you might appreciate that you are relieved of this burden (judging her and deciding her consequences). Hopefully, your professor can look at the incident more objectively and take appropriate action and/or appropriate precautions for the next exam.

Your reaction, accurately reporting what you saw, was the right one. Now you should let the instructor deal with it, and avoid jumping to any undue conclusions.

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    I can't imagine any legitimate reason for using a mobile phone in an exam but I otherwise agree with your answer. – David Richerby Oct 16 '15 at 10:15
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    @DavidRicherby ... It's possible that the student who pulled out her phone was putting it in "silent" mode, or turning it off. "I'll probably get a call in 5 minutes, I don't want it to disrupt my or other students' work on the exam, I'd better turn it off." The student could even have been making sure it was off, although "using" seems to rule that out. – david Oct 16 '15 at 13:37
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    @david If somebody in an exam realises they forgot to put their phone in silent mode or turn it off, they should attract the attention of the invigilator and explain the situation to them. – David Richerby Oct 17 '15 at 7:52
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    There may be reasons for using the cell phone during an exam, but none at all for doing so in a stealthy way. If you have a valid problem, you'd speak to the examiner. If you don't, your problem is either invalid in the scope of an exam situation, or you are ... dumb. – Raphael Oct 17 '15 at 11:30
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    @DavidRicherby: All of your arguments are as psychologically naive as they are formally correct. People are not robots programmed by regulations alone. They are robots programmed by their assumptions about regulations, social conventions etc. People risk their own lives every day out of politeness. Look up the death of Jimi Heselden on Wikipedia if you need a good example. – user27799 Oct 17 '15 at 14:19
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Your sense of justice is something to be appreciated. I don't see the reason as to why should the professor penalize you for reporting malpractice. But as for 'getting into trouble' part this may cause problems if any of your peers connected to the one you reported about comes to know of this. So best remain discreet about the issue even to your own colleagues.

Although the right thing to do, it is not something for you to get too concerned about; your main concern should be on your future. Initial reporting is good, but better not try to force the professor to take action. Students who do malpractice do not generally go far in course. They usually do this to avoid a fail than to score the top. When it comes to the end, it is the true skills earned that will determine their job. So, if they do cheat, then they are just cheating themselves.

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    "Students who do malpractice do not generally go far in course." Some of the best cheaters are some of the most successful people in the world. Because they, erm, cheated. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 16 '15 at 9:56
  • I meant in the course they cheat in. Could you state any examples otherwise, @LightnessRacesinOrbit? – Ébe Isaac Oct 16 '15 at 10:06
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    @ÉbeIsaac Schön got his PhD, a job at Bell labs, and several international awards. – Davidmh Oct 16 '15 at 10:35
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    @Davidmh: The society is not composed only of outliers (notice I used the word generally). If a few examples can outrule facts then the need for education itself would be questionable as there are quit a few examples of people excelling without it. – Ébe Isaac Oct 16 '15 at 14:12
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    I think the important point is that there is a certain type of people who tend to get very far with cheating. Among German conservative politicians with a PhD, it seems to be almost the norm that it was plagiarised. I don't think that's healthy, so stopping this type when (if) they cheat themselves through their first degree might be beneficial. – user27799 Oct 17 '15 at 17:22
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You noticed the use of a phone and put your professor's attention to the fact that a phone was used (possibly for cheating). That's good, so next examination phones can be forbidden (or blocked). But you did not tell your professor: "It is your job to notice this. You failed!", did you? This might not be considered as appropriately polite.

Regarding the possible cheating it would be a point to mention whether it might effect you directly, for example if the top x % of a course pass, getting more points (by cheating) than you could result in you failing the exam (while you would have passed with your number of achieved points if the cheater would not have gotten more points than you). And if failing that course means failing your study, well, standing up an yelling "Phone!" pointing at it might be appropriate. (Otherwise this is not appropriate, of course.)

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There are many students like you who often see such incidents but prefer not to complain because a cheater can never succeed more than a meritorious/hard working student. If you are studying well and doing hard work, then she can never get better grades than you. Mostly a student starts cheating when he/she loses faith in him/herself to pass the exam.

If you have reported the matter to your professor, then you have done a good job. Usually, professors take those matters easy and never make it complicated. So stop thinking negatively and prepare for your next exams.

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I feel you mate, but my advice is - better try living without the need of things to be fair. That's impossible to achieve and you will be happier if you mind your own business without caring what other have and you don't. :) You should be proud of yourself cause you didn't cheat. And also try not to care about grades so much.. they don't matter. What you learn is what matters. As an example my boss now is 2 years younger than me and didn't finish university yet while i have bachelor degree. Anyways, i wish you good luck, and try staying away of negative thoughts! ^^

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    "grades don't matter" is true in some contexts, and very false in others. Talking about graduate students, for example, after graduation grades are mostly irrelevant; but during the program, they are generally the only measure to assign funding, so grades can have profound financial implications. – Martin Argerami Oct 16 '15 at 16:04
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    they are generally the only measure to assign funding — This may be true in some fields, but it is certainly not true in mine. – JeffE Oct 16 '15 at 19:36
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    @JeffE Unfortunately, it is also dependent on the university. In Denmark, a big part of what determines the funding for a department is based on how many students pass the various exams (yes, this is as terrible as it sounds). – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 19 '15 at 12:47
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You know it is really depends on class and professor if they think cheating is serious professor will do something about it. My classmate caught somebody looked up cell phone while doing the exam. It is a moral issue. Cheating is cheating I told my classmate. That person will not have any proud of in their life. How can you have life and will be able to tell other or their child about moral that make me sick to the stomach.

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I understand you could feel angry seeing someone cheating and getting away with that, but I don't think reporting it to a teacher, professor or any board would be good. I believe it's good you didn't tell the professor which student had done it. To me naming such a cheater and reporting them to anyone would sound like informing. It's the person's responsibility and matter of conscience. If you are sure they cheated and are really angry about it, you could always tell the person you didn't like it. However, the person might just reply that it was not your business. Also, if it was a single occassion and the person just glanced at a phone once, I really wouldn't make fuss about it.

protected by Alexandros Dec 2 '17 at 21:10

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