I have just found that a student has posted one of their assignment questions on a forum and is seeking help in getting a solution.

I have a good idea who the student is, but no definitive proof. How would you handle this situation?

  • 39
    Always use different forums than your teachers!
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 17:18
  • 7
    Being a student, if my professor accused me of cheating (based on something un-definitive) when i actually had not, i would never really want to sit in that class again, because clearly my prof does not consider me capable to be doing this course on my own and this will weigh on his judgement every time i submit anything throughout the course. Also, cheating is not the only reason a person might ask something online.
    – asheeshr
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 3:14
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    This is more a temptation than a real answer to your question: post a correct answer on the forum using non-standard names/symbols/terminology. Wait to see it submitted back to you :-) Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 0:38
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    In the old days before internal assesment and degrees for dumb people everybody had to pass the final to pass the course .If somebody cheated on the homework they probably would not understand things and would fail the final horribly because it was very different to the homework.If they did the homework themselves getting some of it wrong they would understand things better and be able to pass an unpredictable final.
    – Autistic
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 8:00
  • 3
    I would get solid proof before making a destructive accusation. Many people seek help from tutors. What's wrong with that? Forums are MUCH cheaper. Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 23:55

6 Answers 6


Identify the offline equivalent of the observed behavior, and then act as you would normally. Remember, that the burden of proof for academic dishonesty likely resides with you. This includes verifying that the poster is indeed the student you accuse.

I find this situation to be pretty common: https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/2753/how-to-derive-partial-gas-equation. Most stackexchanges have a homework policy. I would consider homework questions posted to stackexchanges to be no worse than asking students who have taken the course before you or asking another professor. How you deal with it is up to you.

What would your response be if you saw a student collaborating on the problem in a study group? How do you respond if you find out that your student asked another instructor or a grad student in your department for help? If you learn the student worked on that problem with his/her tutor? If the student looked up the answer in the textbook or the solutions manual? All of these are common and to varying degrees accepted (if not liked).

I would guess your irritation over this is somewhere more than the student asking one of your colleagues (who being nice will actually do the problem) and somewhat less than the student stealing another student's answer. Identify the offline equivalent, and then behave as you would normally.

EDIT - I missed the last part of the question.

I have a good idea who the student is, but no definitive proof. How would you handle this situation?

If you do not have proof, then suck it up and let it go - this time. Next time put something in your syllabus. Either write a pretty severe sounding policy that exists to deter the behavior (because your policy will be basically unenforceable), or write harder questions and encourage them to use online forums with the caveat that they document all of their interaction. The second option shifts the burden of good behavior to your students.

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    Implicit here is the fuzziness of the line between seeking resources and advice on one hand and trying to get others to do the work for them on the other. Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 20:09
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    Depending on what country you're in, information acquired by "outside" observation of students' behavior may be inadmissible evidence, too, ... even if you weren't deliberately snooping. I'd second Ben Norris' remarks... and reiterate that (a) this is just a ramped-up, way-more-effective version of "getting help" in old-fashioned ways (b) you can deter, but not prevent, and maybe be unable to "punish", getting info from the internet by "prohibiting it". The latter may just make you look silly, though. Do require acknowledgement of all sources, with or without enforcement mechanism. Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 20:28
  • @dmckee - Which of course is an old problem in academia. It is not new to the information age.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 21:07
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    @paulgarrett - I'm a fan of allow it, but only after you have talked with them about academic integrity and why claiming the work of others as your own is bad. If students see academic integrity as a positive, then they will take ownership and be responsible.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 21:10
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    @BenNorris - Yes, since access to information is not only a fact, but is desirable, there is something disingenuous about pretending to operate in a vacuum, or to require this. But, yes, being "up-front" (a.k.a. "honest") about sources is a must... and students are not necessarily aware. Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 22:18

This is an answer to this question. The question was closed as a duplicate while I was typing my answer.

This is a really key issue for university courses assigning homework. In my opinion it cannot be satisfactorily addressed after the fact. One has to design the homework and the grading scheme with the knowledge that students can easily, freely and virtually immediately get expert-level homework help online. Here are some ways that I have adjusted to this reality.

1) I no longer assign take-home exams in undergraduate courses. I had a bad experience with this ten years ago as a postdoc at McGill University, and the internet was not then what it is now. It only takes one or two students to cheat and get the highest grades on an exam for the entire class to feel resentful.

2) I think very carefully about the percentage to which homework contributes to the course grade. If you want students to do the homework, then making it less than 10% typically (depending upon your grading system, of course) discourages it. I think that most undergraduate-level STEM courses should have at least one midterm and an in-class final and that the midterms and the final should contribute at least 60% of the course grade.

3) I grade -- or, if I'm lucky, instruct the grader to grade -- homework in a generous way which emphasizes effort and participation. If the majority of the course grade is coming from in-class exams, the purpose of the homework is to get practice, and if someone is writing good-faith solutions to most of the problems then they are getting the practice you want. When students feel like their inability to solve difficult homework problems is hurting their course grade, it is very tempting for them to seek outside help (I find this very understandable).

4) I allow students to get some level of outside assistance on their homework -- i.e., don't regard each problem set as a separate take-home exam -- but insist that they document the aid that they got in an assiduous way. If I get students in the habit of saying something about the help that they got, then it feels much more like lying for them to all of a sudden totally omit reference to the fact that they typed their questions in to a stackexchange site. Also, be clear about what kind of help is allowed. Perhaps for instance you are okay with them looking through the internet but not asking your specific homework problems on the internet: if so, say so.

5) If I don't want students to be able to look up the solutions to homework problems easily (beyond say the freshman/sophomore level) then I make sure to write my own problems and not simply assign problems from a course text. Writing distinctive problems also makes it easier to track whether my problems are being asked on the internet.

6) I realize that how much independence to spend in doing one's homework is, within an agreed upon tolerance, a decision that individual students have to make for themselves. In the OP's case homework is worth only 10% of the grade, it does not sound very onerous, and the OP spends class time discussing the homework. In this case the old adage that a student who is not doing the homework independently is "only cheating himself" seems to be largely true. The trick is to design the homework and the course so that you feel that the students who are punting too much of their homework to the internet are indeed merely missing out on educational opportunities...and not getting better final grades than those who do most or all of the homework on their own.

  • 1
    RE #2: 60% of the grade in 2 exams? That's unbelievable. You're asking for students to fail at that point. As a STEM student, just like every other area, having constant practice through homework is a much better way to gauge student understanding (and reinforcement) of concepts. 60% of the grade in 2 tests means that students will inevitably slack throughout the semester only to pull an all-nighter cramming for the exam. Though, you could have 40% of the grade as homework, but it seems that in most cases there are other major aspects to a course that take up sone of that 40%, e.g. labs. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 14:34
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    @Chris: (i) I wrote midterms. For most (but not all) undergraduate classes, I give three midterms. (ii) In fact I was thinking of courses without a significant lab component. (iii) One can have constant homework without it being worth more than 40% of the grade. (iv) There are many, many universities in many countries in the world where the grade is determined mostly or solely by an exam at the end. You might want to think a bit before claiming that all of France, most of England, much of Canada and so forth is "asking for students to fail". Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 18:30
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    @ChrisCirefice There are ways to make students do homework other than basing their grade on it. Here (Aarhus University), most courses have homework be graded on a pass/fail scale and in order to be eligible to even take the exam, the students must pass a certain number of them (typically in the order of 8-10 out of 13 or 14, often with a further requirement that at least 4 or 5 of them be from the second half of the course). Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 7:28

I've started assigning homework a couple of years ago, and my policy is the following:

  1. Homework consists of one or two exercises similar to those that students will find at the exam.
  2. Homework is graded as though it were a real exam exercise, but homework grades are just informative, that is, they do not enter in the calculation of the final grade. The aim of the homework is just to allow the students to have additional practice and to understand how I grade.
  3. Homework is optional. In this way, non-motivated students can avoid searching the internet for help.

In the few occasions in which I required to write lab reports, their marks contributed for at most 10% of the final grade; in case of cheating (to my judgement), the contribution is zeroed.


Analysis of the Issue raised in this question

I thought about this a bit over lunch and came to a realization that we may be looking at this problem from the wrong direction.

Premise: A student is getting assistance for homework from an online forum.

Now, the internet may have made this process easier, but it certainly existed before online forums. The only difference now is that the online forum shows a proven record that a student is doing it.

Before the internet was invented, I'm pretty sure people in school asked friends for help even when it was explicitly stated that homework was to be personal work. Maybe some students paid people to do their homework. Whatever the case, that issue would be private to the professor's view, because the agreement would never move beyond those two people.

In this case, we have the internet indicating that such an event actually took place. If this took place on a phone, or in a conversation between two students, we wouldn't have noticed it, but the transgression would still have happened.

So the internet is facilitating the aspect of "academic dishonesty" and providing it in public view.

We can't ban reasonably students from using the internet, nor can we lock them up outside of class to do homework, so there is no real way to regulate what they choose to do outside of class.

As a result, the only practical way to determine whether homework is a student's work is to observe their progress in class.

Possible Solutions

Surprise Quiz

As I suggested before, a surprise quiz with the same questions will likely help you determine who is learning and who is not. Collect the homework, and devote 5 minutes of the class to solving one of the problems. maybe an easier one. People who know what they're studying will be able to answer this, and you lose a minimal amount of studying time. You only have to do this once or twice. After that, the possibility of another surprise quiz will likely convince the person to actually learn the material.

Small Groups

Have students work in small groups on their homework. Students working with each other may frown upon use of Stack Exchange. By encouraging class collaboration, you can reduce the amount of reliance on the Internet, because then at least you know one of the people in the group is teaching the others.

Unique Homework for Unique People

This is more of a "finding the person" approach rather than discouraging. As I've mentioned before, I'm not a fan of this strategy as it is really a witch hunt technique, but it is a possibility that you may wish to consider if nothing else works.

You can assign different people in the class different homework questions. Sort by name or whatever. Maybe a set of 15 questions where each person in your class has a unique subset of questions. This will help you identify the person in question if they post their unique subset to the StackExchange. I would recommend you use this information to gently remind the person that what they're doing is not in the spirit of the course, and to not do so in the future.

  • 4
    I've done the "unique" homework thing as a take-home exam, in which every student gets a slightly different dataset and has to do some stuff to it. Every. single. time, at least one student submits answers for another student's dataset instead of their own :(
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 16:26

In my opinion there is nothing wrong with posting a question online unless it specifically says / suggests that others should do the work for the student.

If you are that concerned about this then you should reconsider the format of your exam to reduce this risk.

Your only option would be to show that the student colluded or plagiarised the work which I believe are concepts well understood in academia.

For example if the students relatives or associates in life are an expert(s) on the topic in question question, how would you know if the work is the student's or not.

Therefore you will need to wait until the work is submitted to decide what to do next.


Depending on the subject of your course, actually going online to find answers should be something you encourage, especially in engineering. If at the end of the day the student understands what you wanted to teach him, then your goal has been achieved, and you test that through examination. And in many fields, it is impossible to know everything anyway, this is why we have books and other data storage methods. Your course will probably be insignificant in the long run anyway, but their ability to quickly find working answers on the internet is a valuable skill they will actually need when joining a workforce.

  • 2
    There's a big difference between "look for helpful information" (which seems to be what you're addressing) and "ask a forum to solve the problem for you" (which is what the question seems to describe).
    – jakebeal
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 14:01
  • Actually, no, in the "real" world, there is little difference between "looking for helpful information" and "ask a forum to solve the problem for you", because in real world, you WILL want to use a tried and tested existing solution - one that is publicly available on a forum or similar places, rather than creating your own solution. You will never come in and say "I am looking for step by step algorithm for mp3 encoding", you will be swiftly pointed to FFMPEG which has one already implemented.
    – mihaiconst
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 19:57
  • You are still missing the point: "How do I encode an mp3?" is different than "Integrate this mp3 encoder library into our product for me." Speaking as somebody in industry, I would never want to hire a student who was outsourcing their work rather than doing it themselves.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 22:09

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