Usually when I'm applying an exam on my students, right before giving them the questions sheet, I tell them not to cheat. I usually warn them that I will not be inspecting their every move, but I will be watchful to make sure that no communication, electronic device or consulting will be done/used.

To complement this, I always make very mean and bad comments about cheating. Stuff like "your diploma will always be tainted if you go through the University by cheating, I'd rather use it to clean my soles" or "you had all the opportunities to ask questions, consult me, the textbooks, Youtube videos, lecture notes, class monitors and myself and the other teachers before this exam. I was always honest with you and expect the same thing in return and nothing else. If you're having personal problems that are affecting your studies, there are other ways to try to circunvent it instead of cheating". I once even said (with a class that I had some liberty to say so) that, by cheating, I wanted them to look at the mirror, every day of their lives, and face how much an intellectual failure they've become.

Now, I try to make it clear that those are jokes. But I'm sure that they get that these jokes had a truth behind it. My question is: are there ethical reasons not to do so? My point is, if I can't resource to my students' conscience to be honest, then I can't resort to anything, since I can't possibly outsmart 75 or so students every time I'm applying an exam if they want to be creative at cheating.

  • 1
    Are the statements you say true? Do the students have all the opportunities to ask them? (Many profs believe so while it may be not true. Some profs claim students can always ask and get angry about questions.) Are you sure that personal problems always get helped in your environment appropriately?
    – user111388
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 18:20

7 Answers 7


Treat ethics seriously. Students should be aware that their actions do have consequences, and should be held responsible for their deeds and misdeeds. Jokes are inappropriate, and references about "cleaning your soles" with cheating-tainted diplomas are probably a little too hyperbolic.

That said, you can certainly give a warning to your students not to cheat on the exam. In some places, you must give such a warning as part of the exam instructions!



If you do not have to include a pre-exam warning, do not include a warning.

If you have to include a pre-exam warning, do so. But keep it short, clear and to the point.

Take this seriously

Exams are incredibly stressful for everyone, including the students who did everything right, so humour, anything else that might be misinterpreted*, or anything else not necessary for the exam, has no place in this environment.

So, building on aeismail’s comment to “treat ethics seriously” (both in the exam and elsewhere), I would say: Treat every part of the exam seriously.

That was the big ethical issue. Now, there’s the issue of you undermining your own message. Since the topic of your message is ethics, this is kind of an ethical issue too. It’s not clear from your question how seriously you take this, and perhaps it’s not clear to your students either if you either tell jokes or say serious things and label them as jokes.

Consider the good student’s point of view

Imagine you have spent the last few months trying to master the course material. And it’s all come down to the next few hours. You’re as nervous as you’ve ever been, but trying to stay calm, focus on getting the exam done and get out of there. You have no interest in what the other students are doing.

Would you like to listen to a lecture about ethics, or anything else that shouldn’t need to be covered in the exam venue? Especially if someone is telling you it’s really important, but it contains maybe-jokes-maybe-really-serious-statements and you don’t really know what’s going on?

Consider the cheater’s point of view

If you’re not prepared for the exam (except that you are prepared to cheat), a pre-exam ethics lecture won’t change that. What good do you think it will do?

Start early

The right time to communicate all relevant university policies, including those relating to academic integrity, is at the very start of the course.


* Except, of course, if it is part of an exam question and finding the correct interpretation is part of the examinable material.

  • 1
    It occurred to me that the start of my answer might be a bit condescending, so I have rewritten it. I took the opportunity to add a lot more detail. Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 12:09

I think that many students interpret an approach to cheating that relies on moral appeals as an implicit admission that the system and the actual measures taken to stop cheating are too weak and cannot be relied upon, which can actually be an incentive to cheat. For this reason I always try to be very factual on cheating. I state the consequences and that we do whatever we can to find the cheats out. I think that that has to be enough (plus of course making a good attempt to find them out, and a strict approach toward those who are found out).

  • 1
    Another thing about relying on moral appeals is that it seems to be unique to academic integrity. As far as I know, no other university policy is discussed in this way. That’s probably a good thing. There are rules, and everyone is expected to follow the rules; their personal beliefs are irrelevant. Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 13:47
  • 1
    About finding out/discouraging cheaters: in my experience, nothing works better than staying in the back of the class room, where students can't see me. If they cannot know what I watch/see, it gets much harder for them to weight the cost/benefits of attempting to cheat.
    – m.raynal
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 14:43

You should teach academic honesty and ethics at the beginning of your course. Do not wait until the exam is about to start.

Instead of appealing to students' emotions, explain to them how honest conduct will help them achieve their goals.

  • 1
    More specifically, explain to them how honest conduct will help them achieve their goals better than “dishonest conduct”, if we can call it that. Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 13:49

Echoing other answers and comments... at least in U.S. culture, any exaggeration tends to make the idea ridiculous and not serious.

Specifically, any comments (serious or joking) that make "exams" seem like a game, thus without moral/ethical attachments, are counter-productive.

Yes, to the extent possible, make cheating impossible... but/and recognize that without grossly draconian measures it is not possible to control people to the degree necessary to defeat militant cheating. And the saddest aspect would be that those draconian measures would abuse the many people who behave honorably.


I would recommend making it clear how severe the consequences are.

Many freshmen might not realize that cheating in academia is a much more serious thing compared to what they might have been used to during their mandatory education.

In high school they might have many smaller tests every semester instead of one exam, and getting caught might only give them a bad grade for one insignificant test, not significantly hindering their chances of passing the class. They might grow up in the mindset that it's worth the risk. Or even that it's fun and exciting, bragging to each other about the techniques they used, and not even thinking about feeling ashamed of having resorted to cheating.

Students coming from different countries and cultures might also have a different mindset about cheating. Especially in countries with a very high level of corruption, cheating can be seen not as something despicable and unethical, but rather as a way to fight against an unjust system. They might also have gotten used to much less severe consequences of getting caught.

Therefore it's important to make it clear to them not only that they are no longer children and will be treated as adults, but also the grave consequences of cheating: failing the whole year (not just one test), or getting expelled, ruining their chance of getting the degree they wanted.


The general idea of communicating expectations on cheating is a good idea, but I see several problems with your particular expressions. Firstly, at least part of what you say is ambiguous --- the oral statement "use it to clean my soles" could just as easily be heard as "use it to clean my souls", so are you saying that the degree would then be so worthless that you clean the soles of your shoes with it, or are you saying that you wish to use the diploma program to "clean the souls" of your students? Moreover, by making hyperbolic statements and then treating these in a half-joking manner, it might not be clear to students whether these are serious issues or not.

I have sometimes given pep-talks to my students in relation to cheating, though usually at the start of the semester rather than immediately prior to an exam. The main things I try to get across to them are the following:

  • In addition to learning technical skills and subject matter for a degree, it is desirable to use university as a time to develop good character. Circumstances where you experience stress and anxiety are times when you can develop good coping skills, and develop the strength of character required to avoid unethical shortcuts (if that has not already been developed earlier in life). I tell them that it is better to fail an exam, or even a full course, and keep their integrity in tact. Failed courses can be repeated, but it is highly destructive to get into the habit of taking unethical shortcuts when presented with challenges.

  • As a practical matter, if students cheat on my assessments then they will be caught and I will take disciplinary action against them under the university rules. If that happens it will be a horrible process for them and it will be a big deal. I have taught in several semesters where I have caught students breaking the rules (e.g., copying assignments or cheating on exams) and the penalties have ranged from reduced or zero marks on an assignment, right up to formal academic misconduct hearings with the Head of Department. In the latter case, I have seen students break down crying at the damage their actions will do to their degree and career. It is not a pleasant situation for anyone involved, but if you cheat those are consequences that can occur.

Most (but not all) of the cheating I have seen has been copying of assignments rather than cheating during exams, so I also explain to the students that there are a number of things they do when copying assignments that they will not notice, but which are extremely obvious to me. I want students to understand that I am pretty good at spotting cheating and I take it seriously.

  • 1
    You have misunderstood the cultural context of the bottom of people's feet in the middle east. Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 2:00
  • 1
    Okay, so then that would be three possible interpretations.
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 3:05
  • @AnonymousePhysicist: Would you care to share said cultural context so that I can add it to the answer?
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 7:38
  • 1
    +1 Unfortunately I can’t bring this answer’s score above zero. It’s a great answer: it answers the question and gives plenty of other relevant information. Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 10:11
  • 2
    On a related note: one of my university instructors gave us one of those talks about academic integrity, and the bit that stayed in my memory was that the people who investigate cheating take it so seriously that they are scary for the instructors, never mind the students. Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 10:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .