Your cheating heart will do you wrong

One of the most unpleasant things I have to do is dealing with students who cheat. We have a pretty thorough and fair process for handling this and, most of the time, we catch someone once for basically being lazy or stupid, they lose the marks for the assignment and they never do it again. Even so, the number of people who write “this lecturer is the worst person in the Universe” on their end-of-semester assessment forms is generally the same number of people as I caught cheating – it has an impact on both of us.

When I see someone again, or someone comes up for a second or third offence, that’s sad. It’s sad for so many reasons. It’s sad because, this time, they risk a penalty of getting zero for the course. Or getting kicked out of Uni. It’s sad because they haven’t taken in what I was telling them about knowledge being more important than cramming or copying. But, for me, it’s sad because now I feel that I’ve failed the student. Somewhere along the line, they got the message that 75/100 cheating is somehow better than 50/100 fairly earned.

That a pass by any means is better than a fail.

Of course, pragmatically, it is. Student are paying, directly or indirectly, to study and they want to be in the workforce as soon as they can, with the best marks possible. But what that means is all those talks on ethics, on professional practice, on honesty, on integrity, have missed these students entirely. Students aren’t buying a degree, they have an opportunity to earn a degree. (Ideally, I’d like everyone to have the opportunity to go to the college and course of their choice. Real world factors jump on my head really quickly there.)

Even if a student sneaks through with undetected cheating, they still have a problem, because their lack of knowledge will probably get found out once they hit the job market. They may get one job, or two, but once it becomes obvious that they don’t know what they’re supposed to, people’s estimation of them will drop. People’s ideas of what our degrees our and what our school does will drop. Everyone loses.

I’m up front about my dislike of cheating. But I’m also fair in my reaction. When it’s dealt with, that’s it. Records leave me to go elsewhere and I try my hardest to forget the details so that I don’t stare at that student for the rest of their time and wonder what they’re doing. Give me 6 months and I’ve achieved it. The student is back in the pack and, if it doesn’t happen again, it never gets mentioned again. It’s a trap to immediately scrutinise everything as if the student is cheating again. Has action been taken? Yes? Is it over? Yes? Move on. Ok, they might do it again but that’s what you have Turnitin and MOSS for. If they do it again then, yes, it may be systematic and more action has to be taken but, while cheating is not anything that should be condoned or excused, I can almost understand why a confused, rushed 17-year old might thing it was not the worst idea in the world to save themselves some effort.

But it is the worst idea in the world, because it can damage the learner-teacher relationship and risk a student’s entire career. In a harsh school, it can be an inescapable sentence for the rest of someone’s career.

This is a G-rated blog, so I can’t tell the joke about “I kiss one goat” here but those of you who know the joke know that the punchline is that the teller is a man of great merit, has done many things, but he kissed one goat and he is henceforth known as Henri the Goat Kisser. So, yes, I don’t like cheating, and I wish people would stop, but I try not to categorise someone by actions that they may only take once in their life, and regret for the rest of it, because part of my job is making new and better people. Well, that’s over-stating it really. Part of my job is helping people to make themselves new and better.

When I’m teaching, I’m often thinking about how I can structure assignments to reduce the temptation and opportunity to cheat. I think about how I can make students interested enough to take part, to be involved – this often involves other students, using neighbour techniques. But, when cheating happens, I try to be as understanding as I can – while still having a firm line that cheating doesn’t fly here. It’s hard and I welcome comments from other people who’ve had to deal with this.


3 Comments on “Your cheating heart will do you wrong”

  1. billb says:

    I don’t teach as often as you do, so I’ve only one into one case of cheating. It was obviously a set of pieces of the assignment borrowed from a collection of other students. There were 3 programming subtasks written in 2 different languages and 3 very different programming styles. I had expected to get all three subtasks submitted in one language and a similar style, though that wasn’t in the problem statement. Given that they were using a shared computing resource, I decided not to penalize the students he had borrowed code from, since it was technically possible for him to have dug these files out of his classmates’ directories (at least 2 of them diffed very closely to other students’ submissions).

    I gave him a 0 on the assignment and wrote him a note on the paper I would have returned to him had he ever bothered to come and collect it. I got no complaints or bad reviews in the end.

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    • nickfalkner says:

      We have a formal process where students have their plagiarism and cheating offences registered centrally so that someone who cheats in my class starts another class with ‘one on the books’. Now, to be fair to the students, we can’t see what is in the register unless the student comes under suspicion again. If someone pops up in my class, I request a register check as part of the preparation phase for the final decision. That way, if I think they’ve done it again, they receive a more severe penalty.

      I can’t really talk about it much more but we’ve tried to combine ‘do it once and put it behind you’ with ‘if you do it again, we’ll know’. Your approach sounds eminently sensible and is what we used to do pre-register, when there was far less cross degree enrolment.

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      • billb says:

        I got the advice of my former PhD supervisor. He indicated that the academic dishonesty process here at UT wasn’t really worth dealing with, and that I’d be better off giving the 0 and invoking the process if he complained. I didn’t feel good about it at the time, partly because of the righteous indignation I felt, but I took the advice in the end. 🙂

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