Degree In Sight


As a young professor, Gregory J. Cizek, PhD, thought he'd developed a secure final exam. He wrote 60 never-before-seen multiple-choice questions and eight essay questions. During the exam, he asked students to sit a seat apart and proctored attentively to keep eyes from wandering.

But when he started grading, he found that three students had the same answers to the multiple-choice questions and identical essays.

"The students claimed it was a miracle," says Cizek, now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Education and author of "Cheating on Tests: How to Do It, Detect It and Prevent It" (Routledge, 1999). Although the students never confessed, Cizek suspects they broke into his office, stole the exam, collaborated on answering the questions and substituted already-completed versions for the ones distributed in class. Unfortunately, Cizek's experience isn't unusual. An average of 61 percent of undergraduates admitted to cheating on exams and assignments in surveys conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity from 2006 to 2010. While that number dropped from 65 percent in surveys conducted in the previous four-year period, the decrease may just be because fewer students understand what cheating is. One bit of evidence: The percentage of students who think that copying text from websites is "serious cheating" has dropped from 34 percent in the earlier surveys to just 29 percent in the most recent ones.

Graduate student instructors and teaching assistants may be even more likely than more experienced teachers to face cheating in their classrooms, warns Patricia Keith-Spiegel, PhD, co-author of "Ethics in Psychology and the Mental Health Professions: Standards and Cases" (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a former Ball State University psychology professor. "Students think they can get away with more or that they won't be caught or won't be punished if caught," she says.

While it may be tempting to turn a blind eye to cheating, Keith-Spiegel says, teachers should confront cheaters for everyone's sake. For one thing, she points out, cheating harms honest students by artificially shifting the grading curve. Cheaters hurt themselves, too: They're swindling themselves of the opportunity to learn.

"I always told students that much of their success in life will come in the form of being able to communicate well, often in writing, and that college may be their only chance to learn and master these skills," Keith-Spiegel says.

For graduate student instructors and TAs, learning how to prevent, identify and cope with cheating is a key part of learning how to teach. Keith-Spiegel and others offer several tips:

  • Focus on prevention. "The main thing is for TAs to let students know upfront that cheating will not be tolerated," says Keith-Spiegel. Include your institution's honor code or policy on cheating on your syllabus, she suggests. Review the meaning of plagiarism, fair use and proper attribution at the semester's beginning so that students understand what constitutes cheating. And without lecturing or scolding, initiate discussions about values, the meaning of education and how cheating hurts cheaters and non-cheaters alike. Some schools, including Cornell University, Colby College and Bowdoin College, use online tutorials to ensure that students understand when and how to cite other people's ideas — a strategy that successfully reduces plagiarism, according to a 2010 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

  • Know your students. Familiarize yourself with your students' work. "By the time papers start coming in, TAs should have a pretty good idea of what a particular student's writing is like," says Stephen F. Davis, PhD, co-author of "Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do" (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and a psychology professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. "If a paper deviates from what the TA thinks the student should be doing, they'd better have a little chat," he says. "And if there are no sources, you might want to ask the student, 'Where did you get all this wonderful information?'"

  • Take advantage of technology. While the Internet makes it easier to cheat, it also makes it easier to catch. "Plagiarism has never been easier to spot," says Keith-Spiegel. Your campus may have a contract with such services as Turn-It-In, which lets professors compare students' work against a continuously updated database. If not, Googling lines from a suspicious paper may reveal the original source, whether it's a term paper mill or Wikipedia. You can also use technology to help prevent cheating in the first place. Computer-administered tests, for example, make it impossible for students to substitute pre-written exams or to grab a copy of the test to distribute to others.

  • Proctor vigilantly. While students toil over a test, patrol the aisles and keep a close eye on what's happening. "Faculty may think that by reading a book, looking out the window, daydreaming or even leaving the room, they're sending the message 'I trust you' to students," says Davis. "Know what the students are thinking? 'You don't care.'" Students dream up all kinds of ingenious ways to cheat — methods that go beyond sneaking peeks at other people's papers, Davis says. Some students use their cameras to transmit images of an exam to someone outside who sends answers back via text message, for example. Some tuck smartphones up their sleeves or strap them to their legs just above the hem of their shorts. Still others communicate via elaborate hand signals or hide test answers in their clothing, says Davis. "Look for students who have always worn their ball caps backwards and happen to wear them frontwards on test day," Davis suggests. And don't let students have anything unnecessary — such as cell phones — accessible during exams. Davis doesn't even let his students bring water bottles into exams because cheaters can remove a label, write answers on it and then put it back on.

  • Confront cheaters — carefully. You don't need hard evidence to stop a cheater, says Keith-Spiegel. In the case of a student who turns in a too-perfect essay, "ask them to explain how they came to this or that idea," she says. Such discussions, she adds, often end in a confession and an opportunity to discuss what education really means. If you notice suspicious behavior during a test, you can step up patrols or ask students to spread out. Also, write down what you see, such as shuffling through papers or taking frequent bathroom breaks, says Cizek. If the behavior doesn't stop, approach the test-taker discreetly and let him or her know his or her behavior doesn't look acceptable. "Don't directly accuse someone of cheating," he says, adding that other students don't need the distraction of a mid-exam confrontation. Instead, he says, approach the student in a calm, nonthreatening manner and whisper that you've noticed behavior that could be construed as cheating and ask him or her to stop. While even such discreet interventions may distract other students momentarily, adds Davis, they may be silently thanking you for acting. "The students know who's cheating," he says.

  • Follow the procedures. Before you step into the classroom, discuss cheating policies and procedures with the professor you're TA-ing for or the supervisor in charge of graduate student instructors. "You need to know where you stand and what kind of proof you need to make a case," says Davis. If you've confirmed cheating, gather evidence, such as a cheat sheet or stolen copy of the exam, he says. Consult your institution's policy about what to do next, whether it's a warning, a failing grade for that assignment or an F for the entire course. Bring your supervisor into the loop.

Whatever you do, says Davis, don't ignore cheating — no matter how uncomfortable the situation.

"If you don't let the students know you're serious about cheating," he says, "they're going to run all over you."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.