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February 18, 2016

Teaching @ Pitt: Curbing cheating, plagiarism


Why do students cheat? It’s a question that is as important as other questions related to academic integrity, such as “How can I prevent cheating and plagiarism?” and “What do I do when one of my students has cheated?”

Students cheat on exams and plagiarize papers for a variety of reasons, including the obvious one: They may have failed to prepare sufficiently. When students feel overwhelmed, cheating might seem like the easiest path. In the case of plagiarism, sometimes students have unwittingly committed a violation.

Although students are responsible for their actions, consider whether you, the faculty member, inadvertently contributed to the likelihood of cheating. Perhaps your course expectations are inappropriate and overly demanding, or you have not provided the support necessary for students to master the skills you are asking them to demonstrate. Perhaps you have not taken the time to communicate the course academic integrity policy, its rationale and how seriously you take it. Perhaps you have simply made it too easy to cheat by failing to implement safeguards.

The University regards instructors as playing a key role in preserving academic integrity and the integrity of the institution. The following practices may help:

Communicate the rationale for your academic integrity policy. Assessments do not exist for their own sake, but to measure students’ mastery of learning objectives. Cheating undermines that goal and can unfairly affect the assessment of other students, skewing grade distributions. Let them know that, for this reason, you take academic integrity very seriously.

• Let your students know that you are invested in their success in the course, and that you are prepared to support them in achieving that success.

It can help to provide opportunities early in the semester for “small successes.” Assign informal assessments or smaller, simpler assignments that your students should be able to complete effectively. A bit of success early can signal to students that, if they continue to complete their coursework, they can expect to succeed — honestly — on major assignments and exams.

• Be explicit about consequences. If your policy for a violation is failure for the course, failure for just that assignment, or some other consequence, tell them. Tell them in the syllabus, on the first day of class, and again at the time that you administer quizzes, tests and assignments.

Emphasize the serious consequences of your policy: Without being overly draconian, let them know that you have failed students in the past for academic integrity violations, and will do so for future violations. It can help to frame the consequences in terms of relative importance. Note that a poor grade on a single assignment or exam is preferable to failing the course and/or suspension/expulsion from the University.

Control test-taking environments. This involves what you communicate about policy, rationale and expectations, but it also entails practical strategies, such as:

• Before handing out exams, require that everyone put away all materials and place phones inside backpacks and under desks. Walk through the room to verify compliance.

• Require that all talking cease before you distribute exams, and wait until students have complied. Notify them that any further talking may be cause for suspicion of a violation.

• Distribute different versions of exams. Print them in different colors to ensure that no one is sitting next to someone with the same version.

• Periodically scan and walk around the room. You may feel self-conscious in doing so, but students generally understand that your role does include enforcement.

• Watch for cheating behaviors such as talking, looking at a neighbor’s exam or over another student’s shoulder, the use of “cheat sheets” (tucked under sleeve, on a student’s lap, stored in a cellphone or even written inside a water bottle label).

Implement safeguards against plagiarism. These could include:

• Review examples of plagiarism and provide guidelines for avoiding it.

• Require students to turn in a signed statement with every paper indicating that they have read and understood the policy and guidelines on plagiarism.

• Use anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin or SafeAssign, both of which are now integrated in CourseWeb/Blackboard.

What should you do if your best efforts to prevent cheating and plagiarism have been unsuccessful, and you have identified an academic integrity violation?

• File any evidence. Retain plagiarized papers and any original sources you have identified. If you have commandeered a “cheat sheet,” file it.

• Discuss the violation with a supervisor, the faculty or staff member in your department responsible for overseeing such issues. If you are a TA/TF, notify your course director or faculty mentor.

• Ask the student to meet with you and, if possible, have someone from your department or school sit in, so that you have a third party to confirm the discussion that takes place. Don’t begin with an accusation; instead, present the data: the student’s submitted work; whatever you regard as evidence of a violation (for example, a summary of the cheating you observed, an original source or another student’s exam). Allow the student to explain the data presented.

If you determine that a violation has occurred, decide upon a consequence consistent with your course, department and University policies.

• File an academic integrity violation report with your school, if you are required to do so. Such forms generally specify the violation (accompanied by evidence), summarize the discussion with the student, and detail the sanctions determined by the instructor. Both you and the student should sign the document; if the student refuses to sign, you should indicate that on the form.

This document generally will not go in the student’s permanent record; your academic dean or other administrator will keep the violation on file in case of future violations.

While it is incumbent upon you to be familiar with the University’s policies on cheating and plagiarism, ideally you will be able to avoid implementing them by integrating strategies that prevent cheating in the first place. n

Joel Brady is CIDDE’s coordinator of teaching assistant services. He also teaches part-time in both the religious studies department and the Slavic languages and literatures and department.

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