Cheating in College Courses: An Educator Weighs in on Prevention and Response

Managing Students Who Cheat
GradingOnline LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer who teaches professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.


I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d graded the student’s work in other assignments, and I was 100 percent sure that what I was now reading was not his. I did a quick Google search and found the exact wording he had handed in—on Wikipedia! How stupid did he think I was? To put it mildly, I was irate.

As a writing teacher, I’ve dealt with plagiarism surprisingly few times in my career, but each incident leaves me shaking with rage. No matter what discipline you teach, you’re bound to encounter a breach of academic integrity, whether it occurs during exams or on other assignments. And while no approach or course can be completely cheating-proof, below are some tips about how to deal with it.

Talk about academic integrity.

On my syllabus and during the first class, I talk about plagiarism and academic integrity. I explain why it’s so important, and I discuss how to avoid plagiarism by citing, summarizing and paraphrasing.

I refer to our campus’s code of conduct and remind students they’re paying a lot of money to learn—not to copy someone else’s work. I also explain the consequences of academic dishonesty, which can range from receiving an F on a test or paper, to failing the course or possibly expulsion. I make it clear that I have no problem flunking a student whose work is unoriginal.

Make assignments difficult to plagiarize.

Although no assignment can be completely plagiarism proof, instructors can switch up an assignment from semester to semester to prevent current students from using past students’ previous work.

For example, when I assign a business or marketing plan for teams to write, I have each team choose a specific demographic to gear their product or service to. The work is always original (and often rife with errors!) but it is plagiarism-free. A bonus for me is that I’m not reading the same thing again and again.

Regularly changing exam questions or prompts is another way to minimize plagiarism, and yes, it does require the instructor to create new exams rather than using the same one for every course. But, remember the student body changes completely every few years, and when one batch has graduated, the old exams can be reused.

Require drafts.

Since I’ve started to grade drafts of student work, plagiarism has decreased. First, by the time I see the final project, I have already seen a precursor of that student’s abilities. I know very few students can make the jump from a C to an A in one quarter, so if I see flawless writing, I am pretty sure I’m looking at unoriginal work.

Drafts are also the best way for students to see shortcomings in their work and improve with your input on their first try.

Take measures to minimize cheating during tests.

Make it more difficult for students to cheat during exams. Tell them beforehand what conduct is expected during the test and what they may bring. Don’t allow students to sit in their regular seats or wear hats to hide wandering eyes. Require ID cards before entering the classroom in large classes.

But what happens when you DO encounter a cheater?

The onus lies with you to deal with it, and from my experience, that can be time-consuming. In the situation I related at the top of this post, I printed out the Wikipedia pages and taped them next to the student’s “work.” I sent him an email asking him to come to my office but not saying why. I informed my department chair of the situation and got her blessing to deal with it as I saw fit. I arranged for a colleague to be in my office with me for my own safety and for emotional back-up as I made the accusation.

After some excuses, the student confessed and then moved to pleading. He was a graduating senior, he said, who had already been accepted to a Ph.D. program. He had learned his lesson, he said.

This is the point when you have to decide just how tough you want to be. If you think a verbal warning is sufficient, you’re finished. If you think the situation merits stronger repercussions, start with your department and college’s policies. In this case, I had the back-up of my department chair. She agreed his was a most egregious offense and told me she’d back up whatever I decided to do.

I looked up the rules for student conduct at my university and decided to file a report. If the student had a prior offense, my report would force him to go before a board to plead his case. In any case, I could fail him, which is what I told him I was going to do.

And, I would have! But then the relentless emails started, begging me to take mercy and consider the impact of this one offense on his life and career.

Finally, I asked myself: Did I want to be responsible for destroying him? After a lot of soul-searching and way too much time spent thinking about the situation, I decided to give him the lowest grade I could without flunking him. I can only hope that he really did learn his lesson, but what a bitter taste the incident left.

There is no one way to deal with cheating, but to let students walk away without any repercussion, seems to me, a dereliction of duty.

Balancing the needs of your students and creating an engaging curriculum can be tricky. This 5-step guide offers easy-to-implement tips to planning your course so you can cut down on prep time and focus on student success.