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Teaching Toolbox

Teaching: Keeping Students Honest

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

You can put an end to cheating by following these simple guidelines.

Cheating is a big problem on campus. And it comes in many forms, from peeking at the answers of a student in the next seat during a test to filching someone else's work online. Sixty-eight percent of students surveyed at schools without honor codes voluntarily admitted to serious cheating at least once during their college career, while 45 percent admitted to cheating on at least one test, according to a study conducted by Donald McCabe, president of the Center for Academic Integrity, and Gary Pavela, who oversees student ethical development at the University of Maryland.

Chances are that some cheating is going on in your classroom. You might be suspicious if a student has the correct answer on a test, but the work doesn't lead to that answer. Or the writing done by a few students suddenly improves dramatically. Perhaps the clincher is when some of your better students tell you that it's occurring. We've found that the following methods can help keep your students honest:

Expectations—Discuss the “Engineering Code of Ethics,” making clear that future engineers are expected to behave ethically. Develop a range of penalties for infractions. A single blanket penalty can't possibly cover every infraction.

Instill Honor—The study conducted by McCabe and Pavela found that the percentage of students cheating on at least one test decreased from 45 to 33 percent when there was an honor code, and serious cheating declined from 68 to 58 percent. Although any cheating is unacceptable, these are
significant reductions.

Be Fair—Develop a reputation for giving fair tests and grading fairly. Some students use “unfair” tests as an excuse for cheating. “Fair” means giving enough time to take the test and a reasonable grade distribution. Always write new tests. Open-book tests and tests where students can bring notes or equation sheets can eliminate some types of cheating.

Control Anxiety—Discuss test procedures, and make clear what material will be included. A question and answer session before the test will help eliminate last minute concerns. Also, handing out old tests to practice on helps reduce anxiety.

Be There—There will be less cheating if you are present during the test, particularly if you know students by name. If you're concerned about certain students collaborating with others, assign seats for the entire class. Have a proctor walk around the room or sit in the back. In large classes, be sure to have help collecting the tests, since this is a favorite time to cheat.

Prevent Plagiarism—Clearly define it in the syllabus. Having “check points” during the semester (e.g., turning in a rough outline including some references, then a rough draft) reduces plagiarism—and the buying of papers. If students are not allowed to revise papers written for other classes, be clear that it's forbidden. Many grad students consider it a matter of efficiency and don't regard it as unethical.

If cheating does occur, here are some steps to take, according to lawyer and professor E. H. Stevens, writing in College Teaching:

1. First, check university rules, and decide on a procedure.

2. Give notice to the student orally, including charges and potential consequences. There must be an appeal procedure—explain it to the student. If potential penalties are mild, hold this meeting privately.

3. Conduct an investigative hearing, which can be done immediately and can be quite cursory. After listening to the student, decide on a verdict and penalty, if guilt is determined. This hearing can be done privately if the penalty is relatively light: for example, a zero on test.

4. If the student requests it, use the university's formal appeal procedure. Since appeals are not private, students may accept your decision if they believe the penalty is reasonable.


Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at