Student Cheating: An Opportunity to Discuss Integrity

Late one night in the beginning of winter break, while reviewing student reflections for which I offered more credit towards lower than average test scores, I detected a case of flagrant plagiarism.  I dashed off the following in an email to the students.

I’ve just noticed that text in each of your reflections is extremely similar.  In fact, it is too similar to be a coincidence.
I am highly disappointed.  This is blatant plagiarism.  
We can discuss this situation at an appropriate time when school resumes.
Do not let this detract too much from your holiday break.  It is a serious offense; however, it is an understandable one given the pressures on students these days.  
Our discussion will center mostly on how not to compromise your integrity even in high-pressure environments.


I wanted each of them to understand they were caught and to think about the seriousness of the situation.  However, I  did not want them to stress over the holiday, which was the intent of my last two sentences [emphasis added].  While I could have waited for school to resume to tell them, I believe it is important to discuss situations as soon as possible while memories are fresh.

Since my wife serves as a teacher, I spoke with her about it the next day, Christmas Eve.  She read my email and thought that my students might worry excessively about the situation.  As an older male, i.e., the generational gender not exactly expert on the more sensitive side of things, although I would argue that point, I initially disagreed with her.  After a few minutes though, I wrote the following and sent it along, hoping to ease any real worry, but not overly lessen the seriousness of the situation.

BTW, other than not giving credit for this assignment, this will not impact your grade.  And not receiving credit for this does not appear to have any impact on your final grade, at least from a grade book perspective. 
I am not going to mention either of you as associated with any plagiarism with the admins.  This is between me, as your teacher, and you, as my students.
I might discuss the general issue with the class, but you will be completely anonymous.
I simply want to talk with you face to face about the need to overcome temptation, such as what led to this act.
I think highly of both of you, and this does not diminish my perception in any meaningful way aside from being sad that it happened.
Enjoy your holiday break and come back refreshed and ready to conquer second semester!


They have not replied to my email, which is fine.  They may not even have seen either of them yet.  We will address the issue when school resumes.  However, if they do see it, they can prepare themselves for an honest discussion, which I believe is the main benefit of communicating with them right when I detected the issue.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, cheating, in one form or the other, pervades our world, and our classrooms.  No sector escapes its blight: business (legal or criminal), sports, politics, government, religion, or academics.  In some ways, the simple act of living involves small acts of cheating almost on a daily basis, such as exceeding the speed limit, driving through a red light, not declaring something to officials, avoiding serving on a jury, not exercising when we should, eating too much when we should not, or some other act which is either outright illegal, against institutional policies, contrary to our declared intentions, or violating long-held social norms.  Regardless, most of us strive to conduct our lives as ethically as possible, ideally teaching our children, students, and others to do so as well.  At the same time, competitive pressures, often rationalized in “survival of the fittest” terms, lead many to act in less than desirable ways.

In a perfect world, any form of cheating is intolerable.  Yet, if that were true, and harsh punishments always meted out, we all would walk around with a scarlet C emblazoned on our chests.  Hence, when confronted with issues of academic dishonesty by our students, in whatever form, we need to consider the larger context for their actions.  Rigid adherence to honor codes present a dilemma, in my opinion.  For while the razor sharpness of the code appeals to some due to its simplicity, our world is not black and white, but shades of grey, which no code, policy, or legislation can rightfully capture.

Hence, with any instance of cheating I encounter with my students, I see the silver lining in the dark cloud, where I speak to the student, or students, about living life with integrity, as well as concern for their reputation; their brand, as marketeers would say.

In my three years of full-time teaching, I have discovered cheating every semester, mostly by my AP students, as they are under the most intense academic pressures.  My algebra students cheat more often when I am absent and a substitute proctors an assessment.  Each time I detect cheating, I am saddened initially; followed by surprise at how cheating may have occurred, especially when I oversaw testing; and, ending in a decision either to speak with the student(s) solely, usually for first offenses, or with an administrator for repeated offenses.

My punishments are never unduly harsh; I often allow retakes or re-submissions.  Yet, I always speak with the offender(s) about the gravity of their act, and how it could damage their reputation.  I often require a written reflection by the student as well, in hopes that taking the time to think about their action and to commit it to writing will make them think twice the next time temptation presents itself.

Whether my approach is the best or not is in the eye of the beholder.  Some will react negatively to it, some positively, most not at all.

In many ways, there truly is no best approach to complex social phenomena such as cheating, or education for that matter.  Just opportunities for consultants to lull the gullible.

As with most things in life, our life experiences and beliefs color are actions.  We do what we believe to be best, which is all I ask of my students, my children, and myself.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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5 Responses to Student Cheating: An Opportunity to Discuss Integrity

  1. Geonz says:

    You’re calling it “plagiarism” but it sounds more like it was copying (or one student doing the work and sharing)?
    I like your approach; that whole idea of “when you cheat, you cheat yourselves” is something that it is sometimes up to us to prove to the students in our situation because often it’s not true (and a *whole* lot more often now than 40 years ago).


    • Oxford Dictionary definition for plagiarism: the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Copying = plagiarism in this example. As these were meant to be individual, personal reflections, sharing and using = plagiarism.


  2. Since moving to Australia, I’ve been introduced to the idea of Restorative Justice. During the process, the persons take responsibility to identify harm done to others and do what they can to repair the damage.

    It sounds like you are taking a similar stance: giving the students safety in admitting their wrongdoing. I’d challenge you to have them think about those who were harmed in this act that, as you say, was probably done under pressure.

    – If they agree that they were hurt by not learning the material, they can work on re-submitting the assignment.
    – If they agree they stole the intellectual property of others, they might write a note to the original author telling them the things they liked about their work, identifying the lesson learned…whatever seems most appropriate.
    – Some trust between you and them might also be lost. It’s worth exploring reasons they didn’t go to you when they were having trouble.

    This will be a valuable learning experience for them. In the age of plagiarism, I encourage teachers in my building to have students submit project brainstorms and outlines well before final due dates. Then they can see who is having trouble right away. If the plan is solid, the students may scramble at the end – but it will be scrambling to put together their own thoughts rather than find someone who has already done the thinking. Just an idea 🙂

    Happy New Year!


  3. russtowne says:

    Well said and done, Dave!


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