Reflections Newsletter

Handling Cheating and Cheaters: An Informed Approach, Fall 2000

by Frances Bauer,
Ombuds Office
Number 44, November 2000

This paper is intended to provide quick tips for instructors. Its thesis is simple: more cheating and plagiarism take place than we like to think, and, more people lie to protect themselves than we like to think. If we understood how often cheating occurs, we would work harder to prevent it.

There is a good news story, here, too. Evidence suggests that if people understand how to be academically honest, they are less likely to cheat. So what you say and do with your students can make a real difference. (In this paper I use 'cheating' to mean any act of academic dishonesty--plagiarism, faking illness to get an extension, forging a doctor's note or other document, misrepresenting one's credentials, buying a term paper, or falsifying data.)


It is important not to make assumptions about who would or would not cheat. Over the years I have talked to many students accused of cheating, and, apart from that one fact, they are as diverse as any other group of students. Notwithstanding, studies of cheating suggest that males cheat more often than females; younger students more often than older students; and undergraduates more often than graduate students. At some institutions, there were differences between disciplines (Buckner, 1987).

Most studies rely on anonymously completed questionnaires. The self-reported incidence of cheating depends on what question is asked. Someone who admits to copying another student's answers on a quiz might never stoop so low as to buy a paper from a commercial firm. Those who pad bibliographies might never cheat on exams. A person who paraphrases without acknowledgment might refrain from working on an assignment with another student when that was not allowed. However, when all forms of cheating are taken into account, the incidence of cheating in student populations has been reported to be as high as 78% (Pemberton, 1983, p.2).

An article in The Gazette in 1993 (Kasrai) cites a Maclean's Decima poll stating 25 percent of university students admitted to cheating. In 1991 The Gazette did its own survey ("We asked for it . . . ."), to which about 350 students responded(1). Twenty percent admitted to having copied or plagiarized an essay; 29 percent to having cheated on an exam.


Some contributing causes and reasons for student cheating, in no particular order:

good result

Although students who have been found out will often say, "I know there was no excuse," there is sometimes a pause after the word 'excuse' in which the student may journey back to the decisive moment and reflect on how it happened. Others have cheated or plagiarized inadvertently. One young woman began by helping another who had a badly broken wrist. She input corrections to her fellow-student's term paper. When their papers were graded, there was evidence of collaboration. Another paraphrased a brief but telltale phrase without footnoting, and explained there was simply 'no other way' to say what had to be said. A male student produced pages of textbook verbatim on an essay exam. He explained that all through high school he had followed the same method: figured out what the questions were likely to be; created answers based on the text; memorized those answers and produced them on the exam.

At the other end of the spectrum is the student who broke into a professor's office using a hacksaw (Dhaliwal & McMillan, 1987); the student who had a friend from another city write his exam for him (Murray, 1995); and of course, the case of the impostor who made it all the way to a residency at London Health Sciences Centre on bogus credentials (Sher, 1998).


(a)Clear information about what is and what is not permitted is critical. Areas where more clarity and better information may be needed:

(b) Discussion of the importance of academic honesty will put potential cheaters on notice, give permission to others to be vigilant and possibly report known or observed cheating, and will help prevent inadvertent plagiarism and cheating. An open discussion can help students move forward in their thinking and become more principled and committed to being ethical in all their dealings. "Research indicates that academic dishonesty is far less likely to occur in small classes where there is significant, positive relationship between students and teachers" (Kibler et al, 1988, p. 65).

(c)For essays and papers:

(d)Make the examination room as cheat-resistant as you can:

(e) What to watch out for when proctoring:


(a) Know and follow the Scholastic Offence policy. The most up-to-date version is on the University web site. The first two steps are to examine the relevant evidence, and to discuss the allegation with the student. Which you do first is likely to depend on the specifics of the case. Once an instructor concludes an offence probably occurred, he or she is also obliged to discuss the matter with the department chair, with a view to determining a penalty consistent with penalties for similar offences.

a) in order to satisfy the policy

b) to advise the student of your suspicion or conclusion

c) to give the student a chance to explain or respond

d) to advise the student about the policy and the next steps.

(b) Interviewing a student suspected of cheating.

(c) Sufficient Evidence. An instructor is expected to bring the evidence to the department chair and to determine a penalty in consultation. This step provides a safety net for the instructor. The chair can help determine whether the evidence is adequate. How can you test your evidence?

(d) Penalties: The policy explains the procedure to be followed in determining an appropriate penalty, and also outlines a series of penalties ranging from reprimand to expulsion from the University. While there is room to consider individual circumstances in determining an appropriate penalty, the trend is towards using penalties in a consistent way. Penalties more severe than a fail grade in the course can only be imposed by the Dean of the student's home faculty. For more information on Penalties, see Bauer (1999).

(e) If the student appeals: It is easy to feel resentful toward the individual who appeals, especially when you are convinced he or she has no case and the appeal is 'a waste of time.' However, the existence of the appeal process is a safety net not only for the student, but for instructors and for the University. No one wants to see an innocent person wrongly accused; and no one wants to apply a standard of 'guilty beyond a reasonable doubt' in academic dishonesty cases, either--and there is some doubt in many cases that go forward. The solution is to have a good appeal process.


We don't like to think about the fact that dishonesty, prevarication, stretching the truth--whatever you want to call it--is such an integral part of life. We cling to the ideal of ourselves as scrupulously honest and good. And we may cling to this ideal even more tenaciously in academe. Life is easier if we make the assumption that those we are dealing with are probably being truthful. Just as we may be inclined to underestimate the amount of cheating which goes on, we underestimate the amount of lying that goes on (Jackson, 1997; Kanner, 1996).

Worse, we like to imagine we can 'tell' when someone is not telling the truth. I, for one, have learned that I cannot always tell when someone is not telling the truth. I have listened to a student's assurances that he or she did not cheat, and then viewed the examination papers at the Dean's Office, and seen some pretty clear and convincing evidence--such as erased notes, still readable in good light, reading: "What's 6?" or "BOB, do you have 10?"

Notwithstanding, there certainly are some signs that may help to determine whether a person is or is not being truthful. All things considered, I find I am more inclined to believe a person who:

proves to be reliable over time, i.e., is punctual, cancels an appointment if they cannot keep it, meets deadlines

refrains from making disparaging remarks about others, including decision-makers

All things considered, I am less inclined to believe a person who:

I am always more cautious about assessing credibility when a person is from a different culture than mine; when a person is very upset; and when I am unfamiliar with that person's usual communication style.

My great-aunt, Helen Palk, was a school teacher, a teacher at a Normal School, an author of Canadian history books and a fine storyteller. When I was very small, she told or read to me a story about a black goat with special powers. I don't know where the story originated, but here it is:

A child reported to the teacher, Miss Higgins, that ten cents had disappeared from his coat pocket. Every child hung his coat in the cloakroom, so any child could have taken the money. The teacher told the children it looked like someone had stolen the money. She asked who had done it. But no one spoke up. She said she hoped whoever it was would put the money on her desk sometime before lunch. But no one did. So after lunch Miss Higgins spoke to the farmer, Mr. Brown. She asked him to bring his black goat, Sadie, to the schoolhouse. She explained to the children that Sadie had a special gift--she could tell when someone was a liar.

When Mr. Brown brought Sadie into the class, the children were very curious. How could a goat tell anything, let alone when someone was lying?

Miss Higgins said every child was to come up, one at a time, and rest his or her hand on top of Sadie's head. She said after every child had patted Sadie, Sadie would tell who had stolen the money. So one by one the children came up and patted Sadie's head. When the last child took her seat, Miss Higgins instructed the children to raise the hand which had touched the goat. Miss Higgins and Mr. Brown looked at each other and nodded agreement. Mr. Brown bent down and whispered to Sadie. Then Miss Higgins announced that, according to Sadie, Melissa took the money.

"But I never even touched that stupid goat!" protested Melissa. "Exactly," said Miss Higgins. "Mr. Brown rubbed Sadie's head with soot. Every other child has a black smudge on his hand . . . everyone but the one child who knew she was guilty." Melissa gave the money back. She promised never to lie or steal again. But just to make sure she didn't forget this promise, Miss Higgins said she would have to do chores for a week . . . .

The trick about interviewing is to try to introduce a black goat into the interview, something you can legitimately ask any student, but something which is likely to trap a guilty student.


Allan, S., editor, Campuses around the world. "I'm with stupid." The Gazette, November 13, 1990, p. 2. (Reprinted from The McGill Tribune.)

Barker, J. Two ways to disrupt an exam but good. The Gazette, January 6, 1994.

Bauer, F. (1999). Cheating, Plagiarism, Fraud and Computer Mischief. Ombuds Office publication.

Buckner, H.T. (1987). Cheating: Poll Results. (Ombudsperson file copy. Publication status unknown.)

Dhaliwal, H., & McMillan, E. Every which way but the truth. The Reporter, April 2, 1987, p. 4.

Galsworthy, S. Memo to Teaching Faculty. March 15, 1999. (Circulated at Western.)

Jackson, L. The truth is that we all tell 200 untruths a day. London Free Press, April 9, 1997.

Kanner, B. Lies, damn lies, statistics, advertising, resumes....London Free Press, October 17, 1996.

Kasrai, R. Yer cheatin' heart. The Gazette, January 19, 1993, p. 1.

Kibler, W.L., Nuss, E.M., Paterson, B.G., Pavela, G. (1988). Academic Integrity and Student Development: Legal Issues, Policy Perspectives. The Higher Education Administration Series. College Administration Publications, Inc.

Koot, L. Cheaters force exam rewrite. The Gazette, January 10, 1996.

Murray, D. Students taught a lesson. London Free Press, November 2, 1995.

We asked for it..... The Gazette, January 7, 1992, p. 11. (Responses to the "What's Hip" survey.)

Pemberton, C. (1983). Results from the Spring 1983 Student and Faculty Surveys on Academic Honesty at the University of Delaware. Institutional Research Study 83-32. (Ombudsperson file copy. Publication status unknown.)

Sher, J. Cardiac 'doctor' a college dropout. London Free Press, June 4, 1998, p. A1.

The University of Western Ontario (2000). Calendar.

About the author

Frances Bauer has been Ombudsperson since June 1988. Before becoming Western's Ombudsperson, she held positions at Dawson College, Concordia University and John Abbott College, all in Montreal. She holds a B.A. from the University of Manitoba and two Master's degrees from Concordia. She was a founding member of the Association of Canadian College and University Ombudspersons (ACCUO), and has served that organization as both President (1990-91) and Secretary (1996-98). She has also served as Member-at-Large on the Board of the University and College Ombuds Association (1994-96).

1. Scott Feschuk (Gazette editor), personal communication.

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