Handling Cheating and Cheaters: An Informed Approach, Fall 2000

Accessible Version

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:

  • mistaken ideas about what is allowed
  • student's feeling that the material is irrelevant
  • lack of vigilance by proctors, instructors
  • desire to avoid failure
  • desire for higher grade
  • lack of confidence in own ability
  • desire to please the professor by submitting better work
  • desire to please parent or other person by getting a

good result

  • highly competitive environment
  • heavy workload--no other way seen to get the work done
  • perceived low risk
  • seeing others cheat and get away with it
  • desire to help a friend

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:

  • Students may not know how to document brief quotes and paraphrases in your discipline.
  • Students may not know how to avoid copying the overall organization of written material (sequences of ideas in a paper).
  • When some assignments, labs or other work involves students working together, what are your expectations of how their reports, papers or projects should look? Do you encourage them to give credit on that work to the other student?
  • Students who feel less confident of spelling, grammar and form in essays may seek assistance from friends or others--do you encourage them to document this? Take time to explain what help is acceptable and what help isn't acceptable, and stress that this is for your course. (Other instructors may take a different approach.)
  • Students may get copies of others' work from this year or a previous year. If you are aware that this is possible, address it in class. Discuss why copying the work of others is self-defeating. Explain that you will be watching for this. Alternatively, explain how studying the work of others may be beneficial.
  • If some previous student work is available (model reports, for instance) teach students how to use a model appropriately. Don't assume they know how to do this.

(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:

  • Require submission of a draft or outline. Retain a copy of the draft or outline, and compare it to the final work.
  • Require submission of a bibliography along with the draft or outline of an essay. Require use of some current material to which the previous year's students would not have had access (Galsworthy, 1999). Keep your own material and approach current.
  • Keep student work secure. Marked assignments, lab reports, and essays should not be set out in a box for students to rummage through. Assignments being submitted should not be placed in an accessible box, either. Dishonest students have been known to help themselves to another student's work, and submit it as their own. "Students have a right to expect their assignments be held in a secure place" (Galsworthy, 1999).
  • When commenting on students' work, nurture their strengths, rather than focusing only on their weaknesses. That will help them be more confident in asserting their own ideas in their own words--and less likely to cheat.
  • Ask students to submit two copies of their essay. Explain that you will keep a copy of each essay on file for a number of years, and that you do this primarily to deter plagiarists.

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

  • Ensure enough proctors, and educate proctors about what to watch for.
  • Remind students of their obligation to act honestly.
  • Ask if there are any questions before the exam begins.
  • Keep to a minimum the number of things students are allowed to bring into the examination--if possible, discourage or prohibit items which could be used to hide cheat sheets (pencil cases, glasses cases). Review what is permitted with the students before the exam begins.
  • Require that baseball caps be removed (students have been known to hide notes under the bills, or to take advantage of the fact that their face is hidden to let their eye wander) (Karsai, 1993, quoting Professor Dino Bidinosti).
  • Ensure sufficient space between students--use alternate rows if possible.
  • Discourage students from sitting near friends; or have a random seating order which students cannot guess in advance.
  • Use scrambled versions of objective tests, so students writing one version are not seated next to each other.
  • If you cannot scramble the test, maybe you can print it on different colours of paper so it will appear to be scrambled? (to cheat the cheaters . . . )
  • Check photo ID, in order to minimize the chance for one person to impersonate another (Galsworthy, 1999).
  • Warn students in advance about the steps you are taking to reduce cheating--honest students will be pleased and others may be deterred.
  • Warn students to shield their answer sheets and test papers from view.
  • Warn students they may be asked to move seats at any time for any reason--explain that this is for their own protection and not intended to embarrass anyone.
  • Warn students if you will use ScanExam to help detect cheating when the exams are graded.
  • Require all papers to be turned in after the exam, and ask students to put their names on all papers.

(e) What to watch out for when proctoring:

  • The student who gazes around--approach the student and ask if everything is alright. Remind him or her not to gaze around.
  • Any student who seems to do something repeatedly--cough, clear throat, scratch head, shuffle pens and pencils, shuffle papers, shift fingers, hands or feet--these actions may be a signal to another student: is anyone paying attention?
  • Students should not have any electronic devices, for instance, ear phones or pagers.
  • Students should not leave papers exposed to view with answers indicated--a student who does this should be asked to move seats.


(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.

  • The first evidence of cheating may be something witnessed (a proctor observes a glance by student A in the direction of student B's paper); something unusual in a pattern of answers (perhaps detected by ScanExam); something unexpected in light of other knowledge (very polished prose from a student of formerly undistinguished style).
  • Whether you are certain or uncertain about the cheating based on the evidence at hand, you should arrange to speak to the student. This should be done discreetly. The policy requires that information about student cheating be treated confidentially.
  • What is the purpose of the interview with the student? This will depend on the situation, but at the very least, the interview is taking place

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.

  • Where you feel the evidence you have is weak, you may be using the interview to gather further evidence from the student's statement.

(b) Interviewing a student suspected of cheating.

  • You may wish to have someone else present during the interview (the department chair, a colleague); you may wish to suggest that the student bring an academic colleague or the Ombudsperson to the meeting.
  • Try to keep an open mind. This will be easier if you think through how you are feeling first. Angry? Disappointed? Certain the student cheated?
  • Plan questions which are open-ended and do not assume that the student is guilty. See scenario section, below, for some ideas.
  • Avoid arguing with the student or allowing the student to argue with you. Let the student know that you regard his or her own statement as important evidence, and repeat the statement back to the student to make sure you have the details exact. Take notes. Encourage the student to take notes of your statement if he or she wishes. Or offer to provide a copy of your notes to the student. (You may wish to type them up first.) Your notes will not only provide a record of the interview; they will be invaluable evidence in the event of an appeal.
  • If you conclude your interview by telling the student you will think about the matter and let him or her know the decision at a later date, be sure to give a clear indication of the time frame. It is very hard for any student, guilty or not guilty, to be kept in suspense.
  • Do not expect that you will be able to tell whether the student is telling the truth or not. Honest students may be just as nervous in this situation as dishonest ones; a reaction of indignation can come from either an honest student or a liar; an honest student may go blank in the stress of the moment and be unable to answer a straightforward question. Try to keep an open mind during the interview. If the student seems extremely stressed, offer the option of a time-out, or continuing the interview at another time. Reflecting feeling may help calm the student.
  • Encourage the student to read the Scholastic Offence policy, and to discuss the situation with the Ombudsperson or another trusted person.
  • If the student confesses to cheating, it is especially important to spend some time with him or her. It is at this point that you can really influence the student's future behaviour. Be respectful, not angry. Be appreciative of the student's honesty, and reflect the student's feelings.
  • Make clear that the determination of the penalty is not entirely up to you---you are obliged to discuss the matter with the chair.

(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?

  • The evidence should be objective. You need to be able to show it to others, including colleagues from another discipline, and gain their agreement that "cheating probably took place."
  • All the evidence needs to be considered. Where the student has made statements which appear contradicted by other evidence, you have to decide which evidence to accept. If you accept the student's statement, how do you explain the other evidence?
  • Think about evidence that may be missing, for example, the original from which a plagiarism was made, the means by which a student communicated with a fellow student during an examination--is there any way to locate that missing evidence? (You may be able to gain some of those missing pieces in the interview process. See scenarios below.)
  • Avoid reliance on generalizations. Do not just say, "I don't believe a student at this level could write that . . . ." Investigate the writing competency of the particular student by asking to see other samples of his or her writing, rough notes for the paper, and so on.
  • Remember, you do not need evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt," but you do need evidence which is reasonably persuasive, on balance of probabilities.
  • When in doubt, consult with your chair and even the Dean. Find out whether they would be likely to support a finding of guilt on the 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:

  • uses factual, non-judgemental language
  • listens carefully to what I say
  • is prepared to look at 'the big picture' and consider matters from another point of view
  • is honest about feelings, as demonstrated in exchanges like: "You seem disappointed," "Yes, I am disappointed."

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:

  • is argumentative, indignant and outraged
  • does not listen
  • is not open to other viewpoints, or willing to consider the larger issue
  • is defensive about feelings, as demonstrated in exchanges like: "You seem upset," "Well, if you'd been wrongly accused, wouldn't you be upset?"
  • proves not very reliable--is not punctual, misses an appointment without explanation, fails to meet deadlines
  • makes disparaging remarks about others for no other apparent reason than discrediting that person's viewpoint ("that instructor seems really rigid about everything")

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.