Cheating: The not-good, the bad and the ugly

I’m a lab coordinator in the Chemistry Department of the University of Guelph.  Over my years in post-secondary education I’ve witnessed many different types and degrees of academic misconduct.

The not-good – collaborators

I have some sympathy for these students as they often don’t realize what they did was wrong. They are working together on an experiment in pairs, and then hand in independent reports. You can work together to answer the questions, which is fine, but your answer must be in your own words. Make notes while working with your partner, then step back, and work independently on what you are going to hand in. When we grade lab reports, we almost always grade partners’ papers side by side, so we’ll know right away if your answers are identical.  You may end up with a grade of zero on the question or on the entire submission.

The bad – copiers

Unfortunately, we regularly see student work that is obviously copied from another student. This goes beyond having the same answer to a question or two. This is two students having identical formatting, tables, figures, calculations, etc. What can be really telling is when two students have identical mistakes in their work. We expect similar correct answers across different submissions, but exactly the same mistake is highly unlikely. This then triggers a link in the graders mind, and an investigation ensues. Copying is often the result of procrastination and sheer laziness. The person copied from can be in just as much jeopardy as the copier. First offenders may end up with a grade of zero. These cases annoy me. I believe the participants know their behavior is unacceptable, but don’t care enough about their own integrity to do better.

The ugly – schemers

These cases are less common. Cheating schemes can involve stealthy use of technology, setting up websites to share information, and stealing blank exams. These are people who plan ahead on how they are going to cheat. In many cases, if they’d put as much work into studying as they did cheating, they’d have done OK in the course. I don’t have any sympathy for these students. There is no excuse for this kind of behaviour. When caught, students can expect consequences are usually pretty harsh, including failure of the exam or course and even expulsion.

The best way to avoid even the appearance of academic misconduct is to put in the effort to do your own work every time.