You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




By now, teaching assistants have read the last term paper, marked up the last test, and submitted the last grades of the year. At least I hope that’s true for your sanity’s sake, as it is June 12 and several weeks into pool season. Ideally grading went smoothly: all your students turned in stellar, original work and their (and your) hard work throughout the semester was amply rewarded with an accompanying boost to their GPAs (and your student evaluations). However, the longer you’ve been in the teaching business, the more likely it is you have encountered academic misconduct by a student. Plagiarism, cheating, tampering, submitting false records, etc. all threaten the integrity of your class and diminish other students’ honest work and effort. Given that misconduct is both disturbingly pervasive and potentially ruinous, how should a teaching assistant proceed if he is concerned one of his students may be running afoul of the rules?


Every time his students would try to solve a difficult technical problem without referring to the guidance of authoritative materials, my favorite professor ever would admonish us with the same advice: “Do not rely on your unaided wits.” While I try to live by these words in all I do, this is particularly applicable to situations where you suspect your students are engaging in academic misconduct. The sort of large research universities that employ teaching assistants also favor enacting official policies on serious issues like cheating, so do your due diligence and seek out and read the applicable policy. It’s likely that the university has a procedure in place that will govern what you must, may, or should do when you suspect academic misconduct.


Additionally, document and report everything you do. This will create a record of your actions in the event that more formal steps need to be taken and it will help you better understand and analyze the situation. Being able to articulate, for instance, exactly why you suspect academic misconduct occurred will help you better evaluate your heat-of-the-moment objectivity. In the wake of the shock which will ensue when you believe you caught someone cheating, it’s easy to lose your clear, objective train of thought. I’ve had to rely on documentation before. In my first teaching assistant job, my colleagues and I administered an exam in a large lecture hall to hundreds of students comprising several sections of the same course. The classroom had a sophisticated projection booth from which I could operate several cameras around the room which could easily see over any student’s shoulder. Zooming and panning like Ed Harris in The Truman Show, I was able to catch three students cheating. While that was unfortunate, the footage proved pivotal when one student contested my allegation. That situation is a little extreme, but it underscores the importance of being able to support complaints of cheating. If you record everything (when you first suspected misconduct, the specific actions you observed, anyone you discussed it with, etc.), you can determine how credible your suspicion is and support it if need be.


Assuming you are confident misconduct is afoot, don’t condemn the student immediately. The overwhelming majority of students I’ve caught in the act are either simply unaware they’ve committed a violation (e.g., a missed citation) or panicked and desperate because of something more serious (one student once told me she had only tried to cheat on a test because she had been preoccupied with the death of a parent the week prior). In either case, the students are generally mortified by their unwitting mistake or uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and remorseful. Every case is different, but, where appropriate, I prefer to address the matter with the student before taking any punitive action. This creates a teaching opportunity regarding academic best practices or provides an outlet for a student dealing with extracurricular pressures. Obviously, depending on departmental or university rules, you may be required to take certain steps, but I strongly recommend against extreme sanctions where the misconduct lacks any nefarious intent. A zero on the assignment in question, reviewing guidelines, and the opportunity to re-submit honest work benefits such students far more than a hearing before a panel of deans threatening expulsion, provided they wish to work with you.


Finally, don’t retaliate against cheaters. A student busted for misconduct early in the semester will probably be a little reluctant to come to you for guidance on later assignments. When this happens, be sympathetic; no one is eager to be remembered for his worst decision. If you notice that student hanging back or becoming withdrawn from the class, reassure her in private that you don’t take her actions personally and won’t carry a grudge. Although you were likely disappointed by the misconduct, your duty of care to that student doesn’t end - keep teaching! Imagine how pride will supplant your disappointment when the student in question learns from his mistake and really shines on the next assignment.


Have you ever had to deal with a student’s academic misconduct? What was the resolution? Would you do anything differently? Let us know in the comments!


Image by Flickr user sleepymyf and used under Creative Commons licensing.

Next Story

Written By

More from GradHacker