We are constantly made aware of dishonesty in our society. It is the grist of the media. Elected officials breaking the law, bankers embezzling funds, businessmen cheating consumers, people fudging on their taxes and more. When we see a student cheating, it summons up all the negative images and revulsion we associate with the crimes we read about. To accuse a student of cheating is to imply he was cast from the same mold as all of society’s criminals. For this reason, many teachers just look the other way. To accuse a student of cheating seems too fraught with danger. They rationalize by saying to themselves, what if I’m wrong. Or, how can I prove it if the parents object? 

Other teachers deal with the problem by facing it head on. Before the first test they launch into a long and painful discussion of cheating and all the horrible consequences.

Either approach is wrong and counterproductive. However, if you do not aggressively deal with cheating your students will lose respect for you and what you are teaching.  Cheating will happen, and you must be prepared to deal with it.

Worse yet, though, is that when a teacher sees a student cheat, it often forever taints his impression of the child. Before talking about how to deal with cheating, it might be useful to put it in a reasonable context.

Children first perceive the difference between right and wrong when they are introduced to rules at home. Rules simply represent constraints on behavior. Doing the right thing is rewarded, while the wrong thing is punished. Rules exist outside the child. Young children, under the age of ten or so, are rigid in their perception of rules.

As they get older, they begin to observe that others don’t all follow the same rules. Standards of conduct within families or groups may be different from their own. The idea that rules can be changed by agreement or even for one’s own benefit becomes acceptable.

As we get older still, we begin to realize that rules are simply an expression of social order. We no longer do what is right just to be a good boy or girl but rather because it is our duty to the greater good. We see ourselves as a member of society, and we need to conduct ourselves so as to be fair to that society. As adults we see dishonesty as an attack on the foundation of our society and culture. No matter what else a person has to his credit, if he is dishonest, he is no longer worthy of respect.

Many young teenagers, however, have not reached this adult level of morality. They are still at the stage where rules are either imposed or agreed upon. Rules are now seen as flexible but still lack any intrinsic value. Of course, they know they aren’t supposed to cheat, but given the opportunity, it might prevent them from breaking another rule, “don’t fail”.

If you carry on endlessly about how they had better not cheat, you are saying that you don’t trust them. You don’t believe that they are good people. In fact, if you overdo it, they might even think you are denying the possibility that they are good. It is essential that you establish a sense of trust between you and your students for reasons other than just to prevent cheating. Otherwise, you’ll have to hover over them like a prison guard.

There are ways to curtail cheating or address the problem without being offensive. The time-honored way to keep kids from looking at each others’ papers is to make two versions of the test. Naturally that is a lot more work; if the two versions have different, rather than rearranged questions, it’s likely that one will be harder than the other. Or, you could have them sit at every other desk, putting the others at tables around the side of the room, if that’s possible. Or, you might just casually ask them to keep their papers covered. In any case, as useful as these techniques are, they won’t prevent a kid from palming a slip of paper with the answers on it or whispering to a neighbor.

If you do suspect cheating what do you do? What you don’t do is make a big fuss about it. Suppose someone appears to be looking at words scribbled on a book cover? Just go to his seat and turn the book over.

What if two kids are whispering? Get their attention quietly and motion for them to be quiet.

What if a student is looking on another’s paper? Again, get his attention; then just point to your own eyes.

In all these cases, when class is almost over, casually ask the student to see you after class. The conversation might go like this.

Teacher: “Jeff, it seemed to me that you were looking at Alan’s paper”.

Jeff: “Maybe once or twice, but I wasn’t copying.”

Teacher: “”Jeff, I saw you look, then write something on your paper, then look and write again and again. How do you explain that?”

Jeff: “All right, I did copy a couple of things, but I was going to write that anyway.”

Teacher: “You know what that’s called, don’t you?”

Jeff: Nods affirmatively.

Teacher: “What do you think we should do about it?”

Or, suppose you see a student holding a slip of paper in her lap. Quietly go back, get the paper; then let her finish the test with the others. When she comes up after class….

Teacher: “Okay, Lisa, what am I supposed to think this paper was for?”

Lisa: “I don’t know”.

Teacher: “Well, we both know that I know what you were doing with it. What do you think we should do about it?”

In the first case, looking on another’s paper doesn’t absolutely prove cheating. So, you must get the student to admit it. In the second case, you have proof in your hand, so guilt can be assumed. In both cases, though, you ask the student what should be done. You aren’t angry with them, just very disappointed. The student will be subdued, probably avoiding eye contact. What is bothering them most at this moment is that they have violated your trust and that you no longer think them a good boy or girl. Also, they are nervous about what you will do. Ask them what should be done. They almost certainly will say, “I don’t know”. Keep pressing. They have cheated. There needs to be some consequence. Don’t let them off the hook.

Typically they may finally say that they should get a “O%” for the test or some other serious consequence like having their parents called. No, that won’t be necessary. Ask them which questions they cheated on and just mark those wrong (assuming this is the first episode of cheating.) Everyone is a winner with this approach. They have cleared their conscience, and by selecting a consequence more lenient than they did, you have implied that the trust between you has been reestablished. Of course you will end the conversation by alluding to the fact that you won’t handle it the same way if it happens again. Otherwise it may tempt them to try again.

What if they never do admit to cheating? If you don’t have incontrovertible proof, as with Jeff, you’ll be on shaky ground if you impose some consequence. The best you can do here is threaten a sanction if you see the same behavior on a future test.

Larry: “Yeah, I was whispering, but we weren’t talking about the test.”

Teacher: “All right, Larry, but if I see you whispering during another test I’ll have to assume you were cheating.”

You are telling Larry that there will be no further discussion about his intentions. Just the act of whispering will be prima facie evidence of cheating.

Or, what if they admit to cheating but choose a consequence too minor or none at all? Actually, this happens only rarely. You have two options. You can accept whatever they say but threaten dire consequences on a second occurrence. Or, you can just impose whatever you think regardless of what they think.

If cheating occurs again, you can flunk them on that test and all previous tests as well. That is justified, since it seems to be a pattern they most likely followed on the other tests, too. Have them come in after school to retake all previous tests. Explain that despite how well they do this second time, you won’t give them a higher grade than they got the first time. You have still given them an out. A last chance, as it were. If cheating continues, you’ll have to either have them take all tests after school or just fail them. Nothing in education always works all the time with all kids.


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