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My Students Cheated... a Lot

Sep 30, 2022

Part I: I got in

Last semester I witnessed the worst cheating in a course I’ve ever seen. And, I’ve seen stuff.

I’m debating right now whether or not to write my account of what happened. Leaning toward writing this. And, then I’ll debate myself later on whether or not to share it…Debated…going to share. No names, or any other identifying information. Overall my students are really great. This could be a fiction. There was a lot of cheating, so the story is long. I mean this could be a podcast. It ends well too, for the most part.

One more side note. Why tell this story? Since this whole thing happened I’ve told the story a bunch of times, and sometimes I get requests to tell it. This is also a story for my future students about what not to do. So, here is a long form version. I’m not interested in outing my students, or casting shade on them. There were many fantastic students in my course while the cheating completely overwhelmed everything like a metastasizing slime mold. People cheat in college for lots of reasons. I don’t condone the behavior. I teach my courses because I’m interested in engaging students in the material. When cheating happens, it can reflect on me as an instructor and whether or not the course merits engagement. So, this is a story about cheating, but also about how I tried to turn things around and get students to engage in my course. Anyway, without further ado:

It started in August 2021. I was about to give my first lecture of the semester online. Just as quickly as I started the lecture, one of the students used the chat to post a link to join a WhatsApp chat group for the class. I joined.

As will become obvious, students are using a variety of methods to communicate with each other about a course, especially while taking online classes. WhatsApp chat groups are one of the methods. These group chats can be totally legitimate and provide students with lots of course info and an active social network. Other stuff can happen on the chat too.

A day later we were out with friends and my phone was blowing up from WhatsApp chat notifications. I scrolled through some of the messages and decided I should mute the chat. My students were having fun socializing, sometimes at my expense, and I couldn’t have my phone pinging me every time someone made a random comment on the chat. I completely forgot about the chat for a couple months. September and October were a blur. I hadn’t fully prepped the class, and I was busy making new slide decks and multiple choice questions for quizzes.

Slight detour for background.

I’m no stranger to students violating the academic integrity policy. I like to start addressing potential violations by giving students the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were naive about what they were doing. There could be a teaching moment here. I also attempt to structure my courses so that students want to complete the coursework, and choose not to violate academic integrity policies.

For example, in this course I ran short multiple choice quizzes each week. Students could take the quiz as many times as they wanted during the week. The quiz questions changed each time (pulled randomly from a pool), and students always got their most recent quiz grade. The quizzes were low stakes. I also told students that taking the quizzes would help them study for the midterms, which would contain questions from the quizzes.

Enough background, back to the cheating.

Sometime in October I was sitting in my living room trying to locate a picture on my phone. I opened up my photos app and scrolled through the images.

Then I started freaking out because my phone had obviously been hacked.

My photos app was filled with hundreds of pictures of laptop screens. Not my laptop. I didn’t take those pictures. I looked closer and recognized the screenshots. My quiz and midterm questions. It was coming from the chat.

I was afraid to open the chat. At my institution faculty are obligated to report any suspected violations of the academic integrity policy. I take that obligation seriously, and have filed numerous reports in the past when the situation arises. Even filing one report can take a lot of time. I don’t have a lot of time, and I don’t enjoy using it to fill out the reports.

I opened the chat. There they were, all those pictures, the same ones from the photos app. I had forgotten that WhatsApp has a setting to automatically save all of the media posted in the chat to my phone. I wasn’t hacked. My students were cheating like frenetic spambots. This was going to be bad.

WhatsApp has other features too, like the ability to archive and download the entire chat.

I got down to business. I needed to determine what was happening in the chat, I needed to report any academic integrity violations, and I needed to do some major course corrections for my students.

There were thousands of texts. Thousands. Not all of the texts were about cheating, or about the course. My students were having fun texting each other about stuff in general, and also about the course. One positive aspect to the chat was that students helped each other out in good ways, for example by reminding each other about deadlines, or broadcasting whether or not I was suffering technical difficulties while giving online lectures. The negative aspect was the volcano of cheating erupting since the first quiz.

There were 100+ students in the class, and a strong majority of them were in the chat. It was obvious that lots of cheating was going on, and that some students may or may not be actively participating in cheating and/or the chat itself. Also, no student reported that any cheating behavior was occurring in the chat (which would be obvious to anyone who looked at the chat). The rules around whether or not students should tell on each other for cheating may be unclear, but knowing and not telling can constitute an academic integrity violation. At the end of the day, I would have to file individual forms for each student, so I needed to figure out what each student did, and also what the consequences would be. At this point, my semester was beyond repair, and I would be spending months dealing with this.

Fortunately for me I was also able to apply my data-analysis skills to the problem of figuring out who did what. I spend most of my research life using the statistical programming language R to do all sort of things, and I knew I would be able to input the WhatsApp chat and write some scripts to help me with my cheating detective work.

Some of the students in the chat could be identified from the names they use on WhatsApp, and other students could be identified from their phone numbers. I wrote a program to cross-reference phone numbers, and voila, I had identified 97% of the users on the WhatsApp chat. Then, I wrote a script to split the chat by user and time. I could see what each student wrote/posted and when they sent it.

I read through the thousands of texts to figure out what exactly went down, and tallied up for each student whether an academic integrity violation occurred for each quiz, assignment or midterm.

The pattern was the same every week, starting from the first quiz. The quiz would open on blackboard on a Monday. Many students would complete the quiz over the course of the week. The quizzes were due on Sundays at 11:59pm. By 7pm or so on Sunday the cheating would start. Students running up against the deadline were panicking. They hadn’t done anything during the week, didn’t do the reading or go to class, so they didn’t know any of the answers when they took the quiz.

Also, by the way, I should say that the quizzes were entirely open book and open note. All of the course material was online and freely available to the students. The quizzes were individual assignments, and students were not supposed to help each other by sharing questions or answers.

Rather than searching the textbook for answers, the method of choice was to post screenshots of quiz questions to WhatsApp. Then other helpful students would reply with the answers. The Sunday night forecast was always a torrential downpour of cheating on WhatsApp.

My analysis showed the two very clear forms of academic integrity violations were sharing questions and answers on WhatsApp chat. The plagiarism doesn’t begin until later.

After two weeks of collating the data, I had a chart showing students by assignments, and whether or not they cheated on each. The next task was to fill out those damn forms.

There is a suggestion at my institution that I have an hour long conversation with each student about their academic integrity violation. I had about 70 violations. 70 hours? So…

Instead, in consultation with the powers that be, I would inform the class as a whole about the widespread violations, and also submit individual forms for each student. Although I don’t like filling out forms, it is important that individual students receive a form, because it helps make sure they understand the accusation, the consequences, as well as their right to appeal and how to get that process rolling if necessary.

I had nothing better to do so I wrote an R program to help me fill out the forms. Who knew I could automate pdf text entry from R. You learn something new everyday.

Besides filling out the forms, I had to decide on consequences for my students. There was a big range in cheating behavior. Some students cheated on every quiz and the first midterm. Some of them said things on the chat that will not be repeated here. This was as flagrant a violation of academic integrity as I had ever seen. I thought failing the course would be appropriate here. Some students cheated on fewer assignments. Some students were clearly participating in the chat and not reporting the cheating. Some students didn’t send any texts.

For consequences, I came up with a three strikes and you are out rule. I gave 0s on any assignment or midterm where cheating occurred. If you got three or more zeroes, then you failed the course. I also gave a penalty for anyone involved in the chat, even if they didn’t explicitly cheat. The penalty was zero on any extra credit assignments.

My full time job is not to detect and report cheating, and it took me several weeks to accomplish the above. In the meantime, I also had to teach my course. It was extremely demoralizing to teach to a class that was blatantly cheating the entire time. Relatedly, try lecturing online by yourself to a bunch of blank screens while subscribed to a WhatsApp chat where a vocal minority are telling everyone how they really feel. I had perma-eyebrow raise, and oh my poor feelings.

I wasn’t ready to inform them about what was going on until I had processed all of the facts, so I just pressed on with the lectures. My goal was to have all of the forms filled out and emailed before the next midterm. I tried as hard as I could. But, I couldn’t get it done. I had to give the next midterm, and I knew that probably meant a bunch more cheating. I was still on the WhatsApp chat. It would be irresponsible to look away.

I learned a few lessons from the first midterm, so I tried to clamp down and prevent another tidal wave of cheating for the second midterm. Before the first midterm an enterprising student harvested as many questions from the quiz pool as possible by retaking each quiz and saving the questions to a document. This would have taken a good amount of time to do by hand, I was almost proud, it was a form of engaging in course material. I know this happened because they shared the question bank with the rest of the class on WhatsApp. Many students got 100% on the first midterm.

I knew the students would try to harvest the question pool again for the second midterm. So, I rewrote all of the quiz questions and kept them out of the online pool. I also stopped giving quizzes and changed to written weekly assignments (I had been avoiding grading weekly writing assignments because I had many students and no teaching assistant to help me with the grading). I also changed the exam format. Previously students get all of the questions at once, and they have a couple hours to complete the whole thing. For midterm two, I turned on “one question at a time” and “no-backtracking”. As a result, every student would get different random questions, one at a time. They would have to complete each question, and they would not be able to go back to check their work. These options make it harder to cheat, but they also make the experience of taking the test worse for students. It’s not my preference for running an exam.

Another detail was that I let my students take the first midterm anytime they wanted within a week long period. There was a lot of sharing on WhatsApp for that whole week. So, I ran the second midterm during a scheduled online lecture. Everyone had to do the midterm at the same time. It would be harder for someone to get out ahead and share the whole midterm with students who hadn’t taken it yet.

OK, let’s recap. I have about 70 students on WhatsApp cheating like there is no tomorrow. I have counted what they did, I have almost filled out the forms to let them know the consequences; but, no one knows yet that I am aware of the cheating. I made the second midterm more cheat proof. I’m still on the WhatsApp chat. The day of the second midterm comes around. I log into my class so that students can talk to me while they are taking the midterm. The midterm begins, and so do the WhatsApp messages.

End Part I.

Part II: The second midterm

Spoiler alert: There’s some swear words down there 👇. I’ll do the first one. Some shit went down in the second midterm 🙀.

What happened with the second midterm? Before I get to that I’ll point out that I was invited into the WhatsApp chat in more than one way. After my first class I got an email from a student with a link to join the chat. I guess they forgot I was invited, because I had to sanction them for cheating based on their texts. Stuff like this happened all semester long. There was a lot of cheating, but it was low quality. Sometimes cheating is so impressive that it could have been an alternative assignment in the course for a grade. Not so much for what happens next.

A couple digressions. I have multi-dimensional empathy for my students. Is that a thing? It is. It means that I learn more from my students than they learn from me. There are more students than me, and they have so much more stuff going on than I do. Although I don’t condone cheating at all, I can recognize that students sometimes resort to cheating because of other life stuff going on. Plus, it was/is a global pandemic, with stress galore. So, we were all in a major life stuff happening moment.

I was also weirdly empathizing with how hard it would be to cheat in my course. I was sad and angry about the cheating, but in terms of the process they would use to cheat, I knew it would be harder than normal and I could empathize with the difficulties they were experiencing.

The difficulty was that my materials weren’t out there, it was all new stuff. I had written the textbook for the course during the summer. Students couldn’t rely on previous cohorts for the exams. It was all new. So, the cornucopia of websites offering opportunities for students to violate academic integrity principles wouldn’t be much help. For example,,, and offer so much content and services for students. The content can be things like my old exams that someone uploaded without my permission. Or, students can hire people to do their assignments (cough, help them with their homework as a legit tutor). Because my content was new, none of it was available for easy download. I don’t know how many students hired people to do assignments in my course, that’s beyond the call of duty 🐺.

OK, the second midterm. It feels like it was yesterday.

The second midterm was supposed to start at 12:50 PM. I had it all set up and ready to go, which meant that students would be able to access the midterm online when the clock struck 12:50 PM. The group chat (or gc as my students text– I learned so many new things from them 🙏 fr = for real) was already buzzing with commentary such as, “Bruh why do I feel like none of us ready for this bs”, “I know for a fact I did not read the reading”, and “None of us are but I know were gonna do great as long as we help each other!”. One student had a sense of impending doom, “idk why I feel like this midterm gonna b hard”.

In case anyone gets ideas that I’m disparaging my students by paraphrasing their messages, those aren’t the droids you are looking for. My students get A+ on texting, just not my course.

The first thing that went wrong was the midterm didn’t load. I learned this right away from the gc, “Why that shit still not up?”… And, that’s what I was thinking, what the fuck! I spent so much time making the midterm on Blackboard, where was it?

A couple days before the midterm I learned I’d be teaching the same course next semester. This caused a new entry in our course management software with the same title as the current course. I accidentally made the midterm available in the wrong course. I was able to quickly migrate the midterm and give my students access.

I knew the midterm was up and working again thanks to WhatsApp and my students. If I ever wanted to know what my students were thinking while they took an exam, I now know all I need to know.

From the chat,

“Exam starting at 1”

“There was an issue”

“Gotta give him credit tho- he’s a gem” (ah shucks)

“I got my crystals out”

“the crystals, 😭”

“Did he just show the exam?”…

I did accidentally show the exam while video casting.

“I think I saw some questions lmaooo”

“Ya didn’t screenshot, damn it”

And, then

“It’s up”.



“Oh damn we can only do one question at a time”


“What is this??? lmfao”

Ten minutes later,

“so, we just all staying in question 1, LMAOOOO” (students stayed on question 1 for so long waiting for other people to tell them what the answer was, but they all had different questions. Many screenshots were sent on the gc)

“he saw our grades for the first exam, and he was like ummm never again” (I was kind of like that.)

“did he switch up the answers cuz I search dup the questions on the sheet it has different answers” (they tried to share the question bank again)

There’s so much pure gold in the chat. It goes off like a wildfire, with students taking massive amounts of screenshots and asking what the answers are. No one knows the answers. Students are asking that no one deletes the chat, because they are taking the test later and they want to use all of the good stuff from the chat.

This about sums up what happened:

“Everyone is just like anyone? Anyone know? And nobody knows, straight silence 😭”

“nobody know shit”

It must have really sucked trying to cheat with the volume of texts coming through on the gc. Plus, their cheating system was so disorganized. Sometimes a student would post a screenshot and another student would reply with the answer. Other times there wouldn’t be a reply, just a letter name, like B. So students were texting to figure out what question the B was for. There was 10-50 texts a minute for 2 hours, and it was impossible to keep track of what was going on.

The best advice was a student telling everyone they could just go to the website for the textbook, then control-F in the textbook and search for words in the question to find the answers. I mean, ya. It’s in the textbook.

As the midterm drew to a close there was new speculation on the chat. This was my first time being a party to a group chat about my course, and I wasn’t too familiar with the contours of these things. I noticed that students sometimes left the chat. During midterm two I learned this was potentially suspicious behavior, from the chat at the end of the midterm:

“the very first exam… I bet that person who left snitched”

That didn’t happen, nobody snitched. Still didn’t stop the paranoia from brewing (I won’t get to outpouring of paranoia until part three).

The midterm ended with comments like, “I am perfectly fine I just need the sad music right now”, and a few more “CAN ANYONE PLEASE HELP”.

Not everyone in the class cheated. But, everyone who cheated failed miserably. I guess the wisdom of the crowd doesn’t count for much when the crowd didn’t go to class or read the textbook. It wasn’t a hard midterm, and there were students who aced it without cheating.

The sour cherry on top was that I had to rewrite the faculty action reports for each student because of the new evidence of cheating from midterm two. I re-archived the chat and opened up RStudio.

I do a lot of teaching on using computational tools for reproducible data analysis. I can input some data and run it through a script for analysis. When the data changes I can run it through the same script and get the new analysis. The chat archive had changed and this time it was easier to do the analysis all over again. I redid all the counts of academic integrity violations and rewrote the forms spelling out sanctions for each student. So many forms, I died a little inside once for every form.

Some students had never sent a single message in the chat until the dam broke in midterm 2. I had to add them to the list of students who cheated. So close.

I did the reporting as fast as humanly possible. It took a few days away from my life. But, I needed to get it done because I didn’t want any more new cheating before my next class.

That’s when I got to tell my students that I knew a bunch of cheating was going on.

End part II… What even happens in part III?

Part II.5: The alternative syllabus

There’s a bunch of stuff that happens in my head between part two and part three, so this is part 2.5.

Part three is where I log into my online classroom and give the longest and worst lecture of my life. Part 2.5 is the things I did before that to make it not the worst day for everybody.

I don’t like cheating in my classes, and I respond to it when it happens. This was the first time when 75% of the class was cheating way beyond the pale for half a semester. My first inclination was to fail everybody. Aside from all the ways that I can be empathetic, there was a lot of evidence in the chat that students were blowing off the course and making a mockery of the whole thing. But, the brash language in the chat could also be covering up difficult issues students were facing in their lives that were preventing them from committing to their studies. Cheating isn’t an answer, but it happens. Just like how playdough goes through the extruder when you make pasta with the toys from fisher price. Metaphors.

(sadly the gif from my chilhood memory of this toy was not on giphy…edit: it is somewhere though because I saw it on twitter, thanks EK).

When it comes to violations of the academic integrity policy at my institution, faculty members have the discretion to assign consequences for the violations. So I could’ve failed everybody, or applied no sanctions, or anything in between. I do have to file what is called a faculty action report for each student that is placed in a private file. My understanding is that students who collect multiple faculty action reports like baseball cards may cease to be continuing students at my institution. But you might need three strikes or something, not really clear.

In any case, what is the point of part 2.5? Get on with it.

The point is I had no intention of zooming into class, failing 75% of my students, and calling them all a bunch of cheaters in the middle of a pandemic…even though a bunch of cheating happened and all that. And, no I’m not that soft. It’s just, I’m not the police. Education isn’t a form of punishment. I’m trying to get students to engage in my course. Failing them all isn’t a solution.

To be pragmatic about it, here is what would happen if I chose to fail everyone who cheated. First, they would get Fs on their transcript, and because they cheated and I filed a report, this F would stick. That’s a penalty for sure, and even one I’m OK with. But, I considered the students that I was about to fail may need to retake my course next semester. They are already in my course this semester. Why not give them a second chance to start fresh. They would be starting fresh next semester anyway. So, what the hell…I put on my thinking hat and came up with some options besides failing everyone.

If you’re here for the rampant cheating, don’t worry. I find a way to go easy on everyone, and there is still more cheating after that. But, that’s not my point for part 2.5. My point is that I’m going to open doors if I can, and that most students chose the open doors.

Part 2.5 is also before all the lying. When you catch cheating, there is so much lying. OK, enough with the foreshadowing.

Let’s talk about consequences and open doors. I had spent weeks analyzing the cheating data and arrived at three basic outcomes depending on severity of cheating behavior: Fail the course, fail some assignments, or fail extra-credit (basically nothing). I was getting set to announce to the class that most of them were about to fail, when I had a light bulb moment. I needed to write an alternative syllabus for the cheaters.

The alternative syllabus would provide new doorways for students to reset and engage more deeply in the course material, and if they did that I would be happy not to fail them. The faculty action reports would still be in their files, and that would be enough of a consequence. All of these new opportunities could be unfair to the students who didn’t cheat, so I came up with something that I thought was fair to both groups of students.

I’ll go out on a limb and imagine that no one wants to read my original syllabus, or my second alternative syllabus for that semester. But, it was such a sweet deal for everyone involved.

(there are no good syllabus gifs on giphy.)

Concurrently with this cheating fiasco, I also learned I’d be teaching the same course next semester, only this time in an online asynchronous format. That meant, among other things, that I would have to produce lots of new content and modularize the course in various ways. I said yes to teaching the asynchronous version.

Unbeknownst to my students, I was developing plans to make my course more interesting to them. Up to this point in the semester the course was textbook readings, online lectures, quizzes, and a few extra credit writing assignments. I had been preparing to introduce many more optional assignments, but hadn’t followed through. I knew I wanted many more interesting assignments for the upcoming semester, so I thought it was the perfect time to test a new course structure. Enter the alternative syllabus.

The new syllabus was a laundry list of optional assignments that students could complete. It worked for the students who didn’t cheat because now they had lots of optional assignments that were more interesting than the ones I assigned before. It worked for the students who did cheat, because now they had a second chance at passing the course. I made a deal with the students who cheated, but I’ll explain that in part V. Finally, it worked for me, because I got to dream up more interesting assignments for my students that would engage them more deeply in the course material. Tangentially, the second syllabus really worked out well and it helped me formulate an approach to allowing massive assignment flexibility that I rolled out in the asynchronous version of the course I taught this semester (see this post on teaching with loads of assignment choice).

OK, I’m done with 2.5

This is where we are at. My students cheated. I’ve been on the chat the whole time. I’m about to tell them I know they cheated. They don’t know that I’m going to open some doors for them. Will I tell them how I know they cheated? What happens after I tell them?

End part 2.5

Part III: A conversation with my class

I can’t promise there won’t be a part IV.

Sigh, I need to relive the days leading up the big reveal. It’ll help set the mood.

I had been discussing the never ending cheating saga with friends and they all wanted to know whether I would tell the class that I was in the chat. They also worked out that when I told my class about the cheating I would still be on the chat, and that I would be able to watch the chat live while I lectured about all the cheating.

Oh this reminds me of another tidbit. After all the cheating on the second midterm there were a few students on the chat at least trying not to get caught. One student suggested that the admin turn on the feature that deletes messages after 24 hours. Too bad no one knew who the admin was. A bunch of different students thought they were admin, but they weren’t. At one point everybody became admin, including me. Some of the students thought they were auto-deleting their messages. But, I was archiving the chat everyday, and the messages weren’t deleting themselves anyway. So close, yet so far away.

Class time rolled around. I logged in to the video feed. There was no way I was going to keep a straight face, plus I wanted to see what happened on the chat, so I video muted myself (bad internet connection day).

I showed a histogram of performance on the midterm. There were many Fs. It was sad for them that all the cheating didn’t help at all.

Then, well, let’s check out the transcript…

(Someone eventually figured out how to turn on the auto-delete feature…The chat is still on my phone, but the last half of it is deleted. Need to consult the backup…I love R Studio.)

“time to hear the deadly results”

“Did we all fail fr?”

“Who got over a 90”

“I just joined class”

“he was just sharing the average a lot of people failed”

There was some jokes at the expense of the mother of the student who got a 90, and who obviously didn’t help anyone while they were taking the midterm.

It was at this point that I started talking about academic integrity and what it means to violate the academic integrity policy.

“not him mentioning cheating”

“Oop he talking about cheating”

“Who snitched” (this would become a recurring question and a whole different story)

“Omg remember that one person that left yesterday”


“Oh Shit”

“nah i aint cheat😭 i took that exam at 7 and did it alone still failed😋” (hmmm, let me cross reference this claim with your texts in the chat at 7…)


“im putting my evidence here yall aint catching me” (this student was caught)

“if i find out who snitched 🤣 we got a problem fr” (I had to report this student to judicial affairs)

“He said it came to his attention that there was a lot of cheating”

“Bro are we bout to get kicked out of college”

“welp yall better save ya selfs whoever was writing during the exam yall know what to do” (I’m still so curious what everyone was supposed to do to save themselves. What is this secret knowledge? Whatever it was, it didn’t work.)

“My thing is.. we couldnt rllyyyy cheat if no one knew the answers to nothing anyway 😭”

“What happened”

Students who were normally skipping class were phoning into the class from anywhere and everywhere. The message was spreading that I was talking about cheating.

“Is he mad? Im not in class rn”

“Can someone ask where is this coming from” (I was keeping it general. I told the class I had reason to suspect that widespread violations of the academic integrity policy had been occurring since the beginning of the course.)

“Like we are well aware” (Ya, including me.)

“Is he going to put all of our name?”

No, I was not going to name anybody. It was challenging to discuss the incident with the class because students had committed different cheating offenses and would be getting different kinds of sanctions.

“Wait whats happening”

“ah he’s def talking about the whole group chat”

“Oh jesus”

“he said he’ll individually email the students who cheated”

One brave student used the actual classroom chat to inquire what specifically I was talking about and how specifically I found out. This is probably when the snitch hunt started. That could be in part IV.

“So we all sitting ducks rn”

“if he does it where he emails everyone in this gc thats not fair cause not everyone was a part of it” (this student was a part of it.)


“oh okay so someone exposed the chat”

“Gotta beeee the person who left”

“Son took screenshots and dipped” (Guess again.)

“the inconsideration people have to report cheating during a time like this 😭” (Nobody snitched.)

“So now what? And all our names are in the chat soo. Im bout to start using code names from now on” (Too bad you used the same phone number that you have on file with the university.)

“Is it about quizlet?”

“its about everything”

“because he said its been a while”

“no bc if its about people in the gc im fighting cause i wasnt part of any chat” (ORLY?)

“Should we may a new chat” (yes, you should have)

“im just not gonna use this gc no more 😂 no one can be trusted now”

“BRO CAN YALL TELL ME WHATS HAPPENING” (Students were still joining at random times to find out what was going on.)

“hes using so many words and not telling what someone did” (I was totally doing that.)

“he said hes choosing whos gonna fail the course and just fail like idk”

“Son sounds so disappointed” (I was.)

“Aw we hurt him”

“I missed class”

“He was notified of cheating”

“I feel like I just missed out on a whole life”

“And he is filing reports to the college of everyone involved”

“how does he know that tho?”

“im so annoyed”

“woah my anxiety”

“So if you ever helped here your probably ducked”

“hes so Canadian”

“Aww i feel bad ngl, he didnt spazz or anything”

“Another professor wouldve went ham”

Then, they left.



“Oh sht everybody left”




To recap. I spent the lecture going over the academic integrity policy and informing the class in general that many of them would be receiving emails from me.

I didn’t tell them I was in the chat. If you are a student reading this who happened to be on that chat, I was the account with the cactus emoji, named after our cat Detective Inspector Mr. Ernie Cactus Pants.

At one point students tried to delete any account who hadn’t posted any messages. It didn’t work, but I made a note of that strategy.

I held online office hours after class, and this time a few students actually showed up. The first student owned up to the cheating and expressed remorse. They had done a lot of cheating, and I was going to fail them in the course. However, the conversation got me thinking about the possibility of a second chance for even the worst offenders.

I emailed each student who I suspected of cheating and informed them of what their individual consequences would be.

I prepared my alternative syllabus that I would announce at the next class.

Then, RIP my inbox… and, what went down that weekend before I gave them all a second chance.

End part III (I haven’t even got to the plagiarism yet!)

Part IV: The Horrible Weekend

There were a few horrible weekends in Fall 2021. Like when Hurricane Ida hit. We got badly flooded out and industrial fans were running for two weeks straight, and then endless construction going on the whole time, while also getting COVID, and trying to teach this class from home during a pandemic online. But, those were other weekends.

The weekend after I emailed most of my class with faculty action reports saying they were gonna fail was a one-of-a-kind shit show.

In this part I explore the horoscope of cheating behavior, or the different colors of the cheating behavior rainbow.

What went down over the weekend involves individual student behavior. I’m going to tell some stories about this from the perspective of categories of student behavior. So, this is a series of short stories. We won’t get to the second chance or the plagiarism until part V.

Let’s start with me, I’ll be the category. I have prior experience with pre-pandemic academic integrity violations. There’s no time for a prequel. But let’s say I’ve been called an obsessive plagiarism detective. Plagiarism really irks me. It irks me so bad I wrote my own R package to detect plagiarism Students generally are unaware that in my research life I write computational models that can compare text for semantic similarity. And, sometimes as a professor who has access to online plagiarism tools like turnitin or safe-assign, you just want better tools. So, I write my own tools, and then use them to uncover nests of plagiarism.

I always start each course assuming that none of my students will plagiarize. I love a fresh start. Then I start reading the assignments. Almost without fail I eventually get the feeling that something isn’t right. I only use my special tools for advanced cases of plagiarism. Normally I just copy/paste student “writing” into Google, and bingo. Detected.

I’m bringing this up because pre-pandemic I arranged individual meetings with students to discuss their plagiarism accusations. The procedure was roughly:

  1. Talk to the student about the incident
  2. Fill out the Faculty Action Report and say whether the student accepted the sanctions
  3. Send the report to the academic integrity office
  4. Hope you don’t have to be dragged into a lengthy appeals process

It’s those personal meetings that bring out the rainbow of cheating behavior. Some students confess and say they are sorry, and that they won’t do it again. I always think that’s a good color. It’s not like I’m randomly accusing students of cheating with no evidence. I have the evidence, and I’m filing the report no matter what they say (it’s a stated obligation of the faculty to report suspected violations).

The personal meetings are also helpful for me to explain how the appeals process works for students who think they are being unfairly accused. That’s when the lying starts. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times students sat in front of me and lied to my face, just lies, lies, lies, all the way out of my office. And, I was born with six fingers on one hand (well actually, a mutant finger poking out of a thumb that they snipped off as a baby).

So, that’s me. Familiar with the lies. Plagiarism detective. Back to the main story.

I email all my students and then my inbox explodes.

The first category of student emails was the “I did it email”. There were also “I did it and I’m sorry I did it emails”. And, stuff in between, like not necessarily sorry. All of these emails contained students pleading with me not to ruin their GPA, or how they have never done any thing like this before, and they were really stressed out, and they would never do this again. Some of them seemed heartfelt.

I did get emails in the superstar category. Remember, no one ever told me what was going on in the chat. I knew the whole time because I was in the chat. And, I was upset with everyone who knew what was going on but not telling me. Superstar category emails are the rare ones that convince me to rethink a situation, even if only for one student.

For example, almost immediately after I told my class about the cheating I got a superstar email. I’m not sure how obvious it was from part III, but when I told my students that cheating had occurred, I did not tell them that I knew anything about the group chat. This student assumed I was informed about the group chat. They came prepared with a full on essay and they attached their own archive of the chat to prove their case.

The argument was that chat groups have become indispensable tools for students taking courses online during the pandemic. The essay detailed all of the useful info passed around in chats. I totally agreed with this point. There was lots of good stuff happening in the chat too. The student anticipated that the chat might contain cheating behavior, as they had been on previous chats where cheating behavior occurred. Word gets around, and students learn that they can get sanctioned for being part of a chat, even if they didn’t cheat. This student wanted to be able to use the chat and prove they weren’t cheating if necessary.

Their strategy was to leave the chat before every quiz and midterm so that they couldn’t be there for the cheating. Then they rejoined afterward. The student sent me the chat archive to confirm the time points when they left and rejoined. Another argument was that the student obviously didn’t cheat because they aced the second midterm.

Of course, I already knew this student left the chat a bunch of times, and never texted etc., because I already did my analysis of the archive.

Another point in the essay was to explain why they hadn’t informed me of the cheating in the chat. This piqued my interest because it was a sticking point for me. The issue was retaliation. They didn’t feel safe reporting the chat because of fear of retaliation. This fear was part of my horrible weekend.

This part is getting longer than in intended, so I’ll wrap it up with the final category of emails. The “I didn’t do it emails”.

There is some branching structure with these emails. They all start with a lot of emails. One after the other. With lots of information about how they didn’t do it. Then they branch. One branch is where they eventually say they did do it. The other branch never says that. This branch “didn’t do it so much” that they sometimes take me through an appeals process.

In terms of wanting to stay sane, another major concern for me is steering the communication process with students so that I don’t have to deal with the appeals process. To be clear, I don’t want to have that time taken away. The appeals process is absolutely important, and I explain to students how they can engage the process if they want to. My goal is for them to not engage the process, which usually means we have come to an agreement about what happened and how to move forward.

I don’t think students understood the emails they were sending with their stories were being entered into evidence. I’ll listen to a story every time. But, I really get upset when it’s a bunch of lies. So, my inbox died that weekend, and it was full of lies upon lies. I could verify that most of the lies were lies because I had the chat archive. When students said this or that it was easy to check the chat.

After this whole thing was over I only had a small handful of students who appealed. Even the student who sent 15 emails of lies got a second chance.

I spent the weekend fielding emails from irate students demanding that I show them evidence, and how dare I accuse them, and they were A students who would never do such a thing, and had never done such a thing.

Then things got seriously bad.

I thought I had calmed most of the storm. There were a few students who weren’t on the chat and weren’t sure what was going on. I assured them what was going on was not going to affect them. There were students trying to figure out what the consequences of cheating would be. I assured them I would say more at the next class.

There were also the students going on a snitch hunt.

I’d seen some messages that were mildly alarming. There were lots of texts about “who snitched” and so on. And, there were a few that went into threat territory, even though they had emojis:

“if i find out who snitched 🤣 we got a problem fr”

“lemme find out who snitched n we got problems❤️”

These were both from one student. I already had a student express concern about retaliation. And, then I got another email from a student who said they were getting emails from other students that were saying “I know you snitched”. That needed to stop.

I had to send multiple announcements to my class informing them that they should not threaten other students, and that no one had snitched so there was no snitches to find. By the end of the weekend I stopped getting emails from students who were getting accused by other students of being the snitch.

I got to send emails to judicial affairs at my college asking what I should do about students issuing general threats in a WhatsApp chat.

I didn’t know how to embed emojis so I wrote the example verbatim in the email.

“if i find out who snitched [crying face emoji] we got a problem fr” (and explained that fr means for real).

If it has a crying face emoji does it mean the threats weren’t serious? I don’t know, wasn’t going to take any chances.

I won’t repeat the email exchange with the student who had to be contacted by judicial affairs. But, they got a second chance too.

End Part IV (I really hope this doesn’t end like Lost, but tune in next time to find out what happens when the person in the basement stops pressing the button AKA what happened after the reset).

Part V: The Second Chance

Five parts is enough right. How about a two for one: Ending + Epilogue.

Here’s how the second chance went. I was about to fail half of the class. The sanction emails were already sent. But, I would give my students a choice. Accept the sanction (or not and try to appeal it) and continue with the course (or not if the sanction was straight up fail); or, they could attempt the second syllabus that I made for everybody. I don’t like writing syllabi in the best of times, and writing two for the same course in one semester just filled me with sparkles.

The email I sent each student contained their personal tally from every assignment, quiz, or exam where I had evidence they cheated. The evidence was tight. I was confident that the sanctions would stand through any appeals.

Everyone got zeros for everything they cheated on. For students with three or more zeros I upped the sanction to failing the whole course. Also, everyone got a faculty action report (FAR) added to their personal file in the academic integrity office. The FAR report would persist in the file even if students took the second-chance option.

I deal with students who cheat in my courses and make determinations about what happens to their grade in the course. I don’t decide what happens to students who cheat outside of my course. It was pretty clear that many of my students were cheating in their other classes. Did they have previous faculty action reports on file? If so, they were about to get another one. I tell students they don’t want the faculty action reports to stack up because the consequences for them get worse. Is it a deterrent, I don’t know?

TBH, I’m so over trying to deter my students from cheating. There are so many ways I could lock down my courses. Not interested. If real life was about being monitored by proctoring software that spies on you at home and forces you to test under duress, it would be a sad real life.

The alternative I came up with was to open the course like a flower, and let students smell the roses if they wanted to. Most of them hadn’t engaged in the course material at all, so in the second syllabus I gave them all the opportunity they would need.

There was about four or five weeks left in the semester. Right around the time I discovered the cheating I was starting to introduce more interesting optional assignments that students could take for extra credit. These were writing assignments.

I had given two extra credit writing assignments and of course my students plagiarized on them like rabbits. Sorry rabbits. One assignment was for students to write their own multiple choice question that could test concepts from prior lectures. They had to write the question, and the answers, say what the correct answer was, and briefly discuss why the question was a good one to ask on a midterm. It’s fun to involve students in their own assessment, and I let them know that if I like their question I will include it on the midterm. And, if they see their own question on the midterm, presumably they would get it right.

As I mentioned, my course materials were new, so plagiarizing wasn’t as complicated as searching for previous answers to my writing assignments. Students found a simpler method. Just copy anything from quizlet that had words I used in my course. I was embarrassed for them. I gave a lot of zeros on the plagiarized extra credit writing assignments. And, we discussed what constitutes plagiarism in class at length and in great detail.

I didn’t use any of the student generated questions on my exams. That’s because they created a shared google doc and crowd sourced their own questions to make a cheat sheet. I didn’t help with the group edit, but I joined the doc from the link in the chat. That was fun. In this case I appreciated the cheating work ethic. If only I could convince students to spend that effort engaging in course content.

I didn’t know what would happen with the second syllabus, but I gave it a go.

I created a whole bunch of new assignments. I tried to come up with fun and interesting assignments. I had a several pedagogical goals and I wrote assignments around those goals. If I wanted to students to engage in some particular aspect of my course, then I wrote a writing assignment about how to do that. Students love examples, so for each assignment I also wrote example answers to show students the kind of thing I was looking for.

I gave assignments to read papers, and generate graphs, and examine theoretical issues, and to relate phenomena in my class to real life, and on and on. I made a choose-your-own-adventure assignment where students could do anything they wanted to engage in the literature. All they had to do was tell me what they did and then provide an explanation of why they should get course credit for doing what they did.

My idea was to create as many new assignments as necessary for any student with sanctions to bounce back and get a decent grade. If a student chose to attempt the second syllabus the sanctions were not removed. They still had zero on all of the stuff they cheated on. For some students that was everything, so they had to make up 100 points by the end of the semester to get an A+.

If a student who cheated a bunch decided to engage with the course as evidenced by completing all of these assignments without cheating, then I’d be happy to give them an A+ (and I did).

The students who didn’t cheat could do the new assignments as well, so it was more ways to an A all around. The first and second syllabus had different methods of computing a final grade, and I automatically took whichever grade was highest.

There was just one more requirement. Students who were sanctioned had to complete an academic integrity assignment. After that, the door was open.

This was my academic integrity assignment:

If you do not complete this assignment, then I will not give you the alternative syllabus option.

This assignment is worth 0 points toward your grade.

Your assignment involves two portions:

  1. In at least 150 words, demonstrate your understanding of what it means to behave according to a high standard of personal and academic integrity as a student. Use full sentences.

  2. Pledge that you will behave according to a high standard of personal and academic integrity for the remainder of this course.

I knew that my students wanted a second chance, I wasn’t sure how many of them would take it. Part of completing the academic integrity assignment was a tacit admission of cheating, and some students seemed set on not admitting to anything. So, I was thrilled when I received the first completed academic integrity assignment.

What did the student have to say? There were many full sentences and as I read them I got that feeling again. So, I copied and pasted some sentences into Google, and yup, the student was plagiarizing the academic integrity assignment. Whole swaths of text verbatim copied.

I had been really clear about plagiarism. Everyone knew there wouldn’t be a third chance and that further cheating was an automatic fail, end of discussion.

But, I gave one third chance. I messaged the student that they had plagiarized the assignment from a website. I sent the link. They immediately wrote back and said I had the wrong link and that they copied it from a different website. Then, they asked if they could redo it using their words. I said OK, perhaps now they understood the assignment!?!?

At my most mystified, I proceeded to release a class announcement warning students not to plagiarize the academic integrity assignment.

What happened next is mostly a redemption story, so I’ll focus on what the large majority of students did after I hit the reset button. They did the assignments in their own words. They engaged with the course material. My semester was already completely trashed in terms of doing anything else, and I even had some fun with the mountain of writing I had to grade. It was nice to see students using their words.

The semester from hell ended. Some students still failed. Some did some more plagiarism and failed. But, most of them got decent grades and engaged substantially with the course material. A small win for me and them.

I mentioned earlier that I was slated to teach the same course again in Spring 2022. It was online; but, this time it was asynchronous online. Practically that meant a whole new slew of time consuming issues for me, a whole new prep. But, instead of prepping a normal course, I had to become an audio/video production expert and spend the rest of my life locked in a room recording content in modularized format to share piecemeal on youtube. I’ll admit to having fun making thumbnails for the youtube videos. It was a long haul.

Aside from the technical difficulties, I really didn’t want another cheating disaster. I assumed it would happen again, so I worked out a course structure that I thought would be compelling enough for students not to cheat. We get January off as an intercession, so I spent all of January prepping.

In case you are unfamiliar with “asynchronous online”, it just means there is no scheduled class time. Students access the course through our course management system. I make weekly “learning modules” with stuff in them. Students do the stuff on their own schedule.

So how did it go? That’s what I wanted to know.

The first day of the Spring 2022 semester rolled around. I opened the course to students. Made an intro video so they could put a face to a name, and sent out the announcement welcoming them to a new semester.

Someone immediately replied all linking to a WhatsApp chat for the course.

I got in again.

The end.


Not another cliffhanger.

Yes, I got in again. I am still cactus emoji.

Designing the asynchronous version of the course was a lot of work. I enjoyed giving students as many interesting assignments as I could think of, so I kept that aspect moving forward. The basic idea was to have massive assignment choice so students could discover ways to become interested in the course material. I wrote a different blog post about the async course over here, “Teaching with multiple warp zones: Increasing engagement with assignment choice”.

But, did they cheat? (But, did they engage?)

I also borrowed the academic integrity assignment from before and had students complete a getting started learning module about academic integrity. I wrote about academic integrity violations at length in the syllabus, I did what I could to inform them about the sanctions. I was clear about the course having a zero tolerance policy: Immediate failure in the course. But, who reads the syllabus?

Picture this. You wake up Monday morning. The assignments and quizzes from your latest learning module were due Sunday night. You open your phone.

You open WhatsApp.

See see a large blue number. So many texts.

Deep breath.

If I look, and I find cheating I’m going to have to fill out so many forms again. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I just don’t like forms at all.

I look.

And I find…

A bunch of students being their best selves. Truly. They weren’t cheating. They were talking about stuff. Helping each other out it good ways. Connecting with each other. This happened every morning. I’d see a big number of texts, and I would think it would be this time. But it wasn’t.

It almost was. The first midterm was a real test. Everyone had been good up to that point. Then, a few students suggested that people start harvesting questions from the quizzes and sharing them around. Sad.

However, the other students in the chat stopped the cheating…as best they could. Apparently some of them knew what happened last semester. That lit a fire. Everyone on the chat wanted to know what happened last semester. They knew that students had cheated, that I found out about it, and it was bad. They suggested not cheating in the chat. Many “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” texts were sent. This put a stop to explicit use of the chat for cheating. I didn’t see any for the whole course.

Overall, I had a great bunch of students, really truly fantastic. I gave so many A+s because of all of the A+ cool stuff they did this semester. Using their own words.

Ya, there were a few texts where students instructed each other to “use the DMs” for “helping” that shouldn’t be in the chat. So, maybe a few things went on. Who knows. And, I didn’t care. I had enough evidence my students were choosing to engage, and that was good enough for me.

The chat contained many hypotheses about how I discovered the cheating last semester. It was a snitch. It was a disgruntled postdoc.

None of them suggested it was me.


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