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Cheating, Academic Dishonesty and Honor Code Policy

Between 40 and 70 percent of all college students have reported cheating sometime during their academic career. There is a lot of research on the motivations behind cheating. One controversial study has suggested that cheating is simply a method used by students for academic success!

There are several different definitions of cheating in the literature. The key difference among these definitions is centered on the idea of intent. Here is one very interesting definition: Cheating is when a person misleads, deceives, or acts dishonestly on purpose. Most honor codes (including VCU) do NOT distinguish between action and intent. This may pose a moral problem for faculty, but in large classes the most prevalent forms of academic dishonesty are deliberate. The literature clearly suggests that in large classes, especially those with limited or non-existent writing components, cheating is almost always seen with some sort of deliberate intent.

This chapter looks at cheating and the honor code and breaks it down into 3 sections: the Honor Code, Prevention, Detection and Enforcement. The chapter is specific but not all methods are limited to large classes


It is very important to make students in large classes explicitly aware of the honor code. This means more than simply mentioning that it exists. The more students you have in your class, the more different perceptions there are of what the university honor code means. It is important to be aware that students from different backgrounds will likely have differing understandings of the honor code and its meaning.

The most important action is to TALK ABOUT IT. On the first day of class, it is very helpful to devote a few minutes to the honor code. You should clearly state that the honor code applies to all work in your class, that students should read the honor code, and that any action that may seem like it violates the honor code will be carefully scrutinized. By doing this up front, you avoid the “unclear” question later in the semester.

Talking is not enough. Post the link to the online version of the university honor code in your syllabus and briefly reiterate what you will say on the first day of class. It is worth the few lines of syllabus text, especially since most of you will post large-class syllabi on blackboard. Some suggest creating a blackboard category devoted to the honor code. One article suggested that instructors add an honor pledge foe each student to check on the blackboard page.

Finally, read the honor code yourself. The VCU honor code is not the same as every other university. We do share some characteristics, but it helps to be clear on what constitutes an offense or violation.


There are many resources available for faculty who need better methods to prevent cheating. It is also important to note that the Internet is home to MANY MORE sources to help students cheat. The number of websites that sell or otherwise make available term papers, assignments, and methods for cheating is staggering. Clearly there would not be such a high number of opportunities if students did not use them. However, most of these resources are geared towards paper-writing and research projects. Since many large classes use tests and quizzes as the primary form of assessment, this chapter will primarily focus on how to prevent cheating on tests.

There are many different ways to prevent cheating in the classroom. They break down into two different approaches. One is a more normative approach and the other a more structurally material approach.

The first suggests that you dissuade students from cheating by using strong language and indicators to keep them from considering it as an option. This perspective includes:

  • Making a very strong statement to the class that clearly notes your abhorrence of the act of cheating. This statement cannot be too strong.  
  • Restating that the honor code is in effect. Some evidence suggests that these words can be a deterrent.
  • Write your class a letter that thoughtfully lays out the reasons that cheating bothers you. This can be sent via email or posted to a class web page. Any way you can create a bond or sense of trust between you and a large class will help prevent cheating
  • Make sure that struggling students are aware of campus resources so they can get help if their grades are low or if they feel under pressure; counseling, tutors, centers, etc.
  • Make it clear that the information in each exam will be needed for future assessments. This reinforces the need to actually learn the material, rather than being dishonest at multiple stages in the class.
  • Make certain that the students realize that they can succeed in your class without cheating. Don’t make each exam worth a huge percentage of the grade so they are possibly forced to consider cheating an option
  • Restate the penalty for cheating. Fear of punishment often works.

The second school of thought on preventing cheating on tests in large classrooms involves the direct methods of making cheating difficult or impossible. There are so many different options suggested. Here are the most mentioned or effective means:

  • Multiple versions of exams. This is a very popular method that has many different possible forms. The basic idea is to use enough different exams that students will have no reason to look to another’s paper. Here are some ways to do this.
    1. Rearrange the questions and number each version
    2. Give different, but similar versions of each exam
    3. Use different colors of paper for each version—helps to guarantee that the same exams are not next to each other
    4. Only change the first page, but use version numbers. If the first pages are different, this is often seen as a sufficient deterrent
    5. Placebo versions. Make each exam in version 1,2,3, and 4, and make certain that the students are aware of the consequences of failing to bubble in their version number on a scantron exam. This is sometimes seen as sufficient deterrence without actually having to shuffle the questions themselves. (This HAS worked)
    6. Change your exam questions as often as is practical. Don’t rely on the same questions every semester. The more you do, the more likely it is that those questions/exams will circulate and find their way to your next semester’s students
  • Multiple TA’s/proctors. If your department has available faculty, staff, or grad students, get as many as possible to assist with your exam. The more bodies walking the room, the less chance of successful cheating
  • Space the seating, when practical
  • Separate would-be cheaters (go with your hunch)
  • Make sure all students have removed any possible study materials from sight—don’t give them the option of a glance. Don’t allow them to use their own paper for doing side work—provide recycled paper. (One student wrote the answers on the inside of water bottle label and read them through the clear bottle; another wrote answers on the inside of the bill of his hat)
  • Use technology. This can mean the use of clickers, the use of cheating detection software (even if you don’t use it, you can announce that you do!) or any number of different forms (the list is endless; check with the library, blackboard administrators, or faculty technology services for VCU’s ever increasing options)
  • Do not let students use outside technology in the classroom—do not allow cell phones, blackberry’s, pagers, IPODs or other personal listening devices, even be wary of calculators that can be programmed with data, equations, functions, or programs. However, do encourage the use of technology to help legitimately prepare for in-class exams
  • Use student ID Card checks if practical. Have your TAs look at the ID card as each exam is submitted. Or ask for student ID numbers on exams

Many of these methods may be applied to preventing cheating on written assignments and papers. Some of the most mentioned ways of preventing cheating on papers:

  • State clearly the difference between a direct quote, a paraphrased citation, and plagiarism—this is essential in first-time writing courses and avoids what is often called “inadvertent plagiarism” and removes the doubt of intent
  • Assign very specific topics from your course—less chance that it is “floating around”
  • Change your topics from semester to semester
  • Require submitting drafts—don’t grade them, just make sure they turn them in. Any periodic submission of where they are in the process can dissuade the last minute need to turn in someone else’s work.
  • Require an outline with each paper—these are usually NOT available from online or other sources
  • State clearly some of the online sources that you know of that would supply dishonest papers and mention that you can and DO search them for suspicious papers
  • Let them know that you will google suspicious work
  • Have them submit a writing sample at the beginning of the term. If the writing is so vastly different, consider it suspicious


What should you do if you find that these preventative measures have failed and there is cheating in the class? Some important necessary steps to detection and reporting of cheating on exams in large classes include:

  • Take notes—if you see obvious cheating, note who it is, where they are sitting, who is nearby, how they are doing it, etc. Have a complete record.
  • Compare the work to others if applicable. Make sure that what you saw was cheating. Match up answers and record these observations.
  • If the cheating has been ongoing, do not make a scene in the class. While it may be helpful in stopping the student from continuing to cheat, if the action has already been occurring, you should not distract others, or embarrass the student. Take the paper and record the event.
  • If the cheating has just occurred or seems clearly inevitable, try to stop it with as little fanfare as possible. This is difficult ground, but if you can prevent it as it happens, it worth the effort.
  • Ask to speak with students after class. 20-30% of instructors do nothing when they detect cheating. Confront students using appropriate language and demeanor. Students will ALWAYS deny cheating. Ask them to explain the discrepancies. Ask them to explain the source of their ideas on papers. Don’t use the words “cheating” “dishonesty” or “plagiarism” but instead use language like “discrepancy” “slight problem” or “coincidence”
  • Be consistent in your application of the policies and rules
  • If there is clearly a case of an honors violation, most of the literature strongly advises that faculty follow the prescribed process. Some of the literature suggests considering the case, but in those events, a sufficient penalty must be offered. No students should be allowed to cheat deliberately without consequence
  • Do not bail on the process—follow up the report and be sure that you provide all the information in a timely manner. Go to the hearings and present your case. Be available for questions. Whatever decision is rendered, it is best for the student, the honor system, and ultimately for you to allow the process to run as smoothly but as timely as possible. Dragging these out does not help anyone.


Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis; Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1993 (accessible as an ebook through the VCU library)

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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