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In the spring of 2011, Alyse C., now a fifth-year student at University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, was struggling in one of her marketing classes. “I just wanted to do well enough on the exam that I could pull my grade up to a C or something,” she says. She found some tips online about how to hide her notes and see them during the test. “Of course, my teacher caught me. He didn’t embarrass me in front of the class, but he took my exam away.”
After the exam, Alyse’s professor spoke to her, and they went to the dean. Alyse says she feels very lucky to have gotten just a warning and an F, and she says she will never do it again. “It wouldn’t have been worth getting kicked out of school,” she says.

James Black, director of the Center for Academic Achievement at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, says, “I believe for the most part, students don’t come to college intending to cheat. More often than not, they get overwhelmed and panic.”

Here’s how you can avoid the situations that lead to cheating and other violations of academic integrity.

Know the Rules

To start, be sure you know what exactly is considered cheating. Most students understand that they shouldn’t copy or obtain the answers to an exam in advance. But some are a little fuzzy on the finer points of what is considered cheating. “But not knowing the rules is not an excuse,” says Brandon K., a senior at Oklahoma City University.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey of about 2,000 students, 22 percent believed that posting or using test information on a Web site or Facebook was not a form of cheating, and 44 percent thought collaborating on a take-home quiz or exam was okay. Yet, both of these are breaches of academic integrity that could get you a zero for the work, an F for the class, or even suspended from school.

Your school and professors probably made a point of explaining academic integrity policies from the moment you registered for classes. “Unfortunately, most students don’t see it as important unless it’s tied to a grade,” says Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity. But ultimately, it’s up to students to understand, and abide by, the rules. If you are unsure of your school’s policy, your student handbook is a good place to look.

Take a quiz to see how much you know about cheating

Do You Copy?

Academic integrity isn’t just about cheating. It’s also about respect for other people’s work and ideas, be it your fellow students’ or the words and ideas expressed in research material. Reusing even your own work from a different class, without your professor’s explicit permission, is considered plagiarism.

“It’s pretty hard to plagiarize by accident,” says Christopher Fettweiss, assistant professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. He notes that it’s obvious when someone is trying to pass off another’s words as his or her own. Especially in the age of the Internet, a suspicious professor need only type a phrase into a search engine.

If you are unclear on proper citation conventions—how to document sources and ideas in your work—visit your school’s writing lab, speak with a peer tutor, or consult your instructors.

Plan Ahead

Time management skills can help ensure that you stay on top of your assignments and class work, reducing the pressure that sometimes leads students to cheat.

Kennedy N., a junior in the pre-med program at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, notes that when you’re feeling panicked, you are more likely to make poor choices, like copying text or fudging your research.

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If you do find yourself in trouble, whether it’s a time crunch or struggling with the material, ask for help. If you’re utterly overwhelmed, let your professors know as soon as possible. They may be more sympathetic earlier in the process, rather than to an eleventh-hour plea.

Alyse explains that if she had gone to her professor as soon as she realized she was having trouble in the class, she might never have felt desperate enough to try cheating.

If you cheat, you rob yourself of the chance to understand the topic. Plus, if you get caught, you face far more embarrassing consequences than admitting you need some assistance. They may even be destructive to your academic goals.

Protect Yourself

Finally, avoid temptation. “Cheating on exams is rarely premeditated,” says David Rettinger, executive director of The Center For Honor, Leadership, and Service at the University of Mary Washington in Fredricksburg, Virginia. “It is much more commonly a crime of opportunity.” That is, a student finds him or herself in a situation where the answers are available.

Rettinger, who also teaches psychology and has studied cheating among students, says, “Most students say cheating is terrible and they would never do it, but in fact, most students admit they cheat in some way. They are very good at figuring out a way to see whatever they are doing as okay. They don’t usually see anyone getting hurt by cheating, and the benefit is very concrete—and immediate.”

In reality, cheating harms everyone. It can skew curved grading, make professors and other students distrustful, and wear down the culture of integrity on campus.

More about how to avoid temptations

Christopher Fettweiss, assistant professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, offers the following advice to students who may be tempted to cheat during a test:
  • Put your phone away during exams.“If you can’t see your phone, you won’t be tempted to reply to a text message, or look something up,” he says.
  • Even if a message on your phone is completely innocent, a proctor or another student could perceive it as possible cheating.
  • Wear a watch if you need to keep track of the time and can’t see a clock.

Plus, explains John Swallow, provost of Sewanee, the University of the South, “Over time, if you don’t learn what you need to learn, it will affect your ability to work after college.” This will hurt you as well as the reputation of your fellow students and your school when you don’t live up to the reputation of your degree, he says.

See Something, Say Something

If you become aware of another student cheating in some way, don’t ignore it. Find a way to alert your instructor or a dean. You don’t have to identify the other student by name, and you often can be anonymous, too.

Many schools have a mechanism for submitting concerns to an honor board or ombudsperson. By making people aware that someone is being dishonest, they can look for signs and usually figure out who it is, says Fettweiss.

Although it might be tempting to confront the person, there’s no need to speak to your peer directly. In fact, it may not be the best option. If you do, Fishman advises, “Approach from a standpoint of helpfulness. Ask [and suggest] what other choices are available.”

Take Action!

  • You might be surprised what constitutes cheating. Learn about its many forms.
  • Review your school’s honor code or academic integrity guidelines.
  • Learn how to document properly. Visit your school’s writing lab, a peer tutor, or consult your instructors or an online resource.
  • Plan ahead and speak with professors if you’re having trouble with material.
  • Notify a professor, advisor, ombudsperson, or other trusted resource if you see or hear about a classmate cheating or plagiarizing.

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Get help or find out more
For more information about these topics, as well as your school’s honor code, consult your dean’s office, writing lab, or peer tutoring program.

Clemson University, The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI)

Roosevelt University, Academic Integrity: A Guide for Students

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL)

University of Maryland’s University Center for Intellectual Property, Virtual Academic Integrity Laboratory, Student Guide: Student Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism through Critical Thinking and Research Skills