Carnegie Mellon University

Confronting Suspected Violations

Students, TAs, staff, or faculty members may witness someone cheating or become aware that a violation of academic integrity has occurred. Confronting this kind of problem is not an easy thing to do, but if we ignore incidents which occur, we cannot maintain our high standards.

If you suspect that a violation of academic integrity has occurred, several steps are recommended to help you begin the process:

When you observe or learn of an incident which causes you concern, gather all the information that you can to help you respond appropriately. You can deal with your concerns directly with student(s), within your department or at the university level, depending on the situation. Gathering evidence from the beginning is important in the event that you or the student asks for second-level review.
If you are a TA, present this information immediately to the course instructor. If you are a faculty member, you may want to consult your department head to decide how to proceed. Also, staff in the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence or the Office of Community Standards & Integrity would be happy to discuss the situation with any faculty member or TA to determine an appropriate plan of action or to consult with you throughout the process.

Prepare carefully for the conversation(s) so that you state your observations objectively and, as much as possible, avoid blaming anyone immediately. One purpose of this initial conversation is to help you determine exactly what occurred and what penalty, if any, may be appropriate at the course level. Another purpose can be to warn students that a particular piece of work gave an appearance of dishonesty and that you are concerned enough to try to prevent a problem in the future. Consider whether another faculty member or department head should be present for this conversation.

  • "I have received a report that you were looking at someone else's paper during the exam."
  • "I've been looking at your assignment, and I noticed that your work and Joe's work are strikingly similar. I'm wondering how you can account for that."
  • "I observed you copying from another student's lab notebook. You have missed lab twice recently so I don't think you have collected data for the current lab. Can you explain to me what I saw?

If you believe after your conversation(s) that a violation has occurred, let the student know the severity of the situation in your view and explain what happens from here. As outlined in both the Undergraduate Academic Disciplinary Actions Overview and Graduate Academic Disciplinary Actions Overview, within one week of your determination of a violation, select a penalty that reflects the severity of the offense. Penalties vary but can include:

  • Deduction of points on the exam or assignment in question. Some faculty opt to assign a score of a zero while others assign negative points, noting that if a student had not submitted any work, they would have earned a zero but the decision to cheat warrants further deductions.
  • Requirement that a student retakes an exam or resubmits an assignment.
  • Deduction of letter grade from the final grade that the student would have otherwise earned in the course.
  • Failure of the course.

Once you have selected a penalty, you should communicate that decision in writing to the student, copied to the following listed individuals.  Here is a quick reference guide for your convience.

  • Your associate dean
  • Your department head
  • The student’s associate dean (if different)
  • The student's department head (if different)
  • The Dean of Student Affairs
University policy outlines the Dean of Student Affairs as a person to be copied on the faculty decision letter. Records concerning student academic integrity violations are kept centrally in the Office of Community Standards & Integrity as a check point for possible repeated violations and also to provide confidentiality protections. You may wish to consult your department head and/or staff within the Office of Community Standards & Integrity as you compose this letter or feel free to consult this template language.

Expect that the student(s) will try to contact you to discuss your decision when he or she receives your letter. Even though these conversations may be uncomfortable, feel free to discuss the matter with the student. You may be able to help the student(s) understand your response and to see the rationale for their penalty. You may want to have another member of your department present if you are concerned about the dynamics of the conversations. It is possible for you to amend your original decision after a conversation with the student or if further information becomes available. It is important that you notify all of the recipients of the original notification of any amendments in outcome.

Please note that after receiving notification of academic integrity violations, staff from the Office of Community Standards and Integrity will reach out to students for appropriate follow up and to provide resources and support as they navigate the documented concern.

Students can appeal your decision to a second-level review by an Academic Review Board. You may also ask for such a review if you believe the penalty should be more severe than failure in the course which is the most severe penalty that you can impose. In either case, you would be asked to be present for the hearing. To prepare adequately for a possible second-level review, make note of your conversations with the student(s) involved and save copies of emails and work submitted. Even if the formal process does not involve a second level review, documenting the events can be very helpful in the event that other questions or problems arise with that student in the future.
Records concerning student academic integrity violations are kept by the Division of Student Affairs centrally in the Office of Community Standards and Integrity as a check point for possible repeated violations and also to provide confidentiality protections. University policy outlines the Dean of Student Affairs as a person to be copied on the faculty decision letter. Copies of any supporting documentation should also be forwarded to the Dean of Student Affairs or the Office of Community Standards and Integrity for inclusion in the file about the incident.

Preventing Violations

Both instructors and students can consider steps to enhance academic integrity in the Carnegie Mellon community. These suggestions are drawn from ongoing conversations with students and faculty over the years and from the literature on academic integrity. The steps below include ways individual instructors can enhance support for student learning and integrity.

Although these strategies will not eliminate all instances of cheating, they can significantly alter the circumstances that often leading to cheating, thereby mitigating a student's perceived need to resort to decision making that compromises his or her integrity.

The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence has a number of resources to help you, as an instructor, to design courses and educational experiences that minimize the opportunity for students to breach academic integrity, but they also address how to respond to cheating and plagiarism if they occur in your course. A number of these resources are outlined below but instructors should feel free to contact the Eberly Center with any additional questions or to schedule an individual consultation.
To mitigate cheating on assignments and exams, consider the potential reasons why students might be cheating.  In this module that provides guidance for solving teaching problems, potential reasons are matched with strategies to address cheating both proactively and reactively.
Incorporating Writing Into Your Course provides a set of strategies to consider as you plan your writing assignments. Strategies that focus on preventing plagiarism as well as detecting and addressing plagiarism are included.
Your syllabus is a primary vehicle for providing students with guidance about your expectations for the course.  Resources pertaining to course design include examples of written policies and expectations from Carnegie Mellon instructors, courses, and departments such as History, Computer Science, and Modern Languages.
Recognizing and Addressing Cultural Variations in the Classroom [.pdf] is a publication jointly produced by the Eberly Center and the Intercultural Communication Center. This document briefly describes academic integrity in the larger context, e.g., the possible variations and their implications for students who come from non-U.S. cultures, as well as possible strategies for dealing with these differences.