Detecting Academic Misconduct


Detecting cheating in an exam may be as simple as witnessing the act. The following are some strategies for detecting and handling cheating in an exam situation:

  • If you observe students cheating, quietly bring it to the attention of another proctor or the instructor so that both of you can document what you have seen.
  • Note the seating arrangement around the student you suspect of cheating and put his or her exam aside when it is handed in, along with any exams you suspect were being copied.
  • Be sure to allow the student(s) to finish the exam.

While observational data are helpful, they are not always reliable. Statistical evaluation of students’ exams may be valuable. In considering evidence, the University of Alberta uses a standard called ‘Balance of Probabilities’. It is the same standard of proof used in civil legal cases. Rather than the criminal system’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ requirement, the Balance of Probabilities leads to the most likely conclusion, given the evidence presented. The more information you can gather and document, the better.

Typical indicators are, of course, verbatim answers to long answer questions or long strings of identical choices in multiple choice exams. Other suspicious indicators are when two students have the same wrong answer(s) or unusual mistakes. Unauthorized materials (e.g. cheat sheets, electronic devices) should be confiscated discretely, without disrupting the class.

If the information is contained on a device (e.g. programmable calculator or cell phone) confiscate the item only for the time it takes to record the information in the presence of a colleague before returning it to the student, or check with the Dean (or designate) if it is necessary to keep the device for a longer period of time. Do not attempt to access information from the device that is not immediately apparent. Simply confiscate the device for the remainder of the exam and return it to the student when you receive his or her exam paper. Document what happened to include that information with your report.

If two students are observed working together, discretely separate them and clearly mark on their exams (in ink) the point at which they were moved for later comparison. If possible, photocopy or digitally scan exams or assignments before you hand them back. In the event that a student changes the answers and resubmits the assignment for extra marks, you can compare the copy to the original to be sure nothing was altered (Misrepresentation of Facts).

Term Papers

The most common type of plagiarism on term papers here at the University of Alberta tends to be the unacknowledged use of sentences or paragraphs from websites. Robert Harris lists several ways to detect plagiarized passages, including abrupt changes in style or diction, unusual or inconsistent formatting, and obvious references to facts or people outside the scope of the paper [1].

You may also find something in a term paper that sounds familiar. Keep copies of previous term papers, just in case you run across one that has been resubmitted or plagiarized by another student.

The University of Alberta does not subscribe to any of the plagiarism detection services but there are other ways to detect plagiarism from a website. Once you suspect misuse of a website, the easiest way to check it is to type a suspect phrase (in quotation marks to find the exact phrase) into a search engine like Google. Start with concise but distinctive phrases rather than an entire sentence or paragraph. Be alert to the possibility that some websites also include plagiarized material.

If you opt to use a text-matching software to detect plagiarism in student work, be aware that that use must be FOIPP compliant. There are also intellectual property and pedagogical implications that should be considered. If you use a software package that stores student work in a database, you must also provide an opportunity for students to opt out. See the Report on the Use of Text-Matching Software for Detecting Plagiarism in Student Work.


As before, deterrence is always better than detection. Let students know specifically what you expect on labs and assignments concerning group work or collaboration on assignments. If you allow collaboration, how much is acceptable? At what point does it cross the line into plagiarism, cheating, or participation in an offence?

It's a good idea, if possible, to photocopy or digitally scan assignments before you hand them back. In the unlikely event that a student changes answers and resubmits the assignment for extra marks, you can compare the photocopy to the assignment to be sure nothing was altered (Misrepresentation of Facts).

Detecting inappropriate collaboration may be as simple as noting that two or more assignments contain similar or identical responses, especially in terms of diction, formatting or unusual formulations or mistakes. See the online Tip Sheet for more information.

[1] Harris, Robert A. (2001). The Plagiarism Handbook. Los Angeles: Pyrczak Publishing.