Dealing with Difficult Situations and Academic Integrity Violations (Part 1)

“Unfortunately [cheating] is a part of human nature in many ways. I mean people have cheated forever in all forms of all walks of life.”

– Phil Newton on the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast #157

So what can we do about it?

Here, we will discuss cheating and strategies for dealing with it as a teaching assistant. It may be difficult as a TA to take on the responsibility of such situations, but it is important to understand the role we play in our community, keeping up its academic integrity, and how the enforcement of integrity may also affect the students’ futures.

Over the next few posts, we will cover the following:

  1. What are academic integrity violations?
  2. Why do students cheat?
  3. What can we do to prevent that?
  4. How do we deal with cheating once it has occurred?

What are academic integrity violations?

Sometimes the issue is that students just genuinely don’t understand the expectations (and sometimes they really do and just say otherwise, but let’s not go there right now) [1]. It’s important for us to first understand what academic integrity violations even are and to then be able to portray those expectations to students (i.e., “this is considered cheating, don’t do it”).

So what are they?

Academic integrity violations can be characterized as: cheating, facilitating academic dishonesty, plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification [2, 3].

Cheating is the use of unauthorized resources [2, 3]. Cheating can include, for example, copying answers for an exam or assignment; using unauthorized material for an exam like notes, books, phones, etc.; continuing to work on an exam even when the time has ended; viewing test questions, or a similar test before an exam.

Facilitating academic dishonesty is basically helping anyone else violate academic integrity [2]. Some examples include sharing answers during an exam; doing someone’s assignment for them; or uploading a project online so others can view it.

Plagiarism occurs when one copies or claims text as their own and does not cite the work [2]. Notice all my little citations everywhere! They are important. Plagiarism can also occur when someone summarizes text without referencing — it’s not only exclusive to copy/paste. So be careful!

Fabrication or falsification of information is another form of academic integrity violation [2, 3]. Fabrication is when fake information is provided, such as counterfeit information [3]. Falsification is when existing data is altered without authorization [3]. Examples of fabrication can include creating fake data, research results, or procedures, or counterfeiting academic records [3]. Another example of fabrication would be if a student changed answers after an exam has been graded and returned (and tried to get points back for that changed answer) [2]. Falsification can occur in research when data is falsified or left out, when a student submits a false excuse for absence, or when a grade or other academic record is altered [2, 3].

Any other academic integrity violations could occur if a student violates any faculty member’s course rules [2]. That’s why it is essential to have a good understanding of the expectations early on. It can be especially crucial for you as the TA, who may need to help clarify these expectations for the students throughout the course.

It may be useful to review UNC Charlotte’s Student Conduct & Academic Integrity as they provide additional explanations and resources.

Why do students cheat?

The first step to even begin dealing with academic integrity violations is to understand why it happens.

“…Recognizing some of the things that motivate or will prompt people to misbehave in other walks of life is also useful for helping us understand why some students may cheat or commit other forms of misconduct. You know they’re under pressure. It’s that the opportunities are there for them to do it. And when you create an environment where things are possible and there’s a strong motivation, then it’s going to happen…

– Phil Newton on the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast #157

In one article, it is stated that “61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion… about why students cheat in the first place” [4]. So we are starting that discussion.

When surveying a group of 30 instructors and TAs in CCI about why they think students cheat, 17 (about 57%) mentioned pressures for attaining a specific grade (whether the student is aiming for an A, B, or simply passing). Out of those 17, 5 mentioned potential reasons for grades being so important such as societal or family pressures. One participant wrote that “the pressure for the grade starts to outweigh learning,” and that is when students may start to resort to cheating.

In his article, Ed Dante, the “shadow scholar” who is paid to write students’ papers, describes “three demographics” for his services: “the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid” [4]. For the first two groups, he says that “colleges are utterly failing them.” Students that come from other countries may find that not only do they have to learn a new language but are also confronted with additional cultural difficulties along with the pressures of grading [4]. And so they are overwhelmed. “The focus on evaluation rather than education means that those who haven’t mastered English must do so quickly or suffer the consequences” [4].

Next in our survey, 12 of the 30 participants (40%) stated reasons relating to the coursework being “too difficult” or the student being vastly unprepared and so becoming desperate. One participant mentioned “snowballing weak knowledge,” explaining that if students do not learn the required foundational knowledge in prerequisite classes, they are at a disadvantage, and there is very little time to recover. Others mentioned that students may have “inadequate resources” or just “genuinely don’t understand what they are doing.”

Time or workload pressures can also take its toll and drive students to academic dishonesty, as mentioned by 6 participants (20%). Additionally, students may procrastinate and start late, thus leading to desperation when they find they cannot finish on time. Others may suffer from motivational issues (given by one participant), or simply don’t want to put the effort in (stated by three participants). Maybe a student decides that a course is “not worth their time.” Maybe the course isn’t meaningful to them as an individual, or they do not understand the course’s value. Another participant explained that a student could be “going through something, and [doesn’t] know a better way to succeed, so they decide [that] cheating is their only option.”

As a TA, it is important to have empathy and try to understand all these possible motivations for cheating before it actually happens. If you see a student struggling, try to reach out to them early on. You may want to guide the student in different ways depending on their individual situation.

What can we do to prevent it?

We will begin looking into ways to prevent cheating in our next post. 🙂


  1. Technology, Promoting Academic Integrity-Teaching in Higher Ed –. Educational, and Design in the School of Nursing says. “Promoting Academic Integrity.” Teaching in Higher Ed, 15 June 2017,
  2. Academic Integrity Violations. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.
  3. Academic Integrity | Student Conduct & Academic Integrity | UNC Charlotte. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.
  4. Dante, Ed. “The shadow scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 12 (2010).


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