Ethics, Catholicism, Guilt & Imperfections

I’m a full-time mom and a part-time college instructor and I’ve come across a situation that I am struggling with. I’ve prayed for guidance, because I don’t know what else to pray for! And as I’m on semester break, there’s really no colleagues I can discuss this with, except my husband who also teaches at the college level.

I taught two classes this past semester - one in-person/on-campus, and the other online. In my online class, I discovered that a student cheated on the final exam. I knew something wasn’t right as I was reading her answers and the language was just not hers. I used the publisher’s testbank to generate the test (all short-answer/essay) and as I compared the answer key to her answers, they got much more similar. I use a service the university provides to check papers and such against internet sources, and one of her answers matched over 90% to an older edition of our text’s answer key.

I’m working through the University process for what to do but here is my dilemma:

She’s written me several emails apologizing and offering reasons but none of them explain the evidence but all are terribly desperate. I feel a bit violated and am in disbelief that one of my students would resort to such measures - and that they would think so little of my abilities as an instructor that I wouldn’t notice? And I’m angry too, I suppose. And shocked.

At the same time, this is serious stuff. It would be easy for me to drop it but I don’t feel I can. She will wind up failing the exam, and possibly failing the course, and the University will likely flag her file as well.

I’m also feeling guilty for my own ethical lapses - watching internet videos that violate copyright laws (for my own use, but still…). Fibbing at times. Fudging my course evaluations that determine my contract renewals (by removing aggrieved students’ evals). And I did use a cheat sheet once on an exam in college 20 years ago. And made some bad decisions with dating/sex/etc. before I met my husband and converted to Catholicism.

I do the best I can and am trying to be more ethical. I’m sure this is weighing on me because of the seriousness of the effect on my student and my own personal failures. I’m also personally exhausted, overwhelmed, and overworked and so all of my emotions are raw and inflamed. My husband thinks I am taking it too seriously and he’s likely right as well.

Please help me get some perspective on this. What should I do? How do I resolve my own failures with “judging” my student’s failure?

Recently a poster on the Moral Theology forum linked to this article about “judging”:

As instructor, enforcing the college’s policy on cheating is your duty. Not to do so wouldn’t be fair to those who passed the test honestly, nor to the cheating student herself who would receive the message that the consequences of your actions just dissolve into thin air if you want it desperately enough and pressure other people enough to foot the bill for the damage you cause.


I don’t know how things work in your country but in Portugal there are always 2 exams in each semester so that people failling in the first (or simply because they felt bad or something like that) can have a second chance. Doesn’t your university have a recourse exam?

Take care,

You may feel like a hypocrite, but you know what you have to do. The repeated admissions of guilt via email weren’t even needed because you figured out what she did. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” comes to mind. From a student’s perspective, if I honestly know that I am headed for an overload of coursework and may fail if I don’t cheat (in which case, you still possibly will fail), then the smart way to go is by TAKING LESS UNITS. Students are in such a rush to get work done that time is more important to them than quality of work.

As for yourself and your own sins, confession is recommended. Maybe this student of yours is a Catholic and will receive this sacrament as well. If not, it always helps to pray for your students.

I like Musicadmirer’s answer above.
For the time being, you must forget about your past sins. If you had been caught at the time, using cheat sheets etc, you could certainly have expected to fail. This person must expect the same thing.
To me the fact that you feel torn is because the devil is tempting you to “cheat” yet again by somehow covering for this woman. Do not give into this temptation. The chips must fall where they will. It is a sad but true fact of life.
This does not mean you cannot be sympathetic or empathetic toward her situation. You can certainly offer extra help to her to pass the course on the next go round etc…

As to your personal issues, if the matters that concern you were covered, either in general or in particular, in your first confesion then you have been absolved of them. One reason that they are coming back up is. like I said earlier a temptation to sin again, but another reason, or use, is that your experiences can indicate what this sort of behavior leads to.
Like Scrooge in a Christmas Carol, looking oat our past decisions and consequences can illuminate much and not only help us personally but help us help others by our own experience.

Finally - As Musicadmirer says, if these things continue to trouble you, go to confession, or make an appointment to speak to your confessor as soon as possible. Talk things over with him.



the university has a procedure for reporting such violations. Gather your evidence and report it. Then clean up your own act. Not to report is to cheat the other students who are honest.
include all the students e-mails to you in the evidence you present and cease correspondence with her, refer her to her advisor or deparment head.
your university also has a policy on email correspondence with your on-line students, follow it.

when dealing with the problem regarding your on-line course, separate your own personal failings and feelings from the issue, and follow procedure. yes you have to amend your ways but don’t confuse the issue, or bring your personal problem into the judgment on what to do re this student.

With respect to your past failings (and beating yourself up). Rejoice in those things, because they led you to where you are today.

I really, strongly recommend (this topic has come up a few times of late) reading Genesis - focusing on the story of Abraham. God “grew” Abraham and tested him many times over. And he routinely failed, often horribly so. And yet, God stuck with him and coached him through life’s trials.

And then it came time for THE test (Genesis chap 22.) Would Abraham do for God, what God was willing to do for (the sons of) Abraham? Would he sacrifice his son, his only son, because of his love for God, as God would sacrifice his son because of his love for man? And Abraham passes!

Genesis chapter 22 has many parallels to the passion. (Even to leaving two men and a donkey at the foot of Mt. Moriah [Jerusalem] and when Christ reached Jerusalem for HIS sacrifice he sent 2 men to bring him a donkey - clearly linking the stories. Or God calls Abraham and Abraham answers “Here I am” in essence using God’s name setting him in the same “position” in the story. Many other parallels also.)

But the point is this - learn from your failings. That is what the story of Abraham is all about. And then grow and do better the next time.

And you might enjoy Peck’s “A Road Less Traveled” too.

Good luck.

Turn the student in. As someone who worked hard for every grade and didn’t have a mommy or daddy to bust the prof’s butt for me I had to accept it. I did once go to a prof and see (after a test) if we could do something about it. He raised my grade from a 2.7 to a 3.0 that I needed to keep my scholorship since I could orrally answer his questions and had been an excellent class participator.

At the same time he did not raise a student’s grade from a 2.9 to a 3.0 who had their parent call in. He also didn’t do it for a student who badgered him and called him names. He failed a student who slept through his exam (and had a poor attendance record) even when the student begged him for help.

Sometimes we have to make likes in our lives. While as both a former student and a teacher I’m disgusted that you didn’t turn in your evaluations, it dosn’t negate the fact that the student cheated.


And when I was in college a professor told me a story from when he was in college. At a medium sized college (about 6000) their was a student who cheated on all 5 of his classes. Three profs turned him in. When they examined the other two profs one was not aware of the cheating. The last one was. This prof was removed from his position and HIS ENTIRE CLASS’ grades were revoked because he covered up for a cheater (and therefore the Uni couldn’t trust him).

It’s not the 1950’s anymore…but it did happen.

It sounds to me as though you are weighing up the issues of justice and mercy. Mercy is important, as you realise, looking at the occasions in your own life where you have been shown mercy.

Mercy is different to not getting caught - your watching movies online without paying (which is stealing) is not something you have been allowed to get away with, so much as something for which you haven’t been caught. Stealing is stealing, and if this incident has made you aware of that, you have a duty in conscience to confess it and to resolve not to do it again.

All the same, just as this incident has done you the favour of alerting your conscience to the wrongs of stealing, so you also have a duty to do the same for this student. I don’t know how your institution’s rules work, but if there is any way you can alert the student to the fact that you know, maybe call her into your office and talk it over, give them the opportunity to own up, and work out some way she can re-sit some other test honestly, with her marks capped. In my experience, colleges will do what they can to avoid failing students or kicking them out (because they want the continued fee income), so she’ll probably only get a warning, or have to re-sit the course if she is found out, and if she admits her offence to you, you could at least put in a good word for her when reporting the incident to the authorities, and ask for her to be treated leniently. Mercy isn’t the same as not getting caught - you have a duty to let her know that this kind of action can’t go on.

I used to defend students accused of this kind of cheating when I was a student representative at my college, and I know that these accusations can be hard to prove, and it is very rare that a student will be punished too severely, unless it is a 2nd or 3rd offence.

I read an interesting article in the Chronicle recently by someone who works for an essay-writing service full-time. He justifies his work in terms of the structural demands of the US college system, but ultimately he’s a professional accessory to fraud, and there’s no getting away from that. We can get all caught up in the semantics of it, and of course there are genuine grounds for mercy when people act under pressure, but the simple reality of it is that justice and mercy are not opposed - I think you need to tell this student out of justice to the others who studied hard for this test, and you need to make every effort to understand her and help her atone for her mistake out of mercy.

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