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Cheating Accusations in Team & Collaborative Class Assignments

By December 13, 2017April 6th, 2022No Comments

Our social media culture loves the idea of sharing.  We even like to instill the supposed value of sharing in our children almost as soon as they seem old enough to react to words.  Indeed, the best-selling book “All I Needed to Know, I learned in Kindergarten” lists sharing as rule number one for kindergartners.  But sharing gets lots of our college student defense clients in trouble with their college or university’s academic honor code.

As with many academic honesty violations, a major part of the problem lies in a failure to teach and failure to give specific guidance.  Colleges and universities love to align themselves with the glamorous image of “start-up incubators” and market themselves as producing Steve Jobs-like entrepreneurial innovators. To bolster this image, the schools often feature in their websites and other marketing materials images of fun-looking “collaborative environments” – open looking classrooms and common areas that give the impression that the college experience resembles a Silicon Valley start-up company.

But the reality is that the academic environment is by nature a solitary one.  Real learning for a college student is done by only one person:  the student.  And no matter how many other students in the class, study groups, or project teams, the student is the only one always solely responsible for their own grade and own progress.  So too are they responsible for not violating academic honor code rules against cheating and plagiarism even on “team” assignments.

But lab partnering, and group projects implicitly expose students to potential cheating and plagiarism violations.  Some common scenarios include team lab projects in science classes where “collaboration” is favored.  Typically, the instructor or professor’s syllabus may even emphasize the importance of team work and collaboration but give no meaningful guidance in how to do this without “cheating” by using another’s person’s work.  Moreover, cheating is an accusation that runs both ways.  Both the student sharing the work as well as the student using the shared work can be accused of cheating.

Using a scientific formula or equation solution that another student also uses can result in either cheating accusations or plagiarism accusations.  Both can result in sanctions ranging from “Fs” on assignments and courses to suspension and expulsion.  Often, the first notice a student gets of a problem is the formal cheating allegation itself.

If you are accused of cheating or plagiarism in a team or collaborative environment, the first thing you should do is to make sure you fully understand the accusation.  If the accusation involves a formula or equation, then does the accusation arise from the work done to arrive at the solution or the solution itself?  Does the accusation reference the instructions given by the instructor?

Often, the full nature of the accusation can only be revealed with careful questioning of the college or university.  Such questioning can be very hard for a student to formulate and ask when they are dealing with the trauma and stress of being accused and threatened with academic disgrace.  Experienced college student defense lawyers can help navigate through these scenarios by advising and analyzing the how what and why of the accusation.

Defending against such accusations can be difficult.  It may be necessary to interview fellow students and seek exculpatory statements.   Forensic IT work may be necessary to document what kind of collaboration occurred between students.  But most importantly, an effective defense must include a deep understanding of the how the class assignment was explained and how the class interpreted and implemented those explanations.  That understanding must be coupled with insights into the professor since most professors are unlikely to acknowledge any lack of clarity in their instructions and prompts.

Prevention can be a bit easier.

Applying these three steps in team or collaborative projects may prevent later problems:

  1. ASK the professor/TA about how they expect you to collaborate – what do they expect you to share and not share?
  2. ASK the professor/TA about similarities in results and answers – what degree of similarity is allowable and expected?
  3. ASK the classmates you are teaming up with about their understanding of #1 and #2 so that you make sure you are all on the same page.


Shared learning can be rewarding and educational but paying careful attention to the expectations of the professor and your classmates is critical.  You want to be rewarded for collaboration, not punished for conspiracy.

These materials have been prepared by Cohen Seglias for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

Shan Wu

Author Shan Wu

Shan’s professional and personal background gives him a unique understanding of academic institutions and the criminal justice system. A former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., he is at home in D.C. Courts and very familiar with all of the Washington, D.C. law enforcement agencies, especially the Metropolitan Police Department. His parents were university professors so he grew up in a university environment. He understands the mindset of academic institutions. As a prosecutor, he supervised in the misdemeanor crime section. This is the section of the Washington, D.C. prosecutor’s office that handles most college student cases. His understanding of charging decisions and how judges view these cases is invaluable to his student clients and their families. Shan served as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for over ten years. During his tenure there, now Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. appointed him to supervisory positions in the Misdemeanor Trial Section and also in a police corruption task force. His outstanding legal work in the government was recognized through numerous Special Achievement Awards from the Justice Department as well as awards conveyed by law enforcement agencies and community groups. From 1999-2000, Shan served as Counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, advising her on criminal and civil investigations, E-Gov, E-Commerce (electronic signatures, internet gambling, internet telephony, privacy & public access issues in electronic court filings), congressional oversight, and legislative review. His responsibilities included serving as liaison to the FBI, DEA, Criminal Division, Executive Office of United States Attorneys, National Institute of Justice, and White House Counsel’s Office. Shan serves on the D.C. Bar Association’s Hearing Committee of the Board on Professional Responsibility and is a past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association for the Greater Washington, D.C. area. He is a 1988 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, where he graduated Order of the Barristers, edited two law reviews, and was Co-Director of the Moot Court Program. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Vassar College as well as a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Following law school, he clerked for the late Hon. Jerry Buchmeyer, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and the late Eugene Wright, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He is admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and Connecticut.

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