At my university, exams take place in a lecture hall, but it is usually pretty packed. Along with alternating versions of tests, it is pretty easy for a student to look to the next row or their neighbor for inspiration.

How do you confront a student with a wandering eye? I do not want to embarrass the student or distract others during the exam, but I also want them to know that it is not okay to do. In the past, I would usually tell the student to keep their eyes on their own exam. There have been cases where the students with wandering eyes are just spacing out.

I have asked instructors at my university and they tend to just ignore it and not say anything.

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    $\begingroup$ By the way, I think this question is a great example of something that fits in this community and should be fully embraced, yet could feasibly fit into others. See, for instance, this thread on "Education questions which are not specific to math": meta.matheducators.stackexchange.com/questions/45/… $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Mar 21 '14 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ There is a curious technique to prevent wandering eyes during large exams: ask some young-looking colleague to pretend writing the test, and then throw him out during first 15 minutes without any warning. $\endgroup$ – dtldarek Mar 21 '14 at 21:42

There are a few reasonable approaches, and they vary mostly in (a) intrusiveness towards the students and (b) effectiveness

  • Walk intently in the direction of the student, cough, and stare at them for a minute. From the perspective of the "potentially cheating student", this is quite effective. There's no way they'll pull any funny business while you're actively looking at them and no one else. And they now know you're aware of them, so they might be less likely to try something later when you're across the room but have them on your mind. However, this can call attention to you and the student you're watching, depending on how loud you make your ahemming and how intent you make your staring. Although, if the eye-wandering is particularly glaring, you might want to make your staring obvious and deterrent.
  • Speak to the room at large, reminding them that they should keep their eyes on their own paper and cheating will be punished. The great thing about this is that you can do it whether you see one pair or twelve pairs of wandering eyes. You can say it not only while scanning your eyes across the room but also while the students see you scanning your eyes across the room, so they don't feel individually called out for crimes (falsely or otherwise) and they also feel like you're being vigilant. The bad thing about this is that it can disrupt focused students. If I were intently working on a problem and were all of a sudden snapped out of my concentration to be reminded not to cheat (which I wasn't doing anyway), I might be miffed.
  • Call out a potential offender and either move them to a new seat or take away their test. This is quite disruptive, of course, but can be effective if you are sure of your accusations. I have subtly done this, by asking students to spread out amongst an otherwise unoccupied row and then hovering near them for the rest of the hour. This is certainly disruptive to them, but I presume they were already suffering the cognitive dissonance of academic dishonesty and my ascertainment of that won't adversely affect them. Of course, if I'm wrong, this can totally backfire. So it behooves one to be absolutely sure that cheating almost occurred (or did occur).

I have tried variants of these methods quite effectively, depending on the situation. The following idea has not been tested by me, but I believe it could be effectively implemented.

  • Have a pre-determined method for handling "cheating accusations" in your syllabus, and make students sign it. For instance, include a paragraph in your syllabus that says something like, "If I see you doing something during an exam that constitutes academic dishonesty, I will jot it down and dock you 10 points on your score [or whatever penalty is appropriate, you feel]. You will learn of this when you receive your exam back; I will not call you out during the exam to avoid distracting you and others. If you wish to dispute the penalty, we can approach the appropriate channels [i.e. the 'Academic Integrity Panel' or the 'Student Conscience Board' or what have you]." As I said, I have not tried this, so I wonder about its efficacy and, especially, its transparency to students ("Is this a blanket statement for him to penalize me unwarranted?" "Can I dispute his claim without contrary evidence? Can he even make a claim without evidence of his own" etc.)
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    $\begingroup$ I have tried your first suggestion, it usually works pretty well! I like your second suggestion, I think I will try this if it seems appropriate, but I would like to minimize disruptions. $\endgroup$ – Felix Y. Mar 21 '14 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ @FelixT.: One idea to minimize distraction on the "announce to the room" method: combine it with an announcement, like "You have 30 minutes left. By the way, please keep your eyes on your own paper only!" $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Mar 21 '14 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ Great idea! I want to try being more subtle. I think that putting students on the spot isn't a great idea and I should probably stop doing that. $\endgroup$ – Felix Y. Mar 21 '14 at 6:40
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    $\begingroup$ Ah addendum to your last point: if you run your exam in a way that the students are assigned seats (which also helps prevent students sitting near their friends and "benefitting"), you can jot down their seat number and, at grading time, check the answers against the papers turned in by the students who sit within view of the student in question. That way in case of disputes from the student, you have a better leg to stand on. "Student A is assigned a seat where he could in principle see the work of Student B. And look, question 1 here have identical answers." $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Mar 21 '14 at 11:20

The challenge you are weighing here is that you want to be able to move people to more secure seats without falsely accusing them of cheating. One possible plan is to announce the following at the start of the test:

"During this exam, I will move between two and four people to the front of the room to help prevent cheating on this exam. If I think I see a student looking at another student's test, I will move one of those two people to the front of the room. This means that when I move you, I am not accusing you of cheating. Let me repeat this: When I move you to a new seat, please do not panic: it does not mean I think you are cheating. I am only trying to keep the exam running smoothly while preventing any potential problems, and I apologize in advance for the inconvenience."

Then you can move people with even the slightest twinge of suspicion, and not really worry about it at all.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe this method allows for movement of students without you necessarily thinking they're cheating but .... imagine a student who is moved to a new seat. They, and everyone around them, must think they were (approximately) cheating, and behaviors of all thereafter will reflect this. $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Mar 21 '14 at 5:36

When I was a TA, I have had similar experience like the OP. The problem is that it is very difficult to prove something from wandering eyes.

Most things when you arrive in such a situation was already said in brendansullivan07's answer.

I think this is so difficult to prove and disturbs the peace during exam that you should under all circumstances avoid the situation! The best solution to avoid such situation is to not let the situation happen: If you have only 1-2 free seats to the next person, it is very likely that you have wandering eyes (not necessary on purpose).

Since I take responsiblity for exams, we take bigger lecture halls and sit the students in such a way that there are three rows and fours seats between them and the next student which makes it more or less impossible to look and someone else's solution. You should also walk around and keep an eye on them (some of them communicate through the lecture hall).

(In case someone complains about you taking big lecture halls, I say them, he should email his complain and I will forward it to university authorities or to the press that this particular person supports cheating. Since we had a big policital affair with cheating in Germany, no one has then ever said a word against this anymore.)


As @MarkusKlein says, get a bigger room (or rooms). If several rooms, allocate students to rooms "randomly," e.g. by last name. Before starting the exam, mix them up. I.e., those sitting in the last row while the first is empty get invited forwards. Break up pairs of buddies.

A colleage here makes exams with two (or even more) versions, to be handed out by columns (or rows). Sure, it is harder to make up two equivalent exams, but if I know that my neighbor has a different test than mine, looking around helps little.

What is more problematic is the use of cellphones, during one test of mine some tried to download the lecture notes... wouldn't have done them too much good, the questions weren't in them anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ I have an idea for the cell phones: Since there are many free seats, everyone is supposed to lay down his/her cell phone visible on the table in the row in front of them (nobody has to bother if it gets stolen then). $\endgroup$ – Markus Klein Mar 22 '14 at 0:41

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