7. Ethical Issues for TAs

7.1. Professionalism

Be professional in your TA work. Most complaints the department gets --- from both students and instructors --- are about missed office hours, assignments not being returned in a timely manner, unanswered e-mail, etc.

7.2. What Constitutes Academic Misconduct

If you are not sure what constitutes cheating, discuss this with the instructor and other TAs. Certain activities (such as collaboration on assignments) may or may not be permissible in the class you are TAing. It is your responsibility to know what is normative in general (e.g., all TAs should know what the University of Minnesota considers plagiarism), and the instructor's responsibility to clarify any grey areas or special rules. Two websites that might be useful are the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity site, which contains a couple of FAQs as well as links to university documents like the Students Conduct Code, and Academic Conduct Information for New CS&E Students.

If you notice suspicious activity and are not sure if it is cheating or not, gather any relevant evidence and discuss it with the instructor if you think there's a likelihood that it is.

7.3. Tips for Preventing Cheating

  • Clarify what is and is not permitted. Rules should be posted somewhere students can easily refer to them (e.g., the course web page). (Note: it is university policy that each syllabus should have a section on academic misconduct. However, it is often useful to have additional, more detailed information posted as needed.)
  • Talk with the instructor (and other TAs) about what is and is not acceptable behavior for students. Do this especially if either you are not sure yourself what is or is not acceptable, or if there are some class rules (e.g., amount of collaboration on assignments) that you are not entirely sure about. We want to avoid the situation where the instructor is telling students one thing, and a TA is telling them something different.
  • The class should have reasonable collaboration rules. For example, telling student that they can never discuss anything about assignments is unreasonable.
  • Get to know students. Students are more likely to cheat if they think that the professor and TAs do not know who they are.
  • Be careful with sensitive information like grading keys. Do not leave them laying around unattended, or in unprotected computer files. Never let a student use your computer account.
  • Log homework when it is handed in. Otherwise, if you are TAing a large class and passing homework among a number of TAs in the course of grading it, it is difficult to tell whether a "missing" assignment was lost during grading, or was never handed in.
  • If possible, have students use alternate seating during exams.
  • If alternate seating is not possible, and if you are developing an exam, make different versions of exams.
  • Clarify (in advance) what, if any, types of computing devices can be used during exams. Remember, "calculators" can store an immense amount of information, and students with a laptop, cell phone, etc. may be able to access outside information from the exam classrooms.
  • If you are developing an exam, make it an open book exam if appropriate.
  • If you are developing an exam, make sure it is reasonable and fair and can be finished in the time allotted.
  • Have multiple proctors for exams. When proctoring, circulate around the room rather than being in a fixed location.
  • When grading, circle and/or comment on what is incorrect to prevent students from correcting mistakes after grading and asking for more points. Mark empty pages or large blank spaces to prevent students from filling them in after grading.
  • On assignments and exams, have students show their work rather than just giving a correct final answer or result.
  • If you catch someone cheating or otherwise engaging in suspicious activity, take appropriate action. Students are more likely to cheat if they think others in the class are doing so without consequence.

7.4. Handling Cheating

If you notice suspicious activity, you first need to decide whether it is likely that cheating occurred, and, if so, whether there is reasonable evidence to support that suspicion. If you think that cheating did indeed occur, or if you are not sure, but have a strong suspicion that it did, then you should always report this to the course instructor. More specifically, you should:

  • Gather evidence: save or make copies of any papers or computer files involved.
  • Get additional support: if possible, get additional witnesses so that you have more evidence than your word against the student's. For example, if you notice cheating during an exam, notify the instructor and/or other proctors.
  • Take notes: write down any additional information that might be relevant, and which you might not remember if the situation is contested at a later date.
  • Discuss with the instructor: the instructor will then need to decide what further action to take. If the instructor determines that cheating has indeed occurred, there are department and college procedures he or she will need to follow.

Additional information can be found at the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity site.

7.6. Cheating by TAs

The CS&E department has a posted policy and process for cheating by TAs. Cheating by TAs, whether in their TA duties or in the classes they are taking, is a grave offense. It is department policy that TA offers not be made to students with a record of cheating.

Please realize that TAs are held to a high level of professionalism in this area. It is your responsibility to be well informed about what the University and department consider academic misconduct. It is also your responsibility to make good judgments about academic conduct. Ignorance or lack of good judgment are not excuses for academic misconduct.

7.7. Conflict of Interest and Nepotism

If you are assigned to TA a class with students whom you know in it, and feel that you will not be able to grade them fairly, please discuss this with the class instructor. In extreme cases, such as a TA's spouse taking the class, please also inform the department graduate TA supervisor or Liz Freppert since this may require a change in TA assignment. You should not be assigning grades for, or evaluating the work of, anyone you are closely related to or have a close relationship with. See the university's policy on Nepotism and Consensual Relationships for more information.

You should also be careful about what type of information you provide to people you know about CS classes. Providing general information is fine, but you should not provide "inside information" (information that you as a TA have special access to, but which other people cannot find out). For example, suppose you have old exams keys for a class you have TAed or are TAing. This information was not accessible to students but was only given to TAs for grading purposes. Then giving the information to students who you know and who are currently in the class would be problematic.

7.8. Unethical Requests from Instructors

If an instructor asks you to do anything that you think is unethical, please discuss the matter with the department graduate TA supervisor or the Department Head.

7.9. The Start and End of Classes

Class planning is very important. You should contact the instructor for the class you are TAing at least one week before the start of class. In the past we have also had problems with students leaving before the end of the term, or being difficult to find during grading. Please make sure that you do not leave until all your grading work is done.

7.10. Outside Work

If you accept a TA position, you are expected to work approximately 20 hours per week during the term of that appointment. If you have additional commitments you must make sure that you have ample time to do everything. Your TA duties should be a priority.

7.11. Discontinuing Another Position to Take a CS TA Position

The department sometimes gets TA applications from students who have an RA position or have a TA position in another department. These students have the responsibility, before accepting any CS&E TA offer, to ensure that discontinuing their RA/TA will not create any problems.