To Work Together or Not?

Colleges and universities commit their educational programs to many forms and goals of learning. Certainly, higher education wants graduates who can think, act, and accomplish for themselves when assigned tasks and problems alone. Higher education can thus seem like a sole endeavor. Each student sinks or swims on his or her own merits. You can't rely entirely on your classmates to meet your program's standards. You must, in most programs, prove your individual learning. Graduating is up to you, not you and others.

Yet higher education also needs graduates who can work well in the groups, units, and teams through which employers produce goods and services. Colleges and universities deliberately design programs, courses, units, and assignments that require students to work together. When students collaborate, they build teamwork skills like communication, cooperation, compromise, leadership, and common accountability. Employers highly value those collaboration skills, and schools know it. Schools want and expect you to collaborate effectively. All for one, one for all.

The Collusion Problem

Your problem, though, is to keep those two learning forms and forums, (1) working alone and (2) working together, straight and apart. To complete your assignments according to academic codes and standards, you must know when your professor requires, permits, or prohibits working alone or working together. The reason you must know is because schools routinely prohibit collusion. Schools routinely include collusion as one among several other forms of academic misconduct. For example, each of these prominent schools, and virtually all others, prohibit collusion:

  • Harvard University, the student handbook for which states: “Students must ... comply with the policy on collaboration established for each course, as set forth in the course syllabus or on the course website. Policies vary among the many fields and disciplines in the College and may even vary for particular assignments within a course. … If the syllabus or website does not include a policy on collaboration, students may assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is permitted. Collaboration in the completion of examinations is always prohibited.”; and
  • the University of Michigan, the academic misconduct policy for which states, “[c]ollaboration is unacceptable when a student works with another or others on a project and then submits written work which is represented explicitly or implicitly as the student's own individual work. Examples of unacceptable collaboration include: Using answers, solutions, or ideas that are the result of collaboration without citing the fact of collaboration. Discussing/providing/taking solutions or answers with/to/from other students, when instructions are for students to complete that portion of the work independently.”

Who's to Blame for Collusion

Schools and professors are partly to blame for the collusion problem. If there is anything about which schools should be clearer when they assign learning activities, that thing is whether students must work alone or may work together. Often, professors are not at all clear. They often say nothing about whether the assigned activity expects, permits, or prohibits collaboration. Often, professors instead rely on the customary practice around specific forms of assignment. But customs can differ from school to school, professor to professor, and assignment to assignment. If you face collusion charges, then your best defense may be the professor's lack of clarity in the terms, conditions, and privileges of the assignment.

But even if schools and professors are partly to blame for collusion problems, make no mistake: your school will very likely blame you if you worked with others when the professor expected you to work alone. Schools typically see collusion not as a communication problem but as a character problem. School officials tend to blame poor student character as the cause of collusion. School officials will very often treat confusion over whether a student must work alone or may work with others as dishonesty, not as innocent confusion. Academic policies like Harvard's student handbook quoted above, assigning a default not to collaborate on exams, aids schools in treating and charging collusion as dishonesty. Collusion is a common and serious academic misconduct charge.

The School's Authority and Responsibility

Please know: it's not up to you. The departments, schools, and colleges that determine the learning goals, and the professors who design and assign the learning activities to accomplish those goals, have the authority and responsibility to specify when students must work alone and when they may or must work together. The school and its professors, not the students, get to set the rules and expectations for learning. Everyone, including accrediting agencies, alumni, employers hiring graduates, and the parents or others who are financing student educations, expect the school and professor to define the conditions for learning alone or together.

Where to Find Collaboration Rules

Schools and professors generally define when students may or must not work together in two locations. Students typically have two places to look to determine whether to work alone or together. As Harvard University's student handbook quoted above indicates, students generally find the collaboration rules in (1) student conduct codes, policies, or handbooks and (2) the professor's course syllabus or online course management site. If your school has charged you with collusion, then the first place to look to confirm the terms and conditions of the suspect assignment will be your professor's syllabus or website.

Yet, those two are not the only places to look for rules on collaboration. The assignment itself, whether an exam, problem set, essay, or case study, will often state the collaboration conditions. Even if the syllabus says one thing about collaboration, a specific assignment saying the opposite will generally control. Professors may, from time to time, alter the collaboration terms orally in class or by email or other notice. Teaching assistants may also do so, although the professor may later question the teaching assistant's authority. The point is that if you face collusion charges, then you and your academic attorney will need to confirm the collaboration conditions in one or more of those locations.

Collusion's Definition

Schools and other academic organizations either leave collusion only an implicit definition or define collusion in different ways, trying to get at similar forms of misconduct. The distance-learning pioneer Open University defines collusion as “working too closely with one or more individuals to help solve and/or answer an assessed task or question, producing a joint answer or solution ... to gain an unfair advantage over other students.” One university journal article draws this definition of collusion from a review of school policies: “inappropriate or unauthorized collaboration by two or more students in the production and submission of assessment tasks.” That same journal article confirmed that while schools see collusion as dishonesty, students instead see it as “helping friends.” Schools take collusion seriously, while students tend not to do so.

The Difference Between Collusion and Collaboration

You've likely noticed that collusion gets treated very like unauthorized collaboration. And for some schools, that's pretty much it. Collusion is simply the unauthorized, bad form of the otherwise positive practice of student collaboration. But collusion in its most sinister form takes unauthorized collaboration a step further. Collusion implies that the involved students deliberately concealed the joint nature of their effort. Unauthorized collaboration may not always involve such deliberate deception. Students may collaborate when they shouldn't have done so but not try to hide it. Those students may not necessarily know that collaboration was wrong. They may only have been careless about finding out whether the assignment permitted collaboration. Collusion, on the other hand, involves a guilty mind. The deliberate deception involved in collusion makes it a more serious offense than simple unauthorized collaboration.

Examples of Collusion

Collusion can come in several forms. Common examples include:

  • two or more students working on the specific method or approach necessary to complete an assigned academic task or answer an assigned question while concealing the joint nature of their work;
  • two or more students deciding together how to solve an assigned case or problem to the point that they together have made the final answer obvious while representing their work as individual solutions;
  • two or more students working an assigned problem together or composing answers together so that the result, style, or content is the same from similar approaches while misrepresenting the work as individually original;
  • two or more students sharing the answer to an assigned problem, case, or question, or working together to determine what the answer should include and how to reach it while pretending to have worked individually.

Parties to Collusion

It is important to recognize that collusion charges can go both ways against the student who helps and the student who needs and accepts help. The student who proposes the collusion and the student who accepts the collusion are both responsible for collusion. Both asking and answering, being the smart student or the not-so-smart student, can constitute collusion. Both making one's answer available to others or using the offered answer of another can constitute collusion. Schools may also impose a duty to report academic misconduct. The student who does not participate directly in collusion but who nonetheless observes it without alerting school officials can suffer discipline as if having colluded.

Consequences of Collusion

Academic misconduct policies routinely give latitude to the hearing officer, hearing panel, or other school body or official deciding the charges to assign punishment. Schools also routinely grant themselves the full range of potential punishments, from an oral warning to written reprimand, no credit for the assignment, remedial work, remedial training, reduced grade, lost credit for the course, all the way up to suspension, dismissal, and degree revocation. A common penalty for collusion, suspension for a term or year, may be more serious than most students expect. Yet dismissal is also a possibility, especially in programs like law, accounting, and public administration where the school's graduating the student certifies the graduate's character for positions of public or private trust. Take collusion charges seriously.

What to Do About Collusion Charges

Given how serious collusion charges can be, you should act promptly and responsibly to address them. Don't ignore collusion charges, and don't delay in responding. If a professor calls collusion to your attention, then determine from the professor what the professor expects or intends. Some professors may treat collusion as a misunderstanding, accepting their own responsibility for not making collaboration opportunities clearer. If instead, the professor forwards collusion charges for the school to handle, then your best move is to promptly seek legal representation from a national academic attorney. An academic misconduct officer may contact you in an attempt at informal resolution. But before accepting an informal resolution, you need to know both the direct and collateral consequences. You need the informed advice of an experienced academic attorney to understand, appreciate, and evaluate the full consequences.

Do not admit collusion if, in fact, you did not collude. Better to contest the false charge through the school's academic misconduct procedures. Those procedures should provide you with basic due process, including an opportunity for a hearing before an independent decision-maker. You may be entirely unfamiliar with administrative procedures and especially with academic hearings, which can take on the character of an informal trial. But know that with aggressive representation from a national academic attorney, you can defeat a false or unfair charge of collusion.

Retain a National Student Misconduct Defense Attorney

If you face collusion charges, then don't rely on a local attorney who is unfamiliar with academic administrative proceedings. You need the representation of a national academic attorney who knows the rules, customs, and procedures of academic institutions and administrators. National student misconduct defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm have represented hundreds of students nationwide in academic misconduct proceedings. Attorney Lento provides prompt, effective, and as necessary, aggressive defense to collusion and other academic misconduct charges. A collusion charge is not the same as a finding of wrongdoing. With skilled and effective representation, you can beat false and unfair collusion charges. Don't let your school rush you into admitting academic wrongs that you did not commit. You have too much at stake in your education and career. Call 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation with Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm or use the online service.