Saturday, June 5, 2010

You're cheating!

I noticed that my old university that I taught at for many years is getting ready for finals week.  Someone in administration schedules when classes can take a final test and the schedule goes from Monday to Friday.  But woe be the professor who has a class final scheduled for Friday.  It takes guts to stand up to a group of students who want to get going on their summer vacation/job.  I hope by now there is some way to give an exam using technology such as Blackboard software.  That could help the students out immensely.

But if scheduling is a major problem in university final exams, I suppose cheating is right up near the top.  In fact for some teachers in the Kindergarten-12th grade or community college, cheating is also a problem to address.  In today's world the pressure is on to be successful at any level.

The word, "cheating," comes from an original middle English word, escheat, with the same meaning...which really means that we probably have been dealing with this problem since the stone age.  I classify the concept "cheating" with words like, creativity, love, patriotism, loyalty and faith.  We all know the word when we see it but we have the dickens of a time describing it.

I've had colleagues at the college level go to extreme levels to ensure that cheating was not carried out in their final exam.  And I listened to students in the coffee shop plot and plan how they were going to cheat on that same exam.  It was a game.  Who would win?

Another colleague in a different college would schedule an auditorium for his class of fifty and seat the students one or two seats apart so they couldn't see another student's exam paper.  A graduate student was assigned the balcony to watch below.  I wonder what he is doing these days with tweets and e-mail messaging.  He was already bald so pulling his hair was not an option.

But I am curious what grade school teachers are doing to control the use of cell phones for digitizing messages to other students in the classroom.  It has replaced the whisper,  "pass this note to Jane," era.

At the other extreme, I once had a colleague who didn't believe in grades and therefore, always gave the letter "A" to everyone in the class.  He taught philosophy and had his arguments in defense lined up in good order which drove at least two Deans and one Provost crazy.  Graduate students flocked to his class--whether because it was an easy grade or because he was a fascinating lecturer and thinker, I couldn't say.  His main concept was that if you were at a university, you were there to learn--that was the student's problem.  If you wanted to learn, fine.  If you didn't he didn't care.  As department chairman, I tended to agree with his thinking.  And that type of thinking certainly erased cheating.  It was impossible to cheat in his class even if you didn't show up.  Although he took no attendance, I can assure you that students always showed up for class.  I checked.

But over the years I have come to my position on cheating is that if we make things hard enough or difficult enough, the student under pressure will cheat.  I think when a second grade teacher says that if you miss more then one word on your spelling test, you can't go out for recess, we have set up an environment to promote cheating.  I once heard a professor of education philosophy talk about the pressures we put on K-12 students (he was from the University of Florida but I have forgotten his name) and he said it was like putting Sophia Loren into bed with a guy for a week and when the inevitable happened, you then say, "You shouldn't have done that!"  Somewhat my position.

However there is some odd research on cheating.  I once had in my fourth grade an early version of a teaching machine.  It was a strange looking metal box that sat on the student's desk.  Near the top was a plastic window with an oblong opening in it in the center of the window and an opening on the right side.  I would load the program which was on standard paper into the box and it would show up in the window--some instruction and a problem.  The student was suppose to read the instruction,  solve the problem and write the answer on the right side in the opening.  Then with the eraser tip of the pencil the student was to push the paper upwards in the box to reveal the answer underneath the student's answer.  Immediate reinforcement, eh?

However, as some of you have already surmised the natural inclination would be in case of a wrong answer to move the paper back down with the eraser, erase the wrong answer and then write the correct answer in the space.  Voila! A perfect paper.  Except it didn't work that way.  The inventor of the teaching machine had installed little knife blades facing upwards and if you pushed the paper down with the eraser, it would make pin holes in the paper as well as keep it from being moved downwards.  Ingenious.

Well, it wasn't long before the kids figured out that those plastic things from a man's dress shirt, those plastic tabs that kept the collar straight were the right size to go through the center hole in the teaching machine and neutralize those little knife blades.  Now they could "cheat" and I would not see any little pin picks from those knives.  Hey, I saw everything in my classroom!

My dilemma was whether to yell at the kids not to do that--"don't cheat" or look the other way.  I took the latter course of action.   I was curious if the machine could really teach so I let the kids do the program anyway they wanted.  But I kept track of those that used the "cheating" method.  Not all kids got to use the teaching machine.

At the end of that subject that I was teaching, some arithmetic concept, I gave my own test to the whole class to see how they were doing and to see how I was teaching.  Standard proceedure.  I was surprised to see that most of the kids that "cheated" got the best scores on my test.  How come?  It is my opinion that most if not all of the kids that "cheated" weren't cheating but wanted to get the answers correct.  I had good kids in class and they trusted me.  They wanted to learn.  They liked the new teaching machine box as it let them go at their own speed of learning.  That's important.  And some of them wanted a perfect paper....they wanted to get the right answers.  The fact that it took some effort to "re-do" their paper probably helped them "learn" the material.  That was my goal as well, to have them learn.  From that moment, I let the kids "cheat" with the box.  They learned better.

But I also changed some behaviors in class.  One time I allowed one side of the classroom to look up answers in a test....the other side couldn't use their text books.  And talk about a bunch of kids upset--the ones that couldn't use their books really read me the riot act.  But several days later, i gave the same test and the kids that had used their text books out did the ones that weren't allowed to use them although all the class showed much improvement over the first test.  I then switched sides and did the same experiment mostly to sooth the "wronged" side of the classroom.  Same results.

My feelings are that kids want to do well.  Some have problems remembering, others are sloppy in their habits, some don't read the question correctly trying to hurry, whatever.  But when they find their error, they want to correct it.  I still think cheating is the result of a pressure situation that the student cannot handle--and has little to do with learning.

Thanks to all teachers who want their students to learn.  Many have different methods but the end goal is the same.  Thanks, gang.


  1. It's tempting to cheat because it makes difficult things seem easy. But it doesn't solve the problem of not knowing the material and it won't help on the next test - unless you cheat again.
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  2. From a teaching perspective, I would like to see more information on how people cheat in exams and tests, i.e. their methodology. When I invigilate an exam, I never sit down and constantly move about looking for signs of cheating, and yet I hear it still goes on.