Let 'em Cheat!

from Educators' eZine

Let 'em cheat? That seems like a bizarre thing to say. Let me clarify the statement. First, let's define the word cheat. Go to Google and type in define: cheat. About a dozen definitions come back. The one that best suits what is being suggested in this piece is: a deception for profit to yourself. Cheating on exams, projects, and papers in an academic environment is covered by this definition. One cheats to get a better grade with less work.

In a classroom environment, there are several methods used by students that are generally considered cheating:

  • copying answers from another student's exam paper or computer screen
  • copying problem solutions from another student's project
  • using a textbook clandestinely during an exam
  • using crib notes or cheat sheets during an exam
  • using a computer to look up answers to questions while taking an exam

Although there a numerous tricks that clever students can come up with, those sited probably comprise about 80 percent of the actions performed by students who cheat. Of the five sited, the last four of them can be overcome by allowing them. The first one, copying answers from other student's exam papers or screens has already by reduced by randomizing the positions of questions on exams. For computer generated exams, this involves next to no extra work from the instructor. Randomizing works especially well with multiple-guess, true/false and fill-in the blank questions.

Current preoccupation with ethical behavior

Currently there seems to be quite a bit of concern about ethical behavior. This applies to everyone, not just students. Further discussion of this subject has been done elsewhere; it is not the focus of this piece. Generally speaking, however, it does seem that many people think cheating is an example of unethical behavior. Perhaps it is. Yet, why does cheating occur. It occurs simply because it seems an easier, if somewhat risky, way to profit or gain to yourself, by deception, as stated in the definition from Google. Now, in the taking of exams and the completing of projects and papers, who decides what is cheating. This is generally determined by the institution, or by the department, or by the teacher, or by all of the above.

I have been a teacher, an adjunct professor at several New Jersey colleges and community colleges for over thirty years. Prior to that, I spent twenty-five years in a corporate environment, and had my own business for ten years. Lest it appear that I am older than Methuselah, there was some overlap in these endeavors. During that time, I have also been a student, taking courses in order to stay current in my field. I have even earned an additional degree. As a result, I have been able to look at this cheating issue from both sides. What I'd like to do for the remainder of this piece, is offer some suggestions, as to how we can eliminate quite a bit of cheating by allowing some things currently thought of as cheating, but issuing new "ground rules" as well. The suggestions put forth here are not foolproof; they are intended to increase the learning of students and to eliminate much of the instructors' concerns about trying be a cop.

Copying problem solutions from another student's project

There is a comment circulating around that copying a single passage from the work of another is called plagiarism; while copying information from a number of different sources is called research.

An experienced teacher can generally spot students who are simply copying material from other students. About eighty percent of the time, the teacher can also determine which of the students is doing the copying. My suggestion to resolve this problem comes in two parts. Part one is put together problems to which the solutions are fairly difficult. Part two is to suggest that students be encouraged to help each other and work together. I have been doing this for more than ten years. I've gotten two reactions from students. One is that they moan about the difficulty. Two is that many, but not all of them, work with one another to solve the problems. Those who choose to work alone seem simply to be the kind of students who like to work alone solving problems. The benefit of this approach is that it removes the stigma of cheating from the process.

There a couple of teacher tricks that can be useful in catching those who simply copy the material from other students. One of these involves telling students who consider letting other students copy their work that they are being foolish. In addition to giving away for nothing, what they have worked hard to accomplish, they are actually causing damage to the student who copies their work. A student who copies the work of others is eventually going to fail or get caught. Far worse, when the one who does the copying does get exposed, the one allows the copying is caught in the same net.

Another teacher trick is to set up some problems that require the students to include their own name as part of the solutions. Those who copy are frequently stupid enough to overlook changing the student name to their own.

Using a textbook clandestinely during an exam

Resolving this problem is quite straightforward; let them use textbooks during exams. To keep the students "honest", give them exams that are virtually impossible to complete in the time allotted. Then curve the results by giving all students the number of points difference between the highest score achieved in the exam and 100. This technique works especially well with multiple-guess questions, true/false questions, and fill in the blanks type exam questions. Yet, it can also be used effectively with short answer question exams. Tell the students ahead of time that you're going to use the technique so that they don't get "all bent out of shape" because of the apparent impossibility of completing the exam in the time allotted.

Do students learn more cramming for an exam by trying to commit to memory a bunch of facts and definitions, than by looking through a book to find some of the answers that they may have known but forgotten? Not likely. It seems to me that students learn much more about the material they are required to learn as well as resourcefulness by being allowed to use textbooks during exams.

Using crib notes or cheat sheets during an exam

In lieu of using a textbook during an exam, there is another method that can be employed. Allowing a limited amount of crib notes (cheat-sheets) on an exam also contributes to students' resourcefulness. Allowing students to use one 8 ½ X 11 sheet of paper, both sides, with a small a type font that they can read for an exam, gives them an opportunity both to read and to type the material that may be on am exam. There is no doubt in my mind that students are more likely to learn and remember what they have learned by permitting them to use cheat sheets.

Using a computer to look up answers to questions while taking an exam

In the contemporary educational environment in which we find ourselves, we find computers very nearly everywhere. We give exams on computers. We assign projects in which computers play a part in completing. Students submit completed exams and finished project on computers. Some types, such as multiple-guess, true/false, and to some extent fill in the blanks exam are even corrected by the computer.

Giving exams on computers is here to stay. So why not let students use Google or some other tool to tray to find answers to questions and to find tutorials that help them solve problems and complete projects. Encourage students to use the tool available. It teaches them both resourcefulness and enables them to increase their productivity.

Concluding Comments

From a student's perspective; one of the courses I took, while pursuing my most recent degree, was course in Statistics. It was refresher for me; having taken Stat for both my Bachelor's and Master's degree during the 1960s. I thoroughly enjoyed the course, did well on the quizzes, projects, and exams, until the final. I had the impression that I needed to remember all the formulas from the entire semester. Memorizing is not my strong suit. In trying commit to memory all the formulas, I found myself at a loss while taking the final exam. I was neither able to recall the formulas nor was I able to apply them to the problems. I was completely flustered when all the formulas that had been taught during the semester were attached to the exam. To this day, I do not remember whether of not the professor informed us that the formulas would be attached. Of what I am certain, is that had that been known my preparing for the final would have been done differently.

There is proverb of uncertain origin: Why take pains to remember what you can easily look up? Memorization as a skill is a parlor trick. There's another proverb; (understand it is of ancient Chinese origin), What you hear, you forget; what you see, you remember; and what you do, you understand. After more than fifty years of learning, working, and teaching, it occurs to me that we'll remember and understand through continuous usage. The material in course that I currently teach, I thoroughly understand. I am told that I am a reasonably good teacher. Using these credentials, I suggest: Let 'em cheat."

Mike Walsh is an Adjunct professor at Ramapo College, CCM (County College of Morris) and PCCC (Passaic County Community College): teaching courses in Microsoft Office and Web site design