Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Practical methods for preventing cheating on exams


I recently gave a talk to some of our new faculty about how to become successful teachers, and during the talk I highlighted the importance of searching for academic dishonesty. Here's why:
  • 70% of college students have done something that qualifies as academic dishonesty (Whitley 1998, the average of 20 different studies' estimates)
  • 47% of college students have plagiarized papers (Whitley 1998, the average of 10 different studies' estimates).
  • 43% of college students have cheated on exams (Whitley 1998, the average of 37 different studies' estimates).
In other words, if you're a college instructor who gives exams, it's highly likely that someone cheated on an exam in your class last semester, and if you assign papers, it's highly likely that one of your students plagiarized a paper last semester. Did you catch them?

I've caught a student plagiarizing or cheating on an exam almost every semester I've taught. Most of the cases of academic dishonesty I catch are plagiarizers (as I've written about many times), but I've also caught my fair share of exam cheaters.

Preventing and detecting cheating on exams is challenging, primarily because there are thousands of potential techniques students can use. Conveniently, however, most of those cheating techniques can be broken down into four basic categories:
  1. Bringing in unauthorized information and using it during the exam
  2. Colluding with others during the exam
  3. Obtaining test material before the exam
  4. Changing answers or grades after the exam takes place
Thus, to prevent cheating one must devise procedures that reduce the likelihood that students can carry out tasks that fall into those four categories.

As a brief side note, I know some instructors who claim that they devise exams that are impossible to cheat on (e.g., essay exams, in-class demonstrations of procedures, oral exams). In my opinion, there is no such thing as a cheating-proof exam; even the most robust testing environments are prone to creative cheating techniques, and even exams that are ostensibly difficult to cheat on can be easily cheated on if protective measures are not taken. For instance, in-class demonstrations of techniques can be prone to collusion during the exam (a peer guides the examinee through the procedure, unseen by the instructor) and cheat sheets (the procedure may be written on the student's arm or hat brim). Oral exams can be prone to well-placed cheat sheets, collusion (e.g., cellphone with an ear-piece), or obtaining exam material before the exam (e.g., if the oral examiner follows a script, students can prepare by talking to prior examinees). Thus, while devising exams that are difficult to cheat upon is not a bad idea, it doesn't mean you should forgo all other preventive measures.

Techniques to prevent cheating

The list below consists of the primary anti-cheating techniques I use on exams I administer, listed by the category of cheating they apply to. These techniques are generally geared to either prevent cheating and/or to detect it when it occurs. The role of detection should not be overlooked; it's pointless to try to prevent something and then not attempt to detect it when it occurs. Also, note that I do not focus excessively on preventing cheating by the latest high-tech gadgets; an old-fashioned cheat sheet or carefully placed pencils can work just as well as the latest electronic gizmo.

1. Bringing in unauthorized information and using it during the exam

This category consists of everything from bringing in a hand-written cheat sheet (how old-school) to pre-recording notes on an iPod and listening to them during the test.
  • I require the students to leave all their personal belongings at the front or side of the room, allowing them to bring only a pencil or pen to their desk. This removes many potential hiding places for cheat sheets.
  • I ban the use of all electronic devices during the exam, no matter what the complexity (OK, I allow watches to be worn and looked at). Simply using an electronic device multiple times during an exam is grounds for a 0 in my classroom. If electronic devices are required to complete the exam, provide them for the students if possible.
  • If the students will require any material other than a writing implement on the exam, I provide it for the students at the start of the exam. If that is not possible due to budgetary concerns, I ask the students to provide blank items (e.g., blank scantrons or blue books) a few days before the exam, and then distribute the items randomly during the exam.
  • If students require dictionaries on the exam (e.g., ESL students), I ask that they provide the dictionary in advance (or I bring my own).
  • Take a quick look around the room to check for pre-placed material ("Did that poster always have that much writing on it?"). If a student is constantly looking in a particular direction, take a look there yourself.
  • I examine (visually, as I patrol the room) the clothing and accessories of each student. Hat brims, water bottle labels, bracelets, rubber bands, food wrappers, long sleeves, watches, and a myriad of other items can all be used to hold or hide information. Focus on items that are being used (or handled) by the student more than normal exam use would otherwise suggest. When in doubt, ask to see the item in question (the easiest time for this may be when the student turns in their exam).
    • Gender-related issues can sometimes become a problem here; check with your campus to see what their policy is (i.e., can you detain the student until another, gender-appropriate, person arrives? Who should you call in such a situation?)
  • I try to practice constant vigilance. I patrol the room regularly and make it clear that I'm watching the students (it's convenient that looking for questions from students and hunting for cheaters are both achievable with the same behavior). Here are a few specific things I do during the exam to help me watch for students bringing in outside material:
    • As I walk the aisles I make a point of focusing on a different area of each student's seating environment on successive passes (e.g., shoes/floor on one pass, legs/chair on the second pass). This is a good way to look for prohibited items.
    • I'll often spend a few minutes in the back of the room, and observe who tries to see where I am. Students may be trying to see where you are to determine if they can access a cheating implement.
    • While at the front of the room, I look around the room and determine what each student is actually doing at that moment. If they're doing something odd, I watch them with greater frequency.

2. Colluding with others during the exam

Talking to, interacting with, or text messaging other students all fall into this category; this type of cheating is feasible on just about every exam ever administered in a typical classroom.
  • I separate the students spatially as much as possible during the exam; ideally, I have empty seats between each student.
  • I randomly assign students to specific seats on the day of the exam, and change this seating arrangement for every exam. This makes it highly unlikely that students will be sitting next to someone they have pre-arranged collusion with; it also makes it unlikely that students could have planted a cheat sheet in the room before the exam. If you don't normally have a seating chart, you can write each student's name on a 3x5 card and randomly distribute those onto the desks. If your exam involves students moving between different areas of the room in a pre-determined sequence (e.g., a lab practical exam), you can randomly assign each student to a different start location (circling question numbers on the exam answer sheets and then handing them out at the start of the exam is an easy way to accomplish this).
    • This is a situation where true randomness is not necessarily desired; if you know that two students are good friends and thus are likely to help each other, ensure that they do not sit near each other.
    • If possible, I record where everyone was sitting during the exam, as this can facilitate collusion detection during grading.
  • I create multiple forms of the exam; if students are sitting close to each other, I use more than two forms.
    • If the exam involves short-answer calculation-based problems, I change the questions' numerical data on the different forms. This allows me to definitively determine if a student has colluded with (or copied from) a student who has a different form.
  • I use hidden exam forms (i.e., I do not let students know what form of the exam they have). To do this, I design the front page of the exam so that (from the students' perspective) all the exams appear identical, and I only sort the exams into their different forms after the students have left. I have the exams pre-sorted when I come to the classroom, and pass them out individually to the students.
    • Many instructors copy the alternate forms of their exam onto different colors of paper. While this makes the exams easy to distribute (every other student should have a different color of exam) and sort for grading, it immediately tells students who they should copy from or collude with.
  • If students are in a lab environment and can move from station to station, I make it difficult to write answers at each station. To do this, I lay down white paper to cover the tables and require that all students use pen (so that any writing at a station will be permanent, and thus easily detectable).
  • To prevent the extreme case of this type of cheating (i.e., a student having another person take the exam for them), require your students to show ID when they turn in their exam if you don't know them all by name. If this feels awkward, pass it off as a campus/department policy: "Sorry, but I have to do this ..."
  • I try not to grade papers or do anything that would distract my attention during an exam, as being distracted allows students to collude.
    • I regularly scan the room, trying to make eye contact with every student in the classroom; I've found that this is a great way to focus myself on finding eye-glancing collusion. Keep in mind, however, that students will be nervous during the exam and thus will be looking almost everywhere. A mere glance is not enough to warrant disciplinary action (but is enough to warrant further attention during the exam).
    • If possible, have multiple people in the room to help watch for collusion. Colluding students will likely wait to collude until you're occupied answering a question.
    • Do not be afraid to move students during the exam if you are concerned that they are colluding.
  • Students will typically collude when they think the instructor is distracted; I use this to my advantage. If I strongly suspect students are colluding, but need evidence of this for a formal charge of academic dishonesty, I'll often feign distraction while actually watching the students attentively. In lab this is easy (I can pretend I'm focusing on a model or other piece of equipment, when in reality I'm looking beside it to watch the students), but it's also do-able in lecture (lecterns and computers can sometimes require inordinate amounts of attention).

3. Obtaining test material before the exam

This may seem like one of the hardest ways to cheat, but it's actually surprisingly easy in some situations. For example, if there are multiple sections of a course taking the same exam on different days (or even at different times on the same day), students will quickly figure this out and talk to each other.
  • I change my exam questions from semester to semester. As I don't change all my questions every semester, I never allow my students to take their exams home.
  • If I am teaching multiple sections of the same course, I write a different test (or at least make a different version that has many different questions) for each section.
  • I don't let students take tests early; if I must allow this, I ensure that the student is given a different exam from what the rest of the class will see that semester. Ditto for students taking tests late.
  • I do not trust campus copy centers with my tests; I copy them myself. If you have TAs or other assistants, be cautious about giving them the exam ahead of time. If you must give your exam to other people before your students see it, give them the exam as late as possible to reduce the amount of time for information stealing or sharing.
  • If you post test questions (or keys) electronically after an exam, assume that those questions are compromised forever.
  • I write (or only finish writing) the exam as close to the exam date as is practical (to reduce the likelihood of theft or information sharing). (Yes, in fact, I do love justifying procrastination.)
  • Secure your electronic and paper copies of exams at all times. Note that the top of your office desk is not secure.

4. Cheating after the exam

This category can, in certain cases, begin to approach clearly criminal behavior (e.g., breaking into an instructor's office or hacking into an instructor's computer), and thus is often less of a concern. However, there are still some easy techniques students can use (e.g., changing answers on exams after they've been graded and returned) that fall into this category, and thus taking some basic preventive measures is prudent.
  • If possible, I make a copy of each student's graded paper before I return it to the student (many high-end copiers can now create PDFs and e-mail them to you instead of making paper copies; see if your campus has one of these). If a student finds lots of mistakes in my grading and requests a higher grade, I refer to my original copy to see if anything has been changed. I've caught multiple cheaters using this technique; it's extremely valuable, and takes relatively little time. I don't typically do this with multi-page written exams, but do it for all scantrons and single-page exams I offer.
  • If you use scantrons, investigate exam-scoring software that can print a summary of each student's responses, and return only this summary (and not the original scantron) to the student.
  • I take attendance during the exam; this makes it harder for students to (intentionally) not attend the exam and then claim I lost their exam ("So, can I take a makeup?").
  • I try to keep student exams secured at all times; it's not beyond belief to imagine a student attempting to access a stack of exams and either change their own answers or remove another student's exam.
  • Keep all official grade records (both paper and electronic) secure. Make sure your office computer requires a login to access, ensure your computer is kept up to date on security patches, backup your computer's records to non-networked media regularly, and keep official grade records locked in a filing cabinet.
I'll admit that I don't follow all of these pieces of advice all the time. However, even following a few of these will drastically reduce the likelihood that students will be able to cheat on your exams.

What to do if you catch a student cheating

Confronting cheating students is emotionally draining and takes a lot of guts (and filling out academic dishonesty reports is a tiresome, dreary task), but it's essential that you confront academically dishonest students and punish them appropriately1. If you don't, they'll just do it again, and others will see them successfully cheating without serious punishment, and thus follow their lead.

Of all the steps you take with a cheating student, reporting them to the appropriate campus authority (e.g., the Dean of Students office) is probably the most important; I do it for every student I catch. The Dean of Students office (or whatever office deals with academic dishonesty on your campus) is likely the only office on campus that can determine if a student has cheated in another class before yours, or cheats in a class after your class. Thus, reporting cheating to the appropriate authority will ensure that if your cheater has done this before, or does this again, they'll receive the appropriate punishment. Reporting the student to a higher authority also has the side benefit of being an exceptionally good punishment in its own right; I often find students are so terrified of being reported to the dean that they will offer to take a 0 on the exam and stop complaining if I just don't send them to the dean. It takes staying power to hold to a policy such as this (I've had students yell, cry, beg, plead, and accuse me of all sorts of things, though usually not all at once), but doing so is well worth it in the long run.

1 And no, public humiliation in front of a classroom does not count as a good punishment; in fact, I'd argue that public humiliation is ethically and legally questionable, as it reveals information from a student's educational record to the public in a personally identifiable manner.

Whitley, BE. 1998. Factors Associated with Cheating Among College Students: A Review. Research in Higher Education 39:3 235-274. Abstract.

1 comment:

Radagast said...

Importing comments:

We do all these things. If possible, we not only seat students in every other seat, but every other row (of course, that's not always possible). For large rooms, we have at least three proctors to constantly walk through.

Our practical exams (and assignments) have VBA code embedded that quite effectively catches cheaters. We catch most cheaters this way.
November 8, 2006, 8:09:51 AM PST – Like – Reply

If students are cheating in my class, it isn't getting them very far since the average student still gets around a 70%. Good post to make me a little more aware of what's going on during test time, though. And I might need to provide assigned starting points for lab tests.
October 25, 2006, 9:59:16 AM PDT – Like – Reply

it seems a lot of fun being an instructor heh.
in my country used more advance way to cheat and it worked like charm! but now I feel guilty
October 25, 2006, 2:27:26 AM PDT