Thursday, October 02, 2014

Who's winning the cheating-aids arms race?

A YouTube video shows students how to conceal a tiny cheat-sheet in an altered pen (here), and another shows how to write answers on a stretched-out rubber band (here). Need a downloadable image of a water-bottle label you can use to conceal answers? The owner of a site where you can easily download an editable water-bottle label (here) insists that he does not "condone cheating" in any way, but he's providing this cheating method as a public service to those who do not share his commitment to integrity.

Before I attended a workshop on cheating, I knew about many of these methods along with some other old-fashioned, tried-and-true methods like writing notes on a wrist, a shirt, a shoe, a desk. I wasn't aware that students who nervously tap pencils on their desks during exams might actually be employing elaborate codes to share answers (here), and my students don't wear watches anymore so I don't really worry about a clever method of concealing notes on a watch-face (here). 

What really shocked me were new methods of employing technology to enable elaborate cheating schemes. Students can use a tiny camera hidden within a pen (here) or a necktie (here) to take pictures of test questions, transmit them to a conspirator outside the classroom, and then receive answers through a tiny hidden earpiece. A website that sells these earpieces (here) offers a warning to customers:

Most students cheating exam behave like crazy--they look at the professor all the time or make much noise. The reason is their nervousness, but that's what unmasks them in the majority of cases. So cheating exam with a secret earpiece remember the main rule--to be patient and to behave like a student who have learned the subject by heart and has nothing to hide.
Alternatively, a student could actually become a student who has learned the subject and has nothing to hide, but that's apparently too much work.

I don't know what to do about the burgeoning cheating-aid industry. I've required students to hand over their cell phones before an exam and I've prohibited bathroom breaks (to thwart the old low-tech "hide the textbook in the bathroom" method), but apparently I need to take away pens, pencils, paper, watches, ties, and water bottles--and I fear that the day is coming when we'll have to strip-search students to make sure they're not smuggling in cheating aids. I heartily agree with something a colleague said at the cheating workshop: "I don't want to see my students naked."

Students' naked desire to get the grade supports the cheating-aid industry, but I despair of ever winning this arms race. I do what I can to discourage cheating by changing questions, writing alternate versions of an exam, and relying on questions that resist easy cheating. This means no multiple choice or one-word responses and lots of essay questions and application questions that require students to explain how a particular concept or technique functions in a particular literary work--questions that are time-consuming and difficult to grade but certainly preferable to strip-searching students.

Despite my best efforts, I know cheating happens. I detect a few cases each year, but I worry that cheaters are like cockroaches: for every cockroach you kill, hundreds more remain undetected. But I can't treat my students the way I treat cockroaches, spraying them all with the same toxic mist of distrust. I head into midterm exams this week trusting that my students will do the honorable thing and behave like students who have learned the material and have nothing to hide, and I hope and trust that that behavior is not just a facade. 

But I'll keep my eyes and ears open just in case.  

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