Campus Life

High-Tech Trickery

When I was in high school, I heard some of the stories about how my classmates cheated. One famous caper started when a senior was able to get into an English teacher's supply closet and steal an important exam. Since that particular teacher administered the same exam to several of her senior classes, it was of particular value as a cheating tool.

The stone-age method of using this test for cheating was pretty simple. A group of students got together and figured out all the answers. Then, they hand-wrote those answers on small pieces of paper and rolled them up so that they could be inserted into the barrel of one of those ballpoint pens that had an advertisement inside. They simply removed the paper that had the ad on it and replaced it with the answer sheet. During the test, it was impossible to see that the test taker was merely reading the answers to the questions from the crib sheet inside his pen. Of course, the cheaters were smart enough to purposely make alternate errors on their answers so that a pattern of cheating wouldn't be detected. It worked. No one was ever caught.


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Compared to those Fred Flintstone methods of my day, today's test cheaters seem like an advanced civilization from outer space. Cheating methods and the methods to combat that cheating have achieved an amazing high-tech status, as this New York Times article details. Here are some highlights:

To Stop Cheats, Colleges Learn Their Trickery

The frontier in the battle to defeat student cheating may be here at the testing center of the University of Central Florida.

No gum is allowed during an exam: chewing could disguise a student’s speaking into a hands-free cellphone to an accomplice outside.

The 228 computers that students use are recessed into desk tops so that anyone trying to photograph the screen — using, say, a pen with a hidden camera, in order to help a friend who will take the test later — is easy to spot.

Scratch paper is allowed — but it is stamped with the date and must be turned in later.

When a proctor sees something suspicious, he records the student’s real-time work at the computer and directs an overhead camera to zoom in, and both sets of images are burned onto a CD for evidence.

Taylor Ellis, the associate dean who runs the testing center within the business school at Central Florida, the nation’s third-largest campus by enrollment, said that cheating had dropped significantly, to 14 suspected incidents out of 64,000 exams administered during the spring semester.

“I will never stop it completely, but I’ll find out about it,” Mr. Ellis said.

As the eternal temptation of students to cheat has gone high-tech — not just on exams, but also by cutting and pasting from the Internet and sharing of homework online like music files — educators have responded with their own efforts to crack down.

This summer, as incoming freshmen fill out forms to select roommates and courses, some colleges — Duke and Bowdoin among them — are also requiring them to complete online tutorials about plagiarism before they can enroll.

Anti-plagiarism services requiring students to submit papers to be vetted for copying is a booming business. Fifty-five percent of colleges and universities now use such a service, according to the Campus Computing Survey.

The best-known service, Turnitin.com, is engaged in an endless cat-and-mouse game with technologically savvy students who try to outsmart it. “The Turnitin algorithms are updated on an on-going basis,” the company warned last month in a blog post titled “Can Students ‘Trick’ Turnitin?”

The extent of student cheating, difficult to measure precisely, appears widespread at colleges. In surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams.

The figure declined somewhat from 65 percent earlier in the decade, but the researcher who conducted the surveys, Donald L. McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers, doubts there is less of it. Instead, he suspects students no longer regard certain acts as cheating at all, for instance, cutting and pasting a few sentences at a time from the Internet.

Andrew Daines, who graduated in May from Cornell, where he served on a board in the College of Arts and Sciences that hears cheating cases, said Internet plagiarism was so common that professors told him they had replaced written assignments with tests and in-class writing.

Mr. Daines, a philosophy major, contributed to pages that Cornell added last month to its student Web site to bring attention to academic integrity. They include a link to a voluntary tutorial on avoiding plagiarism and a strongly worded admonition that “other generations may not have had as many temptations to cheat or plagiarize as yours,” and urging students to view this as a character test.

Mr. Daines said he was especially disturbed by an epidemic of students’ copying homework. “The term ‘collaborative work’ has been taken to this unbelievable extreme where it means, because of the ease of e-mailing, one person looking at someone else who’s done the assignment,” he said.

At M.I.T., David E. Pritchard, a physics professor, was able to accurately measure homework copying with software he had developed for another purpose — to allow students to complete sets of physics problems online. Some answered the questions so fast, “at first I thought we had some geniuses here at M.I.T.,” Dr. Pritchard said. Then he realized they were completing problems in less time than it took to read them and were copying the answers — mostly, it turned out, from e-mail from friends who had already done the assignment.

About 20 percent copied one-third or more of their homework, according to a study Dr. Pritchard and colleagues published this year. Students who copy homework find answers at sites like Course Hero, which is a kind of Napster of homework sharing, where students from more than 3,500 institutions upload papers, class notes and past exams . . .

. . . “Many instructors don’t want to create this kind of adversarial environment with their students where there is a presumption of guilt,” Dr. Dee said. “Our results suggest a tutorial worked by educating students rather than by frightening them.”

Only a handful of colleges currently require students to complete such a tutorial, which typically illustrates how to cite a source or even someone else’s ideas, followed by a quiz.

The tutorial that Bowdoin uses was developed with its neighbor colleges Bates and Colby several years ago. Part of the reason it is required for enrollment, said Suzanne B. Lovett, a Bowdoin psychology professor whose specialty is cognitive development, is that Internet-age students see so many examples of text, music and images copied online without credit that they may not fully understand the idea of plagiarism.

As for Central Florida’s testing center, one of its most recent cheating cases had nothing to do with the Internet, cellphones or anything tech. A heavily tattooed student was found with notes written on his arm. He had blended them into his body art.

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I had a chuckle when I started remembering some of my high school classmates' rationale for cheating. One guy I knew, who had a long, undiscovered history of cheating, used to brag, "Hey, they say cheaters never win, but I'm doing okay!"

Hmm. Well, in light of what's happening in today's high-tech electronic countermeasures world, I don't think my boastful former classmate would have a prayer. He'd probably have to revise his brag to something like, "Hey, they say cheaters never win . . . and they're right!"

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