Respectful Insolence

Those darned kids!

Students cheat on exams. There’s just no getting around it. No matter how secure teachers think they’ve made their examination processes, there will always be a subset of students who try to find a way around any security procedures and give themselves an advantage, either by hook or by crook. These days, technology is making it even harder to prevent such cheating:

Devices including iPods and Zunes can be hidden under clothing, with just an earbud and a wire snaking behind an ear and into a shirt collar to give them away, school officials say.

“It doesn’t take long to get out of the loop with teenagers,” said Mountain View High School Principal Aaron Maybon. “They come up with new and creative ways to cheat pretty fast.”

Mountain View recently enacted a ban on digital media players after school officials realized some students were downloading formulas and other material onto the players.

“A teacher overheard a couple of kids talking about it,” said Maybon.

Shana Kemp, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said she does not have hard statistics on the phenomenon but said it is not unusual for schools to ban digital media players.

“I think it is becoming a national trend,” she said. “We hope that each district will have a policy in place for technology – it keeps a lot of the problems down.”

Using the devices to cheat is hardly a new phenomenon, Kemp said. However, sometimes it takes awhile for teachers and administrators, who come from an older generation, to catch on to the various ways the technology can be used.

Some students use iPod-compatible voice recorders to record test answers in advance and them play them back, said 16-year-old Mountain View junior Damir Bazdar.

Others download crib notes onto the music players and hide them in the “lyrics” text files. Even an audio clip of the old “Schoolhouse Rock” take on how a bill makes it through Congress can come in handy during some American government exams.

(Link via AttuWorld.)

Heh. Actually, I can see how that would help. I still remember “I’m Just A Bill” to this day:

(Yes, that was just an excuse to post the YouTube video for “I’m Just A Bill,” which is my favorite Schoolhouse Rock song of all time, with the possible exception of “Conjunction Junction.”) In any case, this is how it’s apparently usually done:

Kelsey Nelson, a 17-year-old senior at the school, said she used to listen to music after completing her tests – something she can no longer do since the ban. Still, she said, the ban has not stopped some students from using the devices.

“You can just thread the earbud up your sleeve and then hold it to your ear like you’re resting your head on your hand,” Nelson said. “I think you should still be able to use iPods. People who are going to cheat are still going to cheat, with or without them.”

Still, schools around the world are hoping bans will at least stave off some cheaters.

A teacher at San Gabriel High School in West Covina, Calif., confiscated a student’s iPod during a class and found the answers to a test, crib notes and a definition list hidden among the teen’s music selections. Schools in Seattle, Wash., have also banned the devices.

One thing that always amazed me, even when I was in high school, is the ingenuity that was devoted to cheating. My perspective was to ask why these kids didn’t put half that much effort into actually–oh–studying and learning the material, rather than in elaborate ways to bring the material into class with them or arrange to communicate answers to questions between each other.

Yeah, I guess I was a bit of an old fart, even at age 16. Just ask my family and friends who knew me then.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    April 28, 2007

    “You can just thread the earbud up your sleeve and then hold it to your ear like you’re resting your head on your hand,” Nelson said. “I think you should still be able to use iPods. People who are going to cheat are still going to cheat, with or without them.”

    I agree with this kid.

    The whole thing is being approached the same way airline security is being approached. Somebody finds an idea, and does a blanket ban that inconveniences a whole lot of people who are doing things legitimately… but doesn’t address any of the underlying issues that might hopefully stop the next workaround.

    I also agree with the whole notion that why don’t kids just bother to put the work in in the first place? I’m sometimes amazed at who will cheat and where. Like grad students– why on earth would you go to grad school in Physics or Astronomy if you don’t want to learn the stuff? Given that, what’s with the cheating?

    -Rob

  2. #2 NJ
    April 28, 2007

    why on earth would you go to grad school in Physics or Astronomy if you don’t want to learn the stuff?

    You mean it isn’t about being a manly man and orb-friendly?????

  3. #3 olvlzl, no ism, no ist
    April 28, 2007

    There would seem to be two different legit reasons to give tests, to allow people to follow an advanced level of study or find out what level they should be in (administrative testing). That kind of testing should be used to find out what a student needs to know in order to advance or it becomes just an assignment to a hierarchy, temporary or permanent. “Cheating” on that kind of test would make the test useless. As they’re usually given, they’re pretty much a reward-punishment event.

    The other reason to give someone a test is as a part of learning itself, an open book test might be an example. A test that’s intended to teach a student something might be done in a way to ensure that doing the test is a learning opportunity. You might be able to figure out how to make “cheating” on a test like that one worth encouraging.

    I was always too lazy to “cheat” on a test and my eyes were too bad to copy.

  4. #4 Ambitwistor
    April 28, 2007

    I like the Simpsons parody of “I’m Just a Bill”.

  5. #5 bigTom
    April 28, 2007

    All these devices (OK for arguments sake lets ignore collaborative communications), are just a substitute for memory. I suppose an iPod is quicker to program than it is to memorize something. In either case it is likely that the student (or device) will soon forget the result -unless they use it for their work. One way around would be to allow memory aids -perhaps each student can have one page of written material that they bring in and have available during the test. If the test covers actual understanding, and not just rote regurgitation it should still be useful, and at least the honest students are not at a disadvantage.

    Cheating on grad school tests? Harder to concieve. I suppose if a student perceives a test/course as simply a hoop to be jumped through -and not as needed background for their choosen career they might be tempted.

  6. #6 HCN
    April 28, 2007

    I agree that the students should put as much into studying as they do cheating… and skip the cheating bit.

    In my department graduating class there was one guy who seemed to do very well. It was only later I found out from someone else, that he was cheating. As it turns out the cheating mentality carried over into his job, and he was later fired… from a big company that controls most of this industry in the country. Once fired from this company you cannot never re-apply, and it can blacklist you from other similar jobs.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    April 28, 2007

    It’s a Chinese Room problem: the student doesn’t understand the material, but the combined system student + iPod does. As long as they’re never separated from their iPod ever again, it’s fine!

  8. #8 VJB
    April 28, 2007

    When I was in college/gradschool (in physics) back in the 60′s we often had open book exams. They were extra hard, of course, but addressed the basic fact that physics and other sciences aren’t about memorizing ‘formulas’.

    I remember distinctly the eureka moment when conservation of momentum finally sank in.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    April 28, 2007

    Also:

    Learning at a young age how to follow prompting from a concealed “wire” is invaluable training for those of America’s youth who wish to enter politics!

  10. #10 Martin R
    April 28, 2007

    I once did a history test equipped with a pencil on which I had written the years of three Swedish peace agreements during the 30 Years War. I seem to remember that one of them was actually on the test. That was the last time I needed to know those dates.

  11. #11 Monimonika
    April 28, 2007

    bigTom,

    That’s what my AP (Advanced Placement) Physics teacher in high school had us do, although it was a single large-sized index card that we were allowed to write anything we wanted on both sides and use for the entire year whether it be during a test or during the lesson.

    I, unlike my classmates, planned ahead and wrote REALLY tiny and scrunched up from the very beginning. By the time finals came, I still had about 1/4 of the card blank to write extra info on while my classmates struggled to cram info in-between their earlier notes (they weren’t allowed to replace their cards with newer ones). I did pretty well in the course, although the AP test itself (separate from the course, so no card allowed) was not so good (the sheet of formulas that were provided were written using different symbols! ‘course, that’s not a good excuse. :-P ).

    My high school Pre-Calculus teacher also allowed for a (small) index card per person for each semester to write whatever we wanted on that we could use during the tests. He knew there was no way we would be able to memorize all of the equations (I so hated the unit circle in particular).

    The card thing was introduced after about two tests, which I managed to pass only because I had devised a sort of pattern-recognition song for myself that enabled me to draw the unit circle onto my test sheet before tackling the problems themselves (there was NO WAY I was going to memorize which degrees equaled what in radian). Calculators were allowed, but not everyone had scientific ones, and using them to figure out the radians wasted too much test time to be useful.

    I was so proud of my cards, which I had made using different colored pencils (sharpening them constantly so that the letters and numbers could be written very tiny). I think I had pretty much every single formula on them (most of which I didn’t need the card for, but I wrote them in anyway).

    Once I got into AP Calculus, my new teacher told us we could forget about the unit circle (and some other triangle related stuff) from Pre-Calculus since we were going to be using graphing calculators. I liked that teacher (AP Calculus was MUCH easier and more engaging than Pre-Calculus, in my opinion).

    And, although it was possible to program in notes and equations into the graphing calculator to use during tests, I found that it was a lot faster to just memorize the formulas and recall them than punch buttons trying to find them in the calculator (although I did enter in the formulas just in case my mind blanked out on me).

  12. #12 Bob O'H
    April 28, 2007

    I remember distinctly the eureka moment when conservation of momentum finally sank in.

    Ouch, the whiplash must have hurt when the realisation hit you.

    Bob

  13. #13 PlanetaryGear
    April 28, 2007

    having been to school myself I hold the cynical view that it’s more about the school authorities lauding their authority over the student body in as many ways as possible rather than any real outrage at the cheating. iPod is a neat gadget that the students like, find a reason to take it away from them. But then I also believe that the scope of cheating isn’t nearly as wide spread as they think it is anyway. All paranoid thinking we were out to get them… which of course we were… but not in the ways that they thought ;)

  14. #14 wrg
    April 28, 2007

    Why, exactly, does Nelson believe that she should have music after an examination? I can only suppose it’s because she’s finding it easy enough not to worry much. Should she proceed to a university, I expect she’ll be introduced to some tests that are themselves a much greater concern than the presence or absence of music.

    The whole thing is being approached the same way airline security is being approached. Somebody finds an idea, and does a blanket ban that inconveniences a whole lot of people who are doing things legitimately… but doesn’t address any of the underlying issues that might hopefully stop the next workaround.

    Mr. Knop, I’ve been regularly invigilating calculus and pre-calculus examinations for the past year or so, and eagerly await your suggestions for a better way. What are the underlying issues and how are we supposed to address them?

    I don’t permit music players for the same reason I don’t permit a lot of other things. Bring your pencils (or pens, if you like), bring erasers, sharpeners if necessary, a calculator for most classes, and if you can think of something else that’s relevant and necessary for the task at hand I’d probably be fine with that too. Students who really want to do something else may hand in their tests, completed or not, then go outside and use their phones, computers, or whatever else. Of course, that’s probably not as true in a high school, but I still don’t like the idea of granting students access to various electronic devices peripheral to the task at hand, which for all I know might have wireless communication features.

    We seem to be fortunate enough, here, that we only see clear cases of copying infrequently. We may be missing some others, but since tests are usually designed around problem solving, those who copy an answer but cannot produce reasonable supporting work will receive little or no credit. This could be presented as an alternative to trying to combat cheating schemes directly, but I’m still inclined to combine it with limitations on authorized material and devices. I expect we’ll be seeing an ever increasing variety of electronic devices with some sort of communication ability and, if enough information can be transmitted both ways, the best of tests can be undermined.

  15. #15 wrg
    April 28, 2007

    having been to school myself I hold the cynical view that it’s more about the school authorities lauding their authority over the student body in as many ways as possible rather than any real outrage at the cheating. iPod is a neat gadget that the students like, find a reason to take it away from them.

    Come now, PlanetaryGear. I have better things to do than to hold childish grudges against my students and I strongly suspect most teachers feel similarly. Gadget away all you like outside of tests. If your device isn’t disturbing anyone else, feel free to listen to it instead of to me during instructional time, too, as long as you don’t mind the consequences.

    I believe that, if you come to a class or a test, you should be there for a reason. Come to classes to learn, come to tests to take them. Listen to your music, etc., somewhere else. That’s the same reason why I turn off my phone before class and appreciate it when my students do so as well.

  16. #16 trrll
    April 28, 2007

    Why, exactly, does Nelson believe that she should have music after an examination? I can only suppose it’s because she’s finding it easy enough not to worry much. Should she proceed to a university, I expect she’ll be introduced to some tests that are themselves a much greater concern than the presence or absence of music.

    A music player can be useful for students whose performance is impaired due to being distracted by other students, or who find that familiar music calms them emotionally and improves their performance.

    Worrying about students cheating with iPods seems a bit ridiculous. One would have to be asking extremely predictable rote memorization questions for an iPod to have much impact on a student’s score, unless they’ve managed to get their hands on the actual exam in advance (and if they have the exam, your problems go much deeper than iPods). Anxious students are probably using it as a “security blanket,” much like trying to write answers on your wrist (in practice, the act of selecting a particular answer to try to sneak into the exam generally burns it into your memory so that you no longer need the help).

  17. #17 Lee
    April 28, 2007

    Several years ago at a prominent SF Bay Area high school, a class of physics students were caught out when over half the class made exactly the same error, using exactly the same wrong formula. It turns out they were allowed to use calculators, and HP had recently introduced IR ports into their programmable calculators, so that one could beam programs from one calculator to another. The kids had set up a system where one student would set up the solution to each problem, and then beam it to the other participating students.

    Any device which might have wireless communication is a potential route to cheating – and that includes a lot of devices these days.

  18. #18 olvlzl, no ism, no ist
    April 28, 2007

    Calculators were allowed, but not everyone had scientific ones, and using them to figure out the radians wasted too much test time to be useful. Monimonika

    So you mean I shouldn’t regret that they hadn’t been invented when I was that age afterall?

  19. #19 Meredith
    April 28, 2007

    We had graphing calculators when I was in High School (I’m just graduated from college next month), and many teachers didn’t realize how programmable they were. It was possible to have the calculator preform most of the work for many problems, if a student was willing to spend time programming it.

  20. #20 Meredith
    April 28, 2007

    just graduatING. Really need to learn to use the preview button.

  21. #21 Alison
    April 28, 2007

    Thinking about the convoluted cheating methods that take longer than just learning the materials reminds me of an article I read a long time ago. It was a how-to for constructing your own faux vacuum device for when you didn’t feel like cleaning. The author explained that even when your place is messy, it looks better if it looks vacuumed. He gave detailed instructions for making this device out of two pieces of wood, cut the length of the beater brush, mounted on another piece of wood and weighted so it wouldn’t tip, then attached to a rope. You would then carefully drag the wood over the rug to make the pattern of an actual vacuum. I laughed so hard – this was in no way easier than just running the vacuum cleaner!

  22. #22 Diora
    April 28, 2007

    An easy way to fight it is to have open-book exams. It seems pretty easy to create an exam in physics or math where the book wouldn’t help. These subjects should not be about memorization of facts but about the ability to think logically and real understanding of the material.

  23. #23 HCN
    April 28, 2007

    Open book exams are often harder… it tests what you will really meet in the real world: Your ability to solve a problem with all available resources, including your imagination.

    By the way… on the subject of sweet justice. One class I took was given by an old and very respected professor. He had literally written the book on the subject! While he a very good teacher, he had gotten a bit lazy and had not changed his weekly quizzes for several years.

    Copies of these quizzes were kept at certain fraternities to be studied by their members. So each week these guys would get averages of 90% and above. Since they took up over half the class, it really skewed the curve.

    I and another student mentioned this to the lab teacher (teaching assistant, but this part of the class occurred in an actual laboratory). He told the professor, who in turn changed the quiz.

    The next Friday there was an audible gasp as the quiz was passed out. The average on that quiz dropped to 60%.

    By the way, there is no way I would have been admitted to any college fraternity. It has to do with me not having a Y chromosome (I was the only person in the class without one!).

  24. #24 n
    April 28, 2007

    sounds like MY physics teacher. He’s been teaching forever, when I told my mum how long he’d been teaching, she said he might’ve taught my grandfather! (he went to the same school as I do, only some 60 years earlier.)
    He gives out two different tests each month, only they’ve been the same for years. Somehow, the B test has reached the school masses. I don’t have a copy, for I’m not the type to get along with such people, but whenever I get a B test, I cringe. I *know* there won’t be a curve, because there will be 5 people getting a 100…. I dunno how they manage to get B tests all the time. But yeah, they just study the solutions.
    And so, they have a 100% average before finals, and I have only an 80%, despite having the highest diagnostic test in January.

  25. #25 Alan Kellogg
    April 29, 2007

    On Learning vs. Cheating

    The goal is not to learn, the goal is to score points. To gain an advantage over adults and show them up as losers and fools. It’s all about the immature ego and the need to appear better than other people. It’s flash over substance. Clever phrasing over argument.

  26. #26 JS
    April 29, 2007

    I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to ban iPods etc. from an examination. Of course they can be used to communicate, and of course they will be used to do precisely that.

    A trickier question has to do with computers. There are actually tests where having a computer is a Good Thing (think essays – my own handwriting is barely legible to myself and it’s agonisingly slow – or maybe a physics exam in which students are asked to interpret a very big data set).

    The problem is that it’s relatively trivial to install a device that uses the power net to communicate with other computers via high-frequency carrier waves. Of course, in principle there is a simple setup that quashes this (called an H-gate, IIRC), but it’s another installation that costs money and bother for the school to install. Not to mention the fact that the school must be aware of the possibility…

    - JS

  27. #27 Cain
    April 29, 2007

    There’s a lot of flag burners who have go too much freedom.
    I wanna make it legal for policemen to beat ‘em
    Cuz there’s limits to our liberties
    Least I hope and pray that there are
    Cuz those liberal freaks go too far

  28. #28 Bob
    April 29, 2007

    I work in the IT department of a Law College and we will start our second week of exams on Monday, so I thought I’d share a little. I don’t know if it is typical for all law colleges, but most of our classes have only 1 grading opportunity: the 3-4 hour final exam. Plus we have a mandatory curve. Yeah, I know, not the best setup for actual learning and the evaluation of students. ;) Don’t get me started.

    We are in our third year of using one of the two major testing software packages, Securexam. The other is ExamSoft. If you take a test on your laptop, you must use the Securexam software. Both pieces of software work in the same basic way: they shut down *all* tasks so that you can only use the software. Networking is disabled. They detect virtual machines like vmware, parallels, virtual pc, etc. They are really very, very, very secure. If you have an idea on how to cheat, I’ve probably already tested it during our evaluation period. ;)

    We also require all cell phones to be stored at the front of the room.

    Of course, cheating still happens the old fashioned way, a paper left in the bathroom, writing on the hand, etc.

    Why do I think they cheat? Well, unlike most graduate students this is essentially a trade school. They take a lot of classes that they really don’t care about and have no interest in. They aren’t in the class to really learn to prepare for a life of academia; they are in to get out and get a job. The second reason is the mandatory curve. If knowing the subject inside and out is no guarantee of an A, then you need any edge you can get.

  29. #29 Melusine
    April 29, 2007

    Thanks, Orac, for sending me down memory lane with the School House Rock video. That was a favorite, too, as well as Conjunction Junction. I went and saved a few of my other favorites: Figure Eight, Electricity, and The Preamble. I didn’t memorize The Preamble from that (later on I did), but when I say it today it’s real hard for me not to sing out the first line, “We the people in order to form a more perfect union.” I know some adults that could use that little lesson!

    As far as cheating, I feel it catches up to you sooner or later. In college we had open book exams for our Shakespeare finals since they were essay questions and you needed to quote lines to support your thesis. If you hadn’t taken notes in class or read the plays, you would be lost in the allotted time frame.

    I’m mostly against multiple choice tests as they are just regurgitation; years of multiple choice vocabulary tests, for instance, haven’t improved a lot of people’s vocabulary. I think much more can be learned by doing oral reports, projects, and things that show you have learned and understood the material. This takes more effort on the teacher’s part, however.

    Why are IPODs even allowed in classes? Shoot, we never had radios or anything in school. Listen to music after a test? All we could do was write notes, poems or do homework. I had a little 2″ transistor radio with earphones back in elementary school, so it wasn’t an issue of technology – it just wasn’t something you did at school.

  30. #30 Mat
    April 29, 2007

    I’m someone who usually uses an ipod (and before that a discman, and before that a walkman) during tests and have for most of my university career, though it’s always been something I cleared with the professor beforehand.

    I get absolutely driven-insane-to-distraction by little small noises that most people don’t notice, and I’ve worked out that the easiest way for me to deal with that is to have headphones going at just about the lowest level I can hear them, pretty much constantly. My father, who’s got the same sort of reaction, used to use earplugs (and occasionally still does!) for the same reason, but the plus of my method is that I can usually hear if someone starts talking to me or, say, gives additional instruction.

    Just for the people who might be wondering if there was a reason some people might be wearing headphones during tests.

  31. #31 Mat
    April 29, 2007

    …Admittedly, though, you could possibly make an argument that some of my music could constitute cheating in the first place. I mean, I’ve never taken a class in Russian History, but one of the songs on my favourite album involves listing off Russian dictators/leaders in chronological order as part of the first verse, for instance…

  32. #32 olvlzl, no ism, no ist
    April 29, 2007

    The goal is not to learn, the goal is to score points. Alan Kellog

    If there is going to be cheating, as there always has, the intelligent thing to do would be to abandon the form of testing that both encourages it and allows that to destroy the intent of the testing. You can either piss and moan about cheating or you can try to find other ways to deal with the problem. Maybe Buckminster Fuller’s idea of not fighting forces but using them has some application to the problem. But then, I’m not very impressed by the results of grading and the credit system to begin with.

  33. #33 wrg
    April 29, 2007

    But then, I’m not very impressed by the results of grading and the credit system to begin with.

    Indeed. Students are often distracted from learning by concerns about gaming the system. However, unless we can muster enough social clout to implement sweeping changes, that’s what we’ve got. Students need grades because others are expecting to judge their performance from them. We’re left trying to figure out how to try to make the grades reflect students’ ability.

    I’m still reluctant to allow some electronic devices because I’m not sure where to draw the line and I really don’t want to allow just anything, with open communication. However, I will give some thought to how to help those who want a way to avoid distraction from noises.

  34. #34 PlanetaryGear
    April 30, 2007

    Hats off to you wrg for being caring enough to actually expend some effort on the decision making process :D Not all in your position will take such time and effort. I read it as a global banning of the devices throughout the school not just during exams.

    I took many exams where I was allowed 2 pencils and my calculator. Not even my coat under the desk. But once I turned it in I was allowed to leave so sitting there bored until time ran out wasn’t a problem. And I have no problem with this, thats perfectly reasonable. I just don’t think that it’s “news” that some students will expend a huge effort to cheat or that they use new technology to do so.

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