The students are in their seats, and the test has begun.
And so has the cheating.
BlackBerrys and iPhones need just a couple of taps of the keypad to offer the right answers. It doesn't matter whether the subject is math, social studies, science, English, or a foreign language. Information is available at your fingertips, just as advertised.
Indeed, we have to face a simple fact about students today: As technology has evolved to provide a vast wealth of information at any time, anywhere, cheating has never been easier.
In the good old days, cheating was a simple affair and as a result not too difficult to track down, like the time a girl with limited English skills in one of my high school English classes handed in a terrifically written, sophisticated short story. She copied, word for word, Shirley Jackson's story "Charles," except for changing the title character's name. I guess she thought I wouldn't have a chance hunting down the story once she cleverly renamed her story "Bob." Alas, catching a cheater is not so easy any more.
A few years ago, students would write the answers on the inside labels of water bottles they brought into tests. Today we have students photographing the tests from their phones in an earlier period of the day, so that students in subsequent periods could know the questions before they walk into the classroom.
Now catching the cheaters requires a level of vigilance and research better suited for the corridors of the National Security Agency than the cluttered desk of a humble teacher.
Today, students wouldn't have to rely merely on CliffNotes to provide them with handy, if highly unoriginal, commentaries on Hamlet. They have other choices, including study guides from SparkNotes, PinkMonkey, ClassicNotes, and BookRags, as well as a seemingly endless supply of articles online from both paid and unpaid sources. Just Google "Hamlet Essay," and you'll receive a listing of 1,460,000 results, the first page of which is teeming with free essays.
Sure, you can track down some of the cheaters by typing in an excerpt of their essays on the very same Google search engine to discover the source. And such websites as Turnitin.com, which checks student papers against a massive archive of published and unpublished work for signs of plagiarism, can also be useful. But the available materials are so vast, and the opportunities for students to create hybrid papers so easy, that students are now one step ahead, especially since underground networks of materials are constantly cropping up, concealed from the peering eyes of teachers.
Fonts of Duplicity
Of course, even in this technological age, some students are so lazy they won't even bother to match the font and the type size for one section of an assignment to another, as they indiscriminately cut and paste material from assorted websites. A Spanish teacher I know once told me of a student who handed in an essay she clearly plagiarized from a website. Unfortunately, the girl could not explain why her essay was written in the Catalan language as opposed to Spanish.
Yet, we can't count on incompetence. Many students are so wily and crafty that they've learned to mask their cheating to impressive levels. Some can find answers on handheld devices while looking you straight in the eye or appearing to be in deep, philosophical contemplation; others plagiarize from a dizzying array of sources and cover their trail with vigilance worthy of a CIA operative.
So what must educators do? Well, let's start with limiting most evaluations to the classroom. Home assignments allow students to run amok with Internet materials. The legwork required to check assignments for plagiarism can siphon away a teacher's time from doing the real work of teaching—preparing lessons and evaluating student work. By taking evaluations in the classroom, students are much more limited in how they can cheat if teachers follow these three rules:
Electronics begone. The first rule of the classroom must be that all electronic devices are put away and can never surface at any time. If a device such as a calculator is necessary for an examination, the teacher must wipe out its memory, since clever students have been known to write programs so that answers are embedded into the devices.
No bathroom breaks. The second rule is that no student can go to the bathroom during an exam, since those electronic devices are liable to emerge in the stalls.
Hands where I can see them. The next rule is that students cannot put their hands below the top of their desks: Nothing good can come from students whose hands are hidden in their laps.
In addition, teachers can challenge students by examining the very "study aids" at the core of a cheater's success. When many students read a SparkNotes summary rather the actual text of Hamlet, a teacher can quote a few lines of that summary on a test and ask students "to describe what SparkNotes left out of this section of the play."
Yes, these remedies for cheating have drawbacks, like expending more valuable class time on evaluations. Furthermore, the teacher is now spending more time policing the course and less time engaging in meaningful dialogue or facilitating critical thinking. Are there other methods to cut down on cheating? Of course, and many of them have to do with creating highly original and often individualized assignments. Unfortunately, many of these methods can drain the broader, synthesized analysis from a course. Such efforts, however, are necessary.
Given the information available online, cheating on homework is too easy for many to resist. Only if the evaluations compel students to learn the skills and the material will cheating be reined in. Until then, true ability, knowledge, and wisdom will remain at students' fingertips rather than in their brains.