Albatross January 15, 2008 3:05 PM

Reminds me of college physics, when I used the new-fangled mimeos called “Xerox machines” to repeatedly photoreduce about a dozen pages of notes onto the permitted 3X5 card.

As has been the case ever since “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine,” the effort involved in the cheating exceeds the effort that would have been spent studying.

BTW Bruce, thanks for your lecture at the Bell Museum yesterday, it was an excellent presentation.

Ross January 15, 2008 3:07 PM

Apparently someone at my uni did that in an exam, and got found out because the invigilators noticed that they were spending a lot of time staring at the bottle…

Old-time cheater January 15, 2008 3:12 PM

One I liked (for a low density of notes) that may be a bit unusual was writing notes in eraser on the desk – hard to detect, and easy to destroy the evidence. I presume that ripping the edge of a sheet of paper in your own alphabet is more common.

When I taught, I was depressed by the lack of innovation in cheating. Almost all of it was copying off of other student’s tests/quizzes; typically I’d detect a large percentage of likely cheaters in the initial quiz (before most of them realized that the person they were copying off of most likely had a different quiz) each quarter.

web January 15, 2008 3:17 PM

Similar to Albatross’ situation, my High School physics teacher let us have one page (8.5 x 11) of notes for our final exam. We could put anything on it that we wanted.

I spent a lot of time (10+ hours) creating my note page and fiddling with the type to make it all fit on the alloted space.

I think I only glanced at it once when I took the actual exam, the hours of putting the thing together had forced me to review all of the material, and as such, I already had it all in my head.

My teacher knew exactly what he was doing… by allowing us to ‘cheat’, he managed to force us to study.

Nick January 15, 2008 3:21 PM

Even better, when my friend and I put 10 pages of notes onto a single notecard or piece of paper, we would make extra copies and sell them to the rest of the class for $5 a pop.

Student January 15, 2008 3:38 PM

I can see a few problems with that approach. The strongest one is the fact that it’s clearly carefully planned. Which means the discipline meeting (read court martial) will hand out a significantly harder punishment if you get caught. A few extra notes in the allowed books much easier to explain away.

Also, it’s not especially hard to construct exams where a cheat sheet won’t help. I have seen math exams where the students have been allowed to bring any tool and book they wish, as long as they don’t communicate with somebody. That’s a well designed exam, as it tests understanding more than memorization.

Josh January 15, 2008 3:48 PM

This was an issue years ago when I took my CISSP exam. The proctors looked at every wrapper on the bottles and the energy bars that we brought in.

Of course even the inspection wouldn’t have worked if you used some sort of polarizing film and polarized glasses/plastic on the bottle, but I suppose you can’t test for everything.

C January 15, 2008 4:03 PM

The math/ physics exam where you need to show your work would defeat this, but then again, who’s taking these classes anyway?

Fred P January 15, 2008 4:05 PM


I had finals where we were given weeks to do the problems, allowed any resource (save other students), and there were still relatively few As.

You just have to make the test interesting.

By my most recent graduation, my opinion was that if I needed to study for a test, I’d already failed (i.e. I should be studied well enough in advance that test preparation wasn’t needed).

Professor Lollardfish January 15, 2008 4:14 PM

The problem is, as always, that those who would cheat rarely know what relevant information to put on such a small piece of paper. I, like the people above, let students bring their own 8.5×11 sheet of paper to class, but do make them turn it in and mandate that they create their own sheet (lest one student make a sheet and sell it to the others).

the invigilator January 15, 2008 4:45 PM

I’ve known about that for a while; never actually caught someone doing it, but that could have something to do with disallowing bottles of non-clear drinks in my exams.

on a vaguely related note, one of the things that astounds me is how infrequently people choose to sit in the front corners of the room. invigilators usually sit at the front centre, and look back on the room, generally sweeping a pretty narrow arc. i often have to make a conscious effort to include the front corners in my visual sweep of the room, so i would have to guess that it’s generally underobserved, and a good place to get away with cheating.

FNORD January 15, 2008 5:17 PM

1) That relies on soft drinks being allowed into the exam, which, in my experience, is hardly a given.

2) It is difficult to dispose of the evidence quickly. A small piece of paper can be tossed away or eaten quickly. The label is larger, and so harder to dispose of. And it is obvious if it is gone.

@invigilator: I often sat there. Not to cheat on exams, but to doze off/do work/arrive late during lectures. As an added bonus, as long as I participated a little, it made me seem like an active member of the class, because I was in the front row.
The only problem is that it is difficult to see the chalk board if the instructor stands in the wrong place.

Dan January 15, 2008 5:41 PM

My wife is a medical student. After some “incidents,” the school introduced harsh regulations for test taking. The only thing anyone is allowed to bring to the exam is car keys. Only one person may go to the bathroom at a time and that is only in emergencies. Of course, this school operates on with an “honor code.”

Only normal shoes may be worn. There are tales of people writing cheat sheets on flip-flops. The extent to which people will go to gain a point is truly galling (particularly given the field into which these upstanding citizens are going).

J.D. Abolins January 15, 2008 5:48 PM

Interesting video. Clever technique.

One potential gotcha is the colour ink used to print a “cribbed” drink bottle label not being moisture resistant. It could run with condensation on the bottle or sweaty hands. With the Coca Cola label in the video, the cheater could be literally caught “red handed”. Oops!

Nobby Nuts January 15, 2008 6:03 PM

Back in the early ’80s I had an HP alpha-numeric calculator long before they were common. I spent some hours programming it with formulas for an electronics exam, only to not have to use it because I remembered everything I’d stuck in it. However I still have and use the calculator practically every day.

AmbroseChapel January 15, 2008 6:16 PM

I don’t think I’ll take advice from anyone who can’t even pronounce the word “Adobe” correctly.

The voiceover says “uh-DOBE”, FFS!

Angus January 15, 2008 6:54 PM

Seems to me you’d be better taking off the label, printing on the back of it, and tack it back on. Leave enough liquid in the bottle to cover it. On entry to the exam, drink liquid to a level where you can see the cribs through the other side of the bottle.

John Ridley January 15, 2008 8:00 PM

I never had any wish to cheat, even when I was doing poorly in a class. I went to college to learn stuff, not to buy a piece of paper.

Besides, we weren’t allowed to bring drinks or food into the exams.

One person called "Anonymous" January 15, 2008 8:05 PM

It’s been done. I remember reading in the NYT (several years ago) about someone who printed a cheat sheet on the inside of the label of a bottle of water. They got caught because the proctors could see the notes too, thanks to refraction in the water, apparently.

jeremiah January 15, 2008 8:55 PM

when I was in my junior year in high school (1992) i used the Printer Control Language manual from the school’s LaserJet III to condense about a half a page of typed text onto a piece of paper that i taped on top of my thumbnail. I wound up rewriting the program a lot as i debugged it, because the pc itself had no storage of any kind; i had to type in the program from scratch each time i needed to make a change. this, of course, led to me memorizing the information, rendering the cheat moot.

Nimby January 15, 2008 10:19 PM

Had a biochem prof who cheated FOR us. During exams he would wander through the class and look over our shoulders. If he saw us making a mistake he would lightly slap us upside the head and walk on. Amazing how having your attention brought to a mistake – AS YOU MAKE IT – will help you learn. He also handed out impossible tasks just to make us think them through. I think we started out with about 45 or 50 students and only 6 of us finished. Nobody got an A. I hated that man. Learned a hell of a lot.

Ben January 15, 2008 10:32 PM

I am currently a college student(freshman), and in my experience, those who are good don’t get caught.
One of my favorite stories is in a ap chemistry class, the book that was being used was also used to teach a college course. Hence, they used the amazing power of google, (choose a few problem’s from the next physics packet you hand out from a book and google them) and found the midterm filled out online. Then handed the teacher cards, using a varied alphabet a month before the midterm because she always hung up cards, but on the cards equations were hidden, using everything from hiding it in patterns, to hand writing a card with special information. I saw one kid get almost every case of VSEPR (about 25) into a pattern that was hung above the teachers black board.

There are many examples like this, that I could tell you about, you usually catch the dumb ones, or the obvious ones. The funnier part of this was, the one’s who cheated, about 80-90% were in NHS, I saw the valedictorian cheat, but kids are good at cheating. And now that we’ve hit a digital age, cheating has become a lot easier and a lot more advanced, things like printing ink that can be quickly destroyed, or using what I call the indentation method. Where essentially you take a dot matrix printer, double thread it and print the equations on it. Use it to do scrap work, and from just the right angle you can see it.

Sorry, Just my experience with cheating.
BTW I went to one of the top 100 schools in the USA according to some BS news magazine, but the thing is, people used every advantage they could.

waruigakusei January 16, 2008 12:32 AM

The last time I cheated was at german language in high school. The teacher never wiped the blackboard before tests, so I just filled it with the glossary for the week. The teacher didn’t notice before halfway into the test, and then just wiped the board being obviously pissed, but not saying anything.

All the students got that part of the test right.

Strange thing is, I now speak even worse german than I do japanese.

Forgetful January 16, 2008 5:16 AM

During our zoology course we were forced to do some drawings and put descriptive names, mostly in Latin, in special notebook. Task was tedious but we knew these drawings could be used during exam. So putting extra effort/notes was perfectly legit. But I forgot to bring my notes to exam… Strangely enough, passed it with ‘A’ anyway.

Harry January 16, 2008 6:47 AM

My experience is like Web’s – half the time, the effort to make good crib sheets is what drilled the knowledge into my head. At least for a little while. I remember working with a classmate for over 30 hours, summarizing our Constitutional Law class into 3 pages or less. Boy did I know that stuff cold!

@Fred P: Your view brings to mind something I learned from someone who studied how people learn. She told me that most people learn best by studing a subject several times – obviously there are exceptions. For some reason, the process of learning, forgetting, and relearning causes the knowledge to stick better in our brains.

bob January 16, 2008 6:55 AM

This makes me retroactively embarrassed. I used to drink a bottle of soda during class and would absent-mindedly fiddle with the label, usually winding up removing it and stuffing it in the bottle at some point. I wonder how many profs thought I was cheating. On top of that I wonder how many who thought I was cheating were frustrated at figuring out how I was doing it?

Gordon Worley January 16, 2008 8:03 AM

As an instructor at one of the five largest universities in the US, I have a lot of students who have plenty of incentive to cheat. Although I haven’t had any students try this on me yet, one popular means of cheating is to use water bottles, not soda bottles, because with a full water bottle if you put the notes on the inside of the label, when you look through the water at an appropriate angle the notes will be magnified, thus effectively increasing the amount of notes that can be hidden on a bottle. Of course, you may look a little strange staring at your water bottle during a test, and with the cat out of the bag test proctors know to look for it.

Arguably the best way to cheat is to find a way to hide your information somewhere that no one will think to look and where no one will suspect you if they see you looking at it, since going unnoticed is most of the battle. After all, if I don’t think you’re cheating I won’t bother to figure out how you’re cheating.

CGomez January 16, 2008 8:08 AM

I recall in high school, some teachers had varying standards. Sometimes it was out of ignorance (the teacher did not realize there was a way to cheat under the rules). Sometimes it was out of permissiveness (the teacher made the exams so hard you had to cheat, and then encouraged cheating via the rules for exams). Sometimes it didn’t matter (cheat all you want in an essay exam, if you don’t know the material you can’t do very well).

But I had a math teacher who thought she was pretty clever. She reset calculators (and could cover all brands and models), banned notes, put books under desk, etc.

My way out was that I had a digital watch that stored phone numbers. This might give you a good idea as to when I was in high school, but it was cool (albeit a bit geeky) to have those back then. I had trouble remembering a few trignometric formulas involving the sine, cosine, and tangent of angles. So I came up with a way to encode them all in “phone numbers” and stored them in my watch.

It was not that hard to subtly punch watch buttons while taking the test. Turned out those formulas were so valuable they were needed practically throughout trig. I even used them in my career and kept that watch around for awhile until they finally were drilled into my head.

I’m not saying this because I am proud. I am merely saying this because there is always a more clever way.

paul January 16, 2008 9:04 AM

It seems to me that what we see in the original and the comments is something of an object lesson for the usual argument between open and obfuscated security. On the one side, you can only cheat on a test if it relies on really lossy compression of the subject matter (multiple choice is the most obvious). On the other, the process of preparing the bits required for cheating appears to also serve as a way of storing the subject matter in your head…

In my intro physics exams, the rule was that you could bring in anything you could carry that didn’t have an outside line (luckily for the professor there were no lightweight physicists on campus) but the truth of the matter was that most of the calculations were easy. Figuring out which calculations to do was the hard part. Passing grade was typically 40%…

Anonymous January 16, 2008 9:45 AM

Reminds me of a story told by one of my college classmates back in the day: He noticed the guy next to him cheating off his answer sheet. This was a typical multiple-choice, scantron bubble sheet so he decided to have a little fun. Once he noticed the cheater, he went back and moved every correct answer one bubble to the right. A became B, B became C, etc. When he turned in his sheet he told the proctor what he’d done and why and got him to agree to score the sheet by hand.

Next class rolls around and the professor is handing out grades and announcing the numbers as he does so. My friend gets 100 and the cheater grins. The prof works his way over to the cheater an announces “0 – FAIL” and the cheater yells “But he got a 100!”.

full moon January 16, 2008 1:19 PM

how about those small devices which can be written to in microscopic print and a magnifying contact lens to read with if this is possible? I’m not recommending cheating or deception just an idea

p.s. legalize marijuana

Fred P January 16, 2008 1:36 PM

Yeah, I did that in high school with someone who claimed that they’d cheat on me. I used a mirror image (ad; bc), then hid my paper for the last couple of minutes while erasing and re-filling in the answers.

@Harry – I agree. However, I’d try to do the re-learning say, twice (or more) a week, often in advance of the class’s progress – not just when the test came up. It boosted my GPA by over 0.5, so it worked for me.

Old-time cheater January 16, 2008 2:04 PM


Yeah; that’s what depressed me; not that people were cheating, but that such a large percentage of students were so used to cheating that the most trivial of detection mechanisms (different quizzes) could pick up between a 20%-50%(!) likely cheating ratio on the first quiz (before most of them realized that I used multiple quizzes). I’m referring to a pre-calculus course, so other than copying, I’m not certain that you could do much more than bring in copies of one of the tiny handful of equations we used; much of the quiz/test material was applying the equations.

I felt that part of my job was to break students of what appeared to be a hard-ingrained habit of cheating, I mean, on questions like:

Is 2 > -4?

Roughly 98% of the students could do this on their own, but that percentage somehow dropped to 80% or so with cheating, just because they’d have a quiz-taker next to them with a question like:

Is -2 > 4?

What was even worse is that on the second, and the third quiz, well after the students should have realized that there were multiple quizzes, I’d still get symptoms of cheating just by using multiple quizzes. One of the lowest-graded quizzes I gave was one during which I was out of the room for a number of minutes dealing with another issue during the quiz. Oddly enough, when I graded the quizzes, virtually everyone (roughly 80% of the students) had the same answer (many crossing out their perfectly correct work to write down this answer), which was correct for neither version of the quiz.

Jimbo January 16, 2008 5:29 PM

One of my favorite professors gave a final that seemed fairly resistant to cheating: It consisted of one question, “Design and document a circuit that does the following…”

My answer was 11 pages long.

Kilian January 17, 2008 2:36 AM

We had so called “briefcase-exams” in college, where you could bring all the papers you liked except finished exams of previous years… 40% of people still failed.

Also, most Professors would allow one page of handwritten notes, assuming the work involved would make you memorize the material.

My mother is a teacher and had me write crib cheats at home, she even taught me how to get them as small as possible.

Then she took them away, of course. But it really helps creating those things, because you have to write the Material to be cribbed over and over again…


Harry January 17, 2008 8:55 AM

I keep my crib notes pages. They’re a great resource when I need to review the material now, far more important than my textbooks or class notes.

Bobby February 24, 2008 9:02 PM

I once had a killer headache during an exam and I had my head down between my hands. The invigilator asked to see the top of my boxers. Slightly embarassing to have super-invigilator checking the top of your underwear. Genius idea though.

Gir April 30, 2009 1:13 AM

This is cool: iPods can have notes. I have a video iPod, (one of the smallish ones, easily concealable within my hand with a lot of extra room). If you open “Textedit” on a mac, then type in all of your cheats, save it, then drag it to your iPod icon on your desktop, and into the notes folder, what you wrote is saved to the iPod. From there, (on the iPod) just go to the Extras -> Notes folder, and select the note with your cheats. Then just read it or scroll down the list to see it. You can do the same thing by editing lyrics on iTunes, but I actually have real lyrics, and don’t want to change them! Also, if my teacher finds my iPod and there is a song playing, especially without headphones, SUSPICION!!! Or record an audio file with the cheats.

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