Detecting Cheating at Colleges

The measures used to prevent cheating during tests remind me of casino security measures:

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.

Lots of information on detecting cheating in homework and written papers.

Posted on July 9, 2010 at 6:34 AM56 Comments


Clive Robinson July 9, 2010 7:17 AM

And how do we stop the “proctor” et al cheating?

If you don’t trust the student’s they will implicitly believe this is because those who judge them are untrustworthy.

Some will thus consider that the “proctor” et al are open to financial or other inducments.

And from what we can see the chances are they will strike lucky…

Thus accademic success like many things in life will be gifted to those who have the resources and abilities to bribe and corupt.

And saddly those honest students who become “suspect” for many inocent reasons (some people talk to thmselves when concentrating) will be pilloried by a kangeroo court who’s only purpose is to be seen to be hard on those accused of cheating by a person who may well be compleatly untrustworthy.

Genghis July 9, 2010 7:19 AM

For any exam where cheating is detected, select a student at random and execute them. Harsh but effective. You never get to be top dog by being soft.

Tim July 9, 2010 7:19 AM

Sounds fair enough. I invigilated a matlab-based exam and there was definitely quite a bit of cheating. Mostly it was really obvious because the students had magically got the correct answer, even though their matlab script didn’t work.

Mabbo July 9, 2010 7:26 AM

Most students understand that if you need to go to the trouble of having hidden camera pens and gum to cover secret microphones, you probably could just save yourself the time by studying instead.

And like Tim said: most cheating is obvious after the fact. You want to reduce cheating? Stop using multiple choice exams, and other simple testing types.

A Nonny Bunny July 9, 2010 7:28 AM

For things like maths and physics homework, you could probably avoid cheating to an extent by giving all students slightly different questions. Solving x^2+5x-3=0 or x^2+3x-5=0 comes down to the same thing, but you can’t simply copy the answer.

Andrew Suffield July 9, 2010 7:39 AM

“I invigilated a matlab-based exam and there was definitely quite a bit of cheating. Mostly it was really obvious because the students had magically got the correct answer, even though their matlab script didn’t work.”

So the exam was incredibly badly designed. When I was a student, the department had a very simple fix for this: you submitted a script for marking, not an answer.

aikimark July 9, 2010 7:41 AM


The recording devices are helping future test takers.

Constant monitoring must always work to dissuade cheaters, since there is never any cheating in Las Vegas. Riiiiiight.

I can see such a scenario becoming a battle mimicing the current battle between IT professionals and hackers.

uk visa July 9, 2010 8:11 AM

“In surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams.”
I wonder if they meant ‘both assignments and exams’ or ‘either assignments or exams’…

Emmett Fitz-Hume July 9, 2010 8:14 AM

“I’m sorry I’m late, I had to attend the reading of a will. I had to stay till the very end, and I found out I received nothing… broke my arm.”

Thinkerer July 9, 2010 8:25 AM

And then there’s the problem of two students who don’t know each other and who sat at opposite ends of the room doing the same wrong analysis on an engineering exam….that took quite a while to wrangle out.

Dom De Vitto July 9, 2010 8:35 AM

The casino parallel is an interesting one – the objective of casino security is to reduce the losses to the cost of security measures (averaged over the year).

You could say that the objective of the exam is to ensure that the distribution of ‘winners’ is (just like a casino) in line with expectations – top >90%=A, >80%=B etc.

However exam boards don’t seems to have taken into account that it’s much easier to alter the game to make it more ‘secure’ than to detect attempts (e.g. casinos add more decks to the shoe, rather than just employing legions of floor security).

As stated above, multiple choice, and ‘all marks given to end answer’ exam questions are easy to cheat. If you only give marks for the ‘working out’, and none for the (brief) end answer, you increase the ‘size’ of the information that needs to be ‘copied’, and make successful cheating harder – but don’t eliminate it. In the same way as adding more decks into a shoe makes card-counting ‘harder’.

Basically exam boards have seen cheating rise because not only does advanced technology make it easier, but the exams themselves are moving to being quicker for a human to mark – rather than being more accurate (‘secure’).

The bottom line is that the exam board that produces the most secure exam, is going to have the highest costs – in production, marking and invigilating – but will have the most accurate results. Just like casinos.

Unfortunately, most exams are considered equivalent by academia and industry – so high quality isn’t a significant selling point, but low cost is 🙁

William July 9, 2010 8:37 AM

Success, in our society, is more highly valued than honesty.

“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin'”

Elaborate schemes to prevent cheating are no more useful that elaborate schemes to prevent drug smuggling. As long as there is a demand there will always be a supply.

Micah July 9, 2010 8:46 AM

I went to a very different sort of college, but seems like the old-fashioned methods, smaller class size and peer pressure/accountability, may be as effective as these standards.

Captain Canuck July 9, 2010 9:04 AM

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

Only thing here that makes sense and is feasible.

Grande Mocha July 9, 2010 9:16 AM

I’m a college math professor. I have a really simple method to reduce cheating:

  1. I give really hard exams, and I require the students to show all of their work. I grade the work, and I don’t care about the final answer. In fact, I’ll usually give full marks to a student who has made a simple error (e.g. sin(4pi) = 1) but correctly propagated that error through her work. I give zero credit for a correct answer with bogus supporting work.
  2. I let the students have open-book, open-note, open-calculator, etc. tests. That way there is no advantage in bringing in extra information because everyone has the opportunity to do it.
  3. I give a different test every time, and I even post old versions of my tests on the course web page so that everyone has access to them. If a student wants to prepare for my test by working all the problems on an old one, then I think that’s great because some learning will occur.
  4. I actually walk around during the test and read the work that each student is doing. In other words, I pay attention to the class. (Actually, my primary reason for doing this is to help out students who are stuck in some sort of anxiety-induced rut. However, it works well for policing the exam as well.)

I have observed the occasional cheating attempt, but the nice thing about such tests is that people who spend more time trying to cheat than studying just end up failing. So, it’s nearly self-enforcing.

Of course, the way I create and grade my test is very time consuming. I’ve seen plenty of colleagues give the same old multiple choice tests year after year and heard them grumbling about students cheating.

The solution to this and most other educational problems is the same obvious solution that has been known for generations: put highly educated, personable, and motivated teachers with small classes and pay the good teachers enough to encourage them to stay.

pencil pusher July 9, 2010 9:24 AM

@Captain Canuck

Yes, but I know where the university buys their office supplies, so I’m gonna go buy my own date stamper!

Yakov July 9, 2010 9:26 AM

All these security measures are funny. A smart , though lazy, student will just take an online course and have somebody else do the exam for them or google all the questions.

How do you prevent that in a 100% online course? Which are popular for this very reason.

mcb July 9, 2010 9:37 AM

Yo Genghis,

“For any exam where cheating is detected, select a student at random and execute them. Harsh but effective.”

Your system lacks a sense of collective responsbility. I believe the classic solution is decimation (no, not “devastation”). If any cheating is detected the entire class is dishonored. Line them up and have the TAs execute every tenth student. Then reassign the professor to Freshman lectures. I know it sounds harsh but I note that in the years after the Romans stopped doing it this way they became Italians…

Winter July 9, 2010 9:40 AM

@Grande Mocha
“I’ve seen plenty of colleagues give the same old multiple choice tests year after year and heard them grumbling about students cheating.”

Some universities simply give students the right to view old exams. Teachers are required to put old exams on-line.

That solves the “recycling” of old exams problem in a single blow.


Mauro S July 9, 2010 9:45 AM

I think this shows a clash between the obsolete, “industrial” model to teaching – still widely used – and the needs and capabilities of new technology.

If you agree that the objective of the school is to prepare students to be productive in the real world, then things are really upside down. The cheating activities might be closer to the actual needs than the “real” teaching and testing.

Consider this: a young adult entering the work force would need necessarily be a good internet researcher, collaborate with other people without leaving their desks, be able to filter information from a varied source on the internet of various reliabilities and outsource what can be cheaply done elsewhere instead of doing it yourself. Those are exactly the activities a good cheater does. OTOH, to know by heart some formulas or the content of a book are trivial things, both are just seconds away by searching on the Web.

The whole learning thing must be rethought in this post-industrial world.

Implementing a police state in a university seems to me like the wrong answer to the problem. It’s like France building the Maginot Line in the 30s line instead of tanks and aircrafts, not to mention the cost to society to desensitize the young people against the police state itself.

Rich Gibbs July 9, 2010 10:20 AM

I liked this example from the end of the article; sort of personal steganography, if you like:

“A heavily tattooed student was found with notes written on his arm. He had blended them into his body art.”

Ricky Bobby July 9, 2010 10:41 AM

It is an always an issue when teachers give their Teaching Assistants the privilege to xerox the tests for the class. I have heard many instances of a TA just printing an extra for a friend. .

Go Knights!!

kiwano July 9, 2010 10:47 AM


You stop the proctor from cheating by setting up the risks and rewards so that their price is too high for a right-thinking student to offer them a bribe.

Make it so that if you’re considering bribery as a way to pass exams, it’s cheaper to bribe the prof for the entire course than to bribe enough proctors on all the tests. Likewise, make it cheaper to bribe university administrators for the entire degree than to bribe the profs for all the courses.

Depending on the relative prestige of the university at this point, now you either set the degree to be more expensive than getting one from a degree farm, or you just have the cost of buying out the degree high enough that it’s only accessible to a high enough social class that it’s just not terribly relevant anymore (e.g. the Bush family making sure that W got his degree).

Simon Farnsworth July 9, 2010 11:19 AM

@Grande Mocha

You’ve omitted to mention another benefit of open exams; provided you’re making the exam hard enough, someone who can answer the questions in a reasonable timeframe with the aid of textbooks etc is as useful in the workforce (academic or industrial) as someone who can do so without the textbooks.

Joel J. Adamson July 9, 2010 11:35 AM

I’d like to know who this anti-cheating policy really benefits. Is the cost of cheating to society so great that we need to go to all these measures? I think we need to make a distinction between evil and stupid. Someone who cheats on a college exam is obviously a particularly dangerous kind of stupid; dangerous only to himself. If there’s rampant cheating then it affects the grades of honest students, but cheating is really not that common, and most students are honest people that work hard.

Corbett July 9, 2010 12:02 PM


What is the primary purpose of an academic test… from a systems-analysis perspective ?

It’s a quality-control {QC} measurement supposedly ensuring the academic assembly-line output (a specific student capability) meets system standards.

The QC system may or may-not be effective (false-positives/negatives, etc).

The QC measurement itself does nothing that directly improves the assembly-line output. It is typically only a coarse feedback-signal ignoring major parts of that assembly-line system.

Unsatisfactory QC measurements in college academic testing are almost always assumed to be the personal fault of the specific student(s). System inputs (instructors, textbooks, syllabus, administration, physical environment, social factors, test quality/efficiency, etc) rarely undergo serious QC measurement.

Students are expected to personally compensate for any system deficiencies encountered in the academic assembly-line… or depart the system voluntarily/involuntarily.

‘Gaming the System’ {e.g., cheating} thus often becomes a fallback option for students with lesser skills/motivation… daily facing an arbitrary & complex system environment.

aikimark July 9, 2010 12:42 PM

Depending on the topic, it might be possible to generate individual tests from a set of questions as well as use a morphing engine to change the question parameters/values/text for each student. As long as the individual test configurations were retained, it would be possible for the TAs, or the professor, to have a correct-answer sheet for each student’s test.

I heard a story of one teacher (probably high school or middle school) that suspected rampant cheating in his classroom. He created 5 versions of a test structured so that if a student got an answer from any of their immediate neighbors (front, back, left, right), they would get that question wrong. The story is that a few students got zeroes on that test, despite answering every question.

Skorj July 9, 2010 1:12 PM

Ay my university, most of the tests were open-everything, take-home exams. There was a time limit, but ususally any problem you couldn’t solve within the limit you weren’t going to in any amount of time.

The only cheating prevention was that each student has to declare in writing that he didn’t cheat. The reasoning was that some students were smart enough to evade any anti-cheating measures, and so using any would just present a challange to be overcome. Relying on honesty, peer-pressure, and informing seemed to work better. They saw the goal as the reasonable “minimize cheating”, instead of the unreasonable “prevent cheating”.

How well did this work? Well enough that the mean on my first physics exam was 30-something (out of 100).

Joe July 9, 2010 2:07 PM

@Grande Mocha and Mauro S

I agree with your point that the exams people are cheating on are worthless.

Life is not a multiple choice exam. And people who can do well on multiple choice tests are not necessary equipped with the ability to function in real life. One of my medical school classmates routinely scored at or near the top of the class on the multiple choice tests. He was nearly expelled (and probably should have been) because of his complete incompetence with patients.

As long as the schools give tests that are useless in testing useful knowledge the cheating will continue.

John Hardin July 9, 2010 3:00 PM

@aikimark: THAT is the solution, at least for multiple-choice questions and math questions.

Generate a large pool of questions and randomly select N questions from that pool for each student’s test. There’s a key number on the test that the student copies to the answer sheet so that the correct answers can be compared; if the key number appears more than once in that class’s tests, an attempt to cheat occurred.

Granted, it’s a little more time-consuming to grade the tests, but I’d say it’s worth it.

@joel re the societal cost of cheating: do you want to use a bridge designed by an engineer who cheated to pass his exams?

JB July 9, 2010 3:27 PM

Mind you, this is in a large university setting where things are proctored by students–that is, an environment where cheating is probably hard to detect (i.e., you probably have multiple inexperienced graders that aren’t good at traditional means, like detecting patterns in incorrect answers) and the proctors are inexperienced (so probably shouldn’t be given much discretion, since they don’t know what they’re looking for).

I went to a small college where the policy was that the professor wasn’t allowed to remain in the room during exams (there weren’t any TAs, just profs). Cheating was trivial to execute, but easy for professors to detect while grading. The only really high-profile cheating case I can remember involved a girl breaking into the registrar’s office, installing a hardware keylogger, and using the password thus obtained to retroactively change her grade–which had been a B+. Jesus, the grade inflation…

@John Hardin July 9, 2010 3:40 PM

Do you want to use a bridge designed by an engineer whose exams still figure on his resume? Honestly, I’d be more concerned that I had a completely inexperienced engineer than a cheater–most practical skills are picked up through years of experience, and most academic knowledge really comes best through looking things up, not having memorized them.

I’ve always been a bit leery of the cram->exam->forget model. Honestly, someone who can solve a problem by understanding a few fundamentals and looking up the specifics is far more useful than someone who’s memorized pages of specifics in the few days before the test, even though the latter is typically rewarded. I’m not saying that cheating is good, but having cheatable tests is a hallmark of lazy test design.

Eli July 9, 2010 5:01 PM

@aikimark: Assuming a grid pattern, and no diagonal lines of cheating, only 2 versions of the test are required to accomplish the specified goal. It has the additional advantage that a cheater reading from two neighbouring students will see matching answers and have higher confidence in the answer thus obtained.

If diagonals are included, 4 versions are sufficient.

RJ July 9, 2010 5:22 PM

”If there’s rampant cheating then it affects the grades of honest students, but cheating is really not that common, and most students are honest people that work hard.”

Gee, it must be nice on your planet.

Clive Robinson July 10, 2010 1:15 AM

@John Hardin,

“I’ve always been a bit leery of the cram->exam >forget model.”

Yup, various tests carried out back in the 1980’s have shown that you forget over 25% of the “cram” info within 4days, and others that you remember less than 25% after 2months (ie the start of the Autumn Semester).

Oh and these “memory loss figures” have gone up quite a lot since the 1980’s (or is it a secondary indicator that cheating is on the up…)…

“Honestly, someone who can solve a problem by understanding a few fundamentals and looking up the specifics is far more usefu than someone who’s memorized pages of specifics in the few days before the test”

I would agree with you but for one thing,

Fundementals are not taught these days…

(and Yes I’ve moaned about this quite a bit on this blog in the past 8(

I have seen engineering exams with questions asking about “key press combinations” on a PC based CAD tool…

On a little investigation (/complaint) it was indicated to me that the style of questions had been set by a major employer in the area who paid for something like 15% of the students on the course…

“even though the latter is typically rewarded. I’m not saying that cheating is good, but having cheatable tests is a hallmark of lazy test design”

And it begets lazy teaching that in turn begets incompetent teachers…

Jony July 10, 2010 3:57 AM

In my view multiple choice exams are wrong. Do the examiners take into account the random answer score as their zero point? Do they know that the proposed replies give anough hints fot a quick witted student to improve his guess success rate significantly?

While multiple choice exams are easier to check than conventional exams, their usefulness as a means to verify the students knowledge is limited.

Nils July 10, 2010 9:17 AM

I am in favor of intelligent exam questions too. When i was in university i had a professor that would declare at the beginning of each exam, that he would go to get a coffee and he would be back in 5 minutes.

These 5 minutes were enough to ask some forgotten details but not enough to compensate for not having learned the topic.

AcademyGrad July 10, 2010 10:21 AM

I would like to talk about an extreme and atypical solution that worked pretty well.

I went to a military academy and we had a strict but effective honor code.
“I will not lie cheat or steal, nor tolerate anyone among us who does.” It was an essential part of the culture and identity of the institution in preparation for combat leadership. It was not something you merely signed but was woven into the fabric of life there – duty, honor, country.

Believe it or not, teachers would actually leave the room during tests and during my four years there I did not observe any cheating (like JB’s experience). When you think about it that is pretty impressive. The social norms, generally extreme discipline, and the high expectation of teachers were effective at keeping order.

Obviously there have been some major scandals and the occasional violator (who normally got kicked out or harshly punished by a jury of their peers) but it worked surprisingly well overall. In fact, the very reason they were major “scandals” was because of the high expectation.

Call it positive peer pressure but I would rather have failed a test than suffer the public and private shame of violating the code. This would have betrayed myself and all the work I had done. I would have “failed” in life, even as I passed the test.

You can always retake a class but you cannot easily remake your integrity (or reputation). If my best wasn’t good enough then so be it, at least I would still have my honor.

As others have said – someone who really wants to cheat will find a way. IMHO the answer to this is in the core attitudes of the students and institution:

  1. If you cheat then you don’t belong with “us”.
  2. Teach and expect integrity but enforce it brutally with student juries.
  3. Weed out those unwilling or unable to meet the group standards.
  4. Let them know that there are more ways to “fail” than to get an “F” on a test.
  5. Look at the long haul – anyone can get away with cheating once but it is difficult to get away with it forever. Detect the cheater – not the act of cheating. In college you really have four years, not just one semester.

I agree with those who think about it this way: Would you want a doctor, pilot, engineer, fireman, or scientist whose only reason not to cheat in school was because it was too hard to get away with? Ultimately this is not about grades but about who we are creating and releasing on the world.

By the way, this trained me well for a career as a fighter pilot. Why? If you didn’t actually learn the material and follow the rules then you were significantly more likely to kill yourself or someone else.

There is no way I know of to cheat at supersonic speeds – either you know what to do or you don’t. At least the real “tests” up there are pass/fail (or live/not live). Yes, luck plays a big role, but you usually cannot just “wing it” for very long and expect to live.

Fortunately, the pilot training process was extremely effective at weeding out those who would be dangerous as pilots. Again, there really is no way to “fake it” in the sky for long.

The very few cheaters that made it through? Well lets just say it is likely most of those wouldn’t make it to retirement without an attitude adjustment. Makes getting an “F” on a test trivial doesn’t it? There are many other careers where habitual cheating will have dire consequences in the end. Enron? Bridge engineer? Doctors?…

Again, this is not a panacea but it does demonstrate that it can be done under certain extreme conditions. Integrity matters.

Steve July 10, 2010 11:29 PM

I find this whole thing to be rather creepy and not conducive to building any sort of relationship between professor and student.

The really bizarre thing is that once one graduates from college and gets out into the “real world” the whole artificial construct of “doing your own work” gets tossed into the can.

By and large, what employers want is not individuals doing their own work and hiding their results from their coworkers but members of a cooperating team, working toward a common goal, with each member contributing their own ideas to a whole which one hopes to be greater than the sum of its parts.

It would make more sense to imbue a sense of cooperation and of sharing in the learning process form day one, rather than making it a solo race which must be accomplished totally on ones own. While appropriating someone else’s ideas or work and presenting it as one’s own is certainly to be frowned upon, perhaps if the absurdly contrived and falsely competitive system we currently endure was changed, there would be no incentive to steal.

Arancaytar July 11, 2010 3:18 AM

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

This is awesome. But they have a ways to go yet before they live up to their example: I don’t see a prohibition of liquids over 3 ounces. 😉

JB July 11, 2010 6:01 PM

@Clive Robinson

Interesting; I just graduated in CS from a liberal arts college, and we had quite the opposite issue–we weren’t allowed to take anything remotely practical. If we cross-enrolled in something like an engineering course, it wouldn’t even be counted towards graduation, let alone the major–intro CS taught Java, of course, but after that everything had to be theoretical.

JonS July 11, 2010 11:44 PM

@ AcademyGrad

Good points, all, but you overlooked a significant piece of information. The people at your academy had all been self-selected to enter that kind of environment, and then pre-selected to try and ensure that they’d be able to cope with it. Almost by definition, all students there are high acheiving straight shooters.

The Air Force Academy takes … what … 1,400 new entrants a year? That’s from a total US higher education population of over 14,000,000. In other words, the USAFA can, literally, select the top 0.03% of the student population, and in doing so explicitly select for – and enforce – honor, because of their unique position. Obviously not all universities are in that privileged position.

And not all students want to put themselves through that.

Patrick July 12, 2010 12:26 AM

We have a simpler system at my school. An Honor Code. Our teachers email us tests, we time ourselves, they leave us in the rooms and go back their offices and we turn them in on our honor. Same with homework and everything we do. If you cheat or lie, you are brought to trial before secret Honor Court, and if your peer students in the jury convict you, automatic dismissal, never allowed to even return to campus. If they find you innocent, the trial remains a secret, no one else is allowed to talk about it on their honor, and the innocent are protected from stigma.

Davi Ottenheimer July 12, 2010 1:44 AM

@ JonS

Excellent point. Took the words right out of my mouth.

Remove threats from an environment and then call it a flawless environment? It’s like saying metal will never rust but only allowing it to be tested in a vacuum.

It’s a logical fallacy (tautology) but some might find comfort in describing success as a success.

lars July 12, 2010 2:45 AM

Cheaters provide the most fun for the examiner/attendant. Anecdote time:

We had quite a large exam with somewhat around 400 people crammed in a lecture hall and 4 bored attendants who most likely would have preferred to further their own thesis instead. And there was somewhere slightly in the back a pair of students, most likely a couple which seemed to rely on each other in this exam as well.

At some point the boy extended his arm as if to take a relaxing stretch and took some precautionary look downward to the examiners table, where I sat. Because of utter boredom and because I didn’t like to disturb the other students who where sweating on this exam I gave him my most friendly and encouraging smile. “Don’t be worried, everything is gonna be alright. Your hard work will pay out, just take your time, relax a bit and whatever question you are struggling with, will solve in a bit.” I tried to communicate.

He froze mid-stretch. He seemed somehow hesitant and disturbed. So, I gave him a little more encouraging smile. And has he didn’t seem to relax, I just kept on smiling. He probably lost 5 precious minutes of his exam time, and whatever message he had written on the slip of paper never reached its destination (probably).

It also didn’t relax him, that one of the attendants chose the row just behind the couple to catch up with some paper-reading afterwards. It always had a great effect if you had someone sitting in the back so a cheater had to turn to ensure no one would see him.

Sez July 12, 2010 3:49 AM

I see that some of the discussion has moved on to memory. It’s absolutely true that you forget things if you don’t think about them for long enough. As far as I can tell, this includes everything. Even such things as your own name.

Granted, you’re not going to forget that one if only for the simple reason that it’s often used. But other things, even things you studied carefully back in college, can vanish over time. This is probably most noticeable in memorization-dependent subjects like foreign languages, or organic chemistry, where your knowledge will dwindle over time unless it gets refreshed.

The trick seems to be that you have to keep using the information during a time where there’s a decent chance that you’ve almost forgotten it and there are a bunch of programs, free and otherwise, out there to help people do that. I use Anki because it’s open source, but there’s also SuperMemo, etc.

SnallaBolaget July 12, 2010 5:07 AM

That’s a very good point. European schools have actually in many instances left the old forms of exams and gone to a group model. While a lot of traditional exams still exists, the European – specifically this goes for the Scandinavian countries – schools have started making group efforts and cooperation an integral part of education from the lowest levels.

Also, it’s been shown time and again that those who only rely upon taking credit for other people’s hard work and initiative will only dig their own graves in the end. If you have no real compentence or knowledge, you’re bound to be called out some time.

Tom Dibble July 13, 2010 9:45 AM

@Grande Mocha:

Well said, and I agree 100%.

The one “hole” in your approach is homework.

IMHO, the approach to homework that works is that homework doesn’t count towards the grade. Do it or not, copy it from a friend if the act of copying does more for you than completely avoiding it, but if you don’t end up doing your homework you won’t be able to complete the test in a reasonable amount of time, and you will fail.

Students love the idea of not “having” to do homework, and a number of them fail an “easy” class because of it, but they learn quickly. And, like an open book exam, this is teaching skills that are vital outside school as well.

Tom Dibble July 13, 2010 10:10 AM


I think the “no tolerance of cheaters” is easier in a military situation (you don’t want the guy who copied your tactical notes and cheated on his marksmanship exam to “have your back” going into combat), but I’ve seen it as effective at a smaller engineering school as well.

IMHO, the key there is some self-selectiveness (people need to feel privileged to have gotten in and compelled to succeed; your local community college is not likely to foster such an environment) but moreso a smallness which allows an effective community to develop.

Obviously it isn’t true that there is no crime in small towns, but when there is a small tight-knit community everyone tends to know who is cheating to get by. When that tight-knit community also has a good relationship with its professors, such cheaters are easily corrected (in the extreme case by expulsion, but more often by letting them know that everyone knows and disapproves).

You don’t get this kind of community in a “major university” setting. My sister went to UC Davis, and there was absolutely no sense of community there at all (at least, not in the first two years of classes), despite self-selectiveness and a sense of privilege for having gotten in. As one might expect, cheating was rampant, and non-cheaters were worse off for it.

The key reason against this, of course, is cost. Smaller universities are more expensive. Attempts at “schools within universities may help, but only if they include the “cost center” freshman and sophomore classes which typically end up being cattle farming exercises. Which, of course, means more expenses, and not in the “glamour” topics.

markm July 14, 2010 4:20 PM

“You’ve omitted to mention another benefit of open exams; provided you’re making the exam hard enough, someone who can answer the questions in a reasonable timeframe with the aid of textbooks etc is as useful in the workforce (academic or industrial) as someone who can do so without the textbooks.”

Posted by: Simon Farnsworth

More useful, IMO. Would you rather cross a bridge designed by someone who looked up the strength of steel, or relied on his memory?

“By and large, what employers want is not individuals doing their own work and hiding their results from their coworkers but members of a cooperating team, working toward a common goal, with each member contributing their own ideas to a whole which one hopes to be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Posted by: Steve

In my experience, in most student group projects one kid winds up doing all the work, and the others share credit which they did not earn. Who wants to hire the “team members” who neither contributed nor learned? But you can’t tell which was which from the school records.

The one exception was an upper-class engineering project. That required everyone’s hard work to complete – and no slackers had survived the weeding process in the earlier courses, where everyone was graded on individual efforts.

Edible July 15, 2010 5:49 PM

I agree markm, but that is more the fault of a project made in a way that one person can carry the team. Many real projects end up that way, if they are easy enough for someone to get bullied into doing all the work required. Dealing with being bullied into doing everyones work is something its worth giving them practice at dealing with either way.

Nikhil July 16, 2010 3:42 AM

Good Research Mate .. !

But what if Someone already sneaks paper the day before 😉 (Eavesdropping on University Printer, Professors Account etc etc).

But rightly said its a question of ethics importantly…

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