It’s Time For Teachers To Rethink Cheating on Tests

It hadn’t occurred to me until the question came up yesterday in an online discussion among teachers that student cheating on tests is still a thing. A few teachers were wondering and asking the community how teachers can prevent students from cheating while they’re completing their schoolwork at home.

Here’s why the conversation came as a bit of a surprise: I haven’t worried about cheating in ten years, pandemic or no. I’ve taught Math, Science, and all the rest to fifth graders, have taught Humanities, History, and ELA to 6th graders, and Philosophy to undergraduates. My experience runs the gamut, in other words, and I have not had to worry about cheating in any of those cases.

Perhaps it’s worth identifying and explaining a few reasons why I don’t worry about cheating, since many teachers clearly still do have that worry.

Reason 1: The design of my assessments is such that cheating is often impossible.

Some teachers (and many universities, independent testing agencies, etc.) rely on software solutions to combat and prevent student cheating. These systems are often expensive, invasive, and – maybe most importantly – serve only to perpetuate a largely useless form of learning assessment whose time has passed. Rather than give the same old tests with google-able answers or answers that have been offered in identical form by hundreds or thousands of other learners, we should be assessing uniquely for the purposes of the classroom and environment. (I say this acknowledging that there still exists a need to test in a standardized form if only to efficiently whittle down huge numbers of possible selectees for a specific purpose.)

On the other hand, if I create genuinely world-connected assessment opportunities asking students solve problems and think through a design process, or if I ask them to answer a question that thousands of others haven’t also and already answered, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be able to find their answers from the internet. And if they get some of their knowledge from a friend, they’re still required to learn the information to be able to spit it out the way it would make sense – but this gets into Reason #2, so I’ll set it aside here.

The responses from students that I assess are unique because they have to be – and they are not unique merely because I demand it, but because the design of the assessment necessitates it. When I ask Philosophy students to identify a current argument in the public discourse and to respond to it according to a style we learn and practice together in class, there’s essentially no chance they’ll be able to google that answer. When I ask my Middle School History students to produce a timeline in which they describe a series of events in their own words and from which I assess their chronological thinking, every student might have a slightly different timeline, and they’re not going to find it online in the way I’m asking them to produce it. If I’m teaching a fifth-grade Math class and have tests that I use every year to teach simple probability through word problems, students might cheat on the answer – it’s possible, anyhow – but if I’m only assessing their explanation of their answer and their process, it won’t much matter even if I hand them the answers myself (which I have done before and which as not interfered with student learning in any way).

Reason 2: I don’t assess anything where cheating would grant a student any advantage.

I began to get into this above, and so we can be brief here. If a student, say, googles when a thing happened so that they can add that thing to their timeline, that’s what I want them to be doing. If they google “video explaining Allegory of Cave,” good news! They’re going to be learning when they watch that video. When we tell students to use their resources but don’t allow them to use all of their resources, we are only deceiving ourselves. They can and should use everything that can help them to find out what they need to know. The role we play needs to shift from gatekeeper to curator. We need to help them interpret the answers they find online. They don’t know which video about the Allegory of the Cave has the best interpretation – as experts, our job is to help them figure that out. If they are googling math answers (my kid was found doing this when it wasn’t permitted), we should first ask (as my kid’s teacher did!) why and second ask if it was actually beneficial to the student’s learning. If it turns out not to be, we can have that conversation with the student and help the student to find another way to succeed in that student’s learning. Google all you want, I say, just don’t waste your time when there are quicker solutions to what you want to know. I try to design my assessments such that the internet or a friend can only assist in learning (or in which it would be an obvious hindrance that would be a good starting place for conversation) and cannot be a replacement for learning.

Reason 3: With regular assessment that is varied in medium and in mode, any attempt at cheating will become apparent pretty much right away, anyhow.

Let’s say I do have the kind of tests where cheating is possible. I notice that so-and-so is acing all of her Math tests. I call on her in class to explain her thinking. She cannot do this. I have a private conversation with her about explaining her thinking and let her know that I’m going to be assessing her explanations with extra care and want to help her feel more confident about her abilities to think through problems. Maybe she’s cheating. Maybe she isn’t. But the teacher in the room can and should (and usually does, right?) assess understanding and not mere production of a specified result. There are plenty of ways to design for understanding rather than compliance or mere production of a result, and that should be our goal. If I’m assessing in a variety of ways (explain this, produce that, draw this, orally describe that, create a podcast, build a website), I can get a broad understanding of what the student knows and how best to tailor the educational experience to that student’s needs.

I offer all of this recognizing, too, that we are not all in identical contexts. Some of these ideas require time and money that many teachers simply do not have. I offer these thoughts to perhaps change a mindset more than to expect teachers to line up in their contexts with exactly the ways I’m describing my own approaches to assessment. I hope we can stop asking “How do I prevent cheating” as a reactive measure and start designing so that cheating is taken off the table from the start.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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