How to Stop Cheaters

July 23, 2011

Students enter the test room with time-honored ways of playing the cheat. But what if they could tattoo their bodies with numbers if it pleased them and examine them anytime they wished?

"In terms of how we evaluate schooling, everything is about working by yourself. If you work with someone else, it's called cheating. Once you get out in the real world, everything you do involves working with other people."
Richard Wagner, psychologist, Florida State University

Students enter the test room forewarned and forearmed, figures on their forearms, ponies in their pockets, eyes ready to roll, tongues to tattle — time-tested, time-honored ways of playing the cheat.

But what if they could tattoo their bodies with numbers if it pleased them and examine them anytime they wished? What if students were allowed to bring notes with them into the test room and to use them? What if they could talk with anyone who wanted to talk with them? What if they could even bring with them whatever they wanted for possible use during the test — charts, maps, formulas, quotes, books, anything portable?

Why, then, you might say, it would be no test at all. It would would be what adults do every day when they need to deal with a question, a problem, an issue anytime, anywhere.

What do school tests typically ask of students? (T, F) Columbus sailed under Italy's flag. Or maybe: Columbus sailed under the flag of (a) Italy, (b) Spain, (c) Portugal, (d) France. Or: Columbus sailed under the flag of _______. Such tests ask students to recall information that anyone outside of school who didn't have it but needed it and possessed tolerable information-locating skills could get quickly. Such tests are to cheaters what tax cuts are to Republicans.

Yes, there are tests that ask for more, that ask for thinking. And there are open book tests as well.

But in everyday life both adults and kids often think with other people and use whatever resources seem likely to help. What is valued in such group efforts is coming up with questions that nobody else has thought to ask; with thoughts that connect A with B and C and with others' ideas; with insights that foresee consequences regarding a possible action; with the ability to work well with others and to carry out group decisions capably.

If there is an incentive for cheating in such group endeavors, it is more likely in an investment banking firm that includes a stock analyst division or in a telecom corporation that conspires collectively to cook its books to produce let's-pretend profits than among students working on a problem.

So why not at least some tests that promote group thinking and acting but that also have a role for individual thinking and acting? Certainly, some teachers make such tests part of their programs.

Here is a sample. It assumes a history class in which students have read and discussed traditional accounts of Columbus' voyages and their results, as well as more recent critical examinations of the behavior of Columbus and his crews toward Native Americans. It assumes also that students have had opportunities to work in groups and that such essentials of effective groupwork as the following have been practiced, discussed and assessed:

  • organizing for groupwork (e.g., selecting a facilitator and a recorder)
  • asking good questions
  • listening actively
  • paraphrasing and summarizing
  • speaking concisely
  • giving reasons for ideas and opinions
  • making sure everyone has a chance to participate
  • explaining clearly
  • taking turns
  • pulling ideas together
  • being open-minded

The test question calls for the teacher to form groups of four to six students whose task is to consider in as much depth as possible the following questions:

  • Should Columbus Day continue to be honored as it has in the past with parades and other public events?
  • Should Columbus Day be modified in any ways?
  • Should Columbus Day be abandoned as an official holiday?
  • In any case, why or why not?

During the group discussion students should share their thinking with others in the group based on their response to their readings and classwork on Columbus. They are to work towards as much of a consensus as they can reach and take whatever notes they care to during the process.

At the next class session, ask students to write a letter to the President, a representative or senator expressing in detail their view of current Columbus Day activities and of what, if any, changes should be made and why. They are free to use whatever notes or reference sources they like. Possible evaluation procedures:

  • Class and teacher evaluation of the success of the group discussions
  • Class and teacher evaluation of the effectiveness of the letters
  • Class and teacher consideration of any evidence of cheating
  • If necessary, teacher grading of individual participation and group effectiveness as well as of the quality of all letters, each of which should ultimately be mailed and any responses shared with the class

Such a process is far more time-consuming and demanding than the typical "information please" test. It is also more educational — and it puts ponies out to pasture.

Alan Shapiro, a lifelong teacher, is author of many of the activities featured on We welcome your comments. Please email them to: