Leveling the playing field
New York Times/May 18, 2006
Colleges Chase as Cheats Shift to Higher Tech
By JONATHAN D. GLATER
LOS ANGELES — At the University of California at Los Angeles, a student loaded his class notes into a handheld e-mail device and tried to read them during an exam; a classmate turned him in. At the journalism school at San Jose State University, students were caught using spell check on their laptops when part of the exam was designed to test their ability to spell.
And at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, after students photographed test questions with their cellphone cameras, transmitted them to classmates outside the exam room and got the answers back in text messages, the university put in place a new proctoring system.
"If they'd spend as much time studying," said an exasperated Ron Yasbin, dean of the College of Sciences at U.N.L.V., "they'd all be A students."
With their arsenal of electronic gadgets, students these days find it easier to cheat. And so, faced with an array of inventive techniques in recent years, college officials find themselves in a new game of cat and mouse, trying to outwit would-be cheats this exam season with a range of strategies — cutting off Internet access from laptops, demanding the surrender of cellphones before tests or simply requiring that exams be taken the old-fashioned way, with pens and paper.
"It is kind of a hassle," said Ryan M. Dapremont, 21, who just finished his third year at Pepperdine University, and has had to take his exams on paper.
"My handwriting is so bad," he said. "Whenever I find myself having to write in a bluebook, I find my hand cramps up more, and I can't write as quickly."
Mr. Dapremont said technology had made cheating easier, but added that plagiarism in writing papers was probably a bigger problem because students can easily lift other people's writings off the Internet without attributing them.
Still, some students said they thought cheating these days was more a product of the mind-set, not the tools at hand.
"Some people put a premium on where they're going to go in the future, and all they're thinking about is graduate school and the next step," said Lindsay Nicholas, a third-year student at U.C.L.A. She added that pressure to succeed "sometimes clouds everything and makes people do things that they shouldn't do."
In a survey of nearly 62,000 undergraduates on 96 campuses over the past four years, two-thirds of the students admitted to cheating. The survey was conducted by Don McCabe, a Rutgers professor who has studied academic misconduct and helped found the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke.
David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead" (Harcourt, 2004), suggested that students today feel more pressure to do well in order to get into graduate or professional school and secure a job.
"The rational incentives to cheat for college students have grown dramatically, even as the strength of character needed to resist those temptations has weakened somewhat," Mr. Callahan said.
Whatever the reasons for cheating, college officials say the battle against it is wearing them out.
Though Brian Carlisle, associate dean of students at U.C.L.A., said most students did not cheat, he spoke wearily about cases of academic dishonesty.
He told of the student who loaded his notes onto the Sidekick portable e-mail device last fall; students who have sought help from friends with such devices; students who have preprogrammed calculators with formulas. Some students have even deigned to use the traditional cheat sheet, he said.
"One of the things that we're going to be paying close attention to as time goes on is the use of iPods," Professor Carlisle added, pointing out that with a wireless earpiece, these would be hard to detect.
The telltale iPod headphone wire proved the downfall of a Pepperdine student a couple of years ago, after he had dictated his notes into the portable music player and tried to listen to them during an exam.
"I have taught for 30 years and each year something new comes on
the scene," Sonia Sorrell, the professor who caught the student, said in an
At the Anderson School of Management at U.C.L.A., the building's wireless Internet hotspot is turned off during finals to thwart Internet access.
Richard Craig, a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State, who caught students using spell check
last year, said that for tests, he arranged the classroom desks so that the
students faced away from him but he could see their desktop screens.
"It was just a devilishly simple way to handle it," Professor Craig said.
At the University of Nevada, Professor Yasbin, the dean, was not the only one upset by the camera phone cheating episode there, which occurred in 2003; honest students were appalled, too. They suggested that they police one another, by being exam proctors.
"The students walk around the classroom, and if they see something suspicious, they report it," Professor Yasbin said.
Amanda M. Souza, a third-year undergraduate who heads the proctor
program, said her classmates had decidedly mixed reactions to the student
"The ones that aren't cheating think it's a great idea, " she said. "You always see students who are really well prepared covering their papers. But the ones that aren't prepared, probably don't like us."
At Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, N.J., students must clear their calculators' memory and sometimes relinquish their cellphones before tests. At Brigham Young University, exams are given in a testing center, where electronic devices are generally banned.
In some classes at Butler University in Indianapolis, professors use software that allows them to observe the programs running on computers students are taking tests on. And some institutions even install cameras in rooms where tests are administered.
To take a final exam last week, Alyssa Soares, a third-year law student at U.C.L.A., had to switch on software that cut her laptop's Internet access, wireless capability and even the ability to read her own saved files. Her computer, effectively, became a glorified typewriter. Ms. Soares, 28, said she did not mind. "This is making sure everyone is on a level playing field," she said.
Several professors said they tried to write exams on which it was hard to cheat, posing questions that outside resources would not help answer. And at many institutions, officials said that they rely on campus honor codes.
Several professors said the most important thing was to teach students
not to cheat in the first place.
Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity, said creating a "nuclear deterrent" to cheating in class, and perhaps implying that it is acceptable elsewhere, "is antithetical to what we should be doing as educators."