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Virginia Journal of Education

High-Tech Shenanigans

These days, it's much harder to catch some students who cheat. Here are three simple rules that may help.

by Michael Hartnett

The students are in their seats and the test has begun. And so has the cheating.

Handheld devices, such as iPhones, need just a couple of taps of the keypad to offer the right answers. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is math, social studies, science, English or foreign language: Information is available at your fingertips, just as advertised.

Indeed, we have to face a simple fact: as technology has evolved to provide a vast wealth of information anytime, anywhere, cheating has never been easier.
Once, catching cheaters was a simple affair, like the time one of my students copied her essay on Hamlet from Cliff Notes. I merely went to a student who I knew used Cliff Notes religiously and asked to take a peek at his copy. He said he’d let the student borrow it. Or like the time a Portuguese girl with limited English skills handed in a terrifically written, sophisticated short story. She copied, word-for-word, Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles,” except for changing the title character’s name. I guess she thought I wouldn’t figure it out once she cleverly renamed her story “Bob.” Alas, catching a cheater is not so easy anymore.
A few years ago, students would write answers on the inside labels of water bottles they brought into tests. Today we have students photographing tests with their phones in an earlier period of the day, so that students in subsequent periods can know the questions before they walk into the classroom.
Now catching cheaters requires a level of vigilance and research better suited for the corridors of the National Security Agency rather than the cluttered desk of the humble teacher.
Today, students don’t have to rely merely on Cliff Notes for handy, if highly unoriginal, commentaries on Hamlet. Not only can they pick SparkNotes, Pink Monkey Notes, Classic Notes, Bookrags, etc., but they can also tap into seemingly endless articles online. Just type in “Hamlet essay” on a Google search and you get 1,460,000 results, the first page of which is teeming with free essays.
Sure, you can track down some cheaters by typing in an excerpt of their essays on the very same Google search to discover the source. And websites like can also be useful. But the materials are so vast and the opportunities for students to create hybrid papers so easy that students are now often one step ahead, especially since underground networks of materials are constantly cropping up, insulated from the peering eyes of teachers.  
Many students are so wily that they’ve learned to mask their cheating to impressive levels. Some can find answers on handheld devices while looking you straight in the eye or appearing to be in deep, philosophical contemplation; others plagiarize from a dizzying wealth of sources, covering their trail with vigilance worthy of a CIA operative. 
So what must educators do? Well, let’s start with limiting most evaluations to the classroom. Home assignments allow students to run amuck with Internet materials. Some of those materials are very hard to track down, and trying to do so siphons away a teacher’s time. By taking evaluations in the classroom, students are much more limited in how they can cheat, especially if teachers follow these three rules:

               1. All electronic devices must be put away and can never surface at any time. If a device like a calculator is necessary, teachers should wipe out its memory, since clever students have been known to write programs so that answers are embedded into the devices.

               2. No student can go to the bathroom during an exam, since those electronic devices are liable to emerge in the stalls.

               3. Students cannot put their hands below the top of their desks: nothing good can come when students’ hands are hidden in their laps.

Additionally, teachers can challenge students by examining the very “study aids” at the core of a cheater’s success. When many students read a SparkNotes summary rather than the actual text of Hamlet, a teacher can quote a few lines of that summary on a test and asks students to describe “what SparkNotes left out of this section of the play.” 
Given the information available online, cheating on homework is too easy for many to resist. Only if evaluations compel that students actually learn the skills and the material will cheating be reined in. Until then, true ability, knowledge and wisdom may remain at students’ fingertips rather than in their brains. 
Hartnett ( has been a high school English teacher, college professor, and SAT instructor/tutor for more than 20 years, and is the author of The Great SAT Swindle.


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