Professors Use Technology to Fight Student Cheating

High-tech testing centers and anti-plagiarism software are some of the new tools professors are trying.

A testing center at Penn State uses high-tech surveillance to watch for student cheating.

A testing center at Penn State uses high-tech surveillance to watch for student cheating.

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Teachers, long behind in the cheating arms race, may finally be catching up. They are using new technologies, including text-matching software, webcams, and biometric equipment, as well as cunning stratagems such as Web "honey pots," virtual students, and cheat-proof tests. The result: It appears to be getting at least a little harder for students to plagiarize from websites, text-message answers to friends during tests, or get others to do their homework.

The percentage of students who admit to cheating, which had risen from about 20 percent in the mid-1900s to top 50 percent in 2002, has dropped about 10 percentage points, according to one of the nation's leading cheating experts, Donald McCabe of Rutgers. Some of that recent decline may be because of students redefining "cheating" to exclude the increasingly common practice of cutting and pasting material from the Internet, McCabe believes. But the tide may also be turning, at least in part, because of anticheating technology blitzes like those at the University of Central Florida, where many business students now take their tests on cheat-resistant computers in a new, supersecure testing center. UCF students report much less cheating than students at other campuses. "We've scared the living daylights out of them," explains Taylor Ellis, associate dean for undergraduate programs and technology at UCF's college of business.

Professors at the forefront of the cheating war say they have had to scramble to catch up to youngsters who have proved brilliant at using new technology to get A's without studying. There are hundreds of websites that offer custom-written papers. YouTube has dozens of student-made videos teaching how, for example, to scan a Coke bottle label into a computer, replace the nutrition information with physics notes, and paste the label back onto a bottle to create a cheat aid unlikely to be caught by teachers. And students say it is easy to load notes into cellphones or programmable calculators and sneak peeks at the devices during tests. Some say they've used their devices' infrared, Bluetooth, or texting capabilities to share information with other test takers.

A recent Ohio State University graduate said he often walked into tests with three calculators in his backpack so that he could turn one in if the professor tried to crack down by asking students to turn in their calculators. He said other students hid powerful calculators in the bodies of old, basic ones that are permitted in exams.

"Cheating is super easy now. College classes are way too big, and you can pull out anything on your desk," he says. And it is widespread, he says, because students are busy, hungry for good grades, and often skeptical of the lifetime benefit of learning what many professors put on tests. The student, who worked nearly full-time during school, said it took him only an hour or so to program his calculator with notes. That saved him as much as 20 hours of study time. "I don't really consider what I did cheating...because in the real world I would be using that device...I see that as just being more efficient."

Of course, most schools are still trying to fight cheating by old-fashioned methods, such as appealing to students' sense of fairness. And, in fact, studies show that well-designed and enforced honor codes can make big dents in improper behavior.

Unfortunately, student pledges are not a cure-all. So, instructors and school administrators say they have little choice but to join the technological arms race. The instructors are hoping to encourage students to do their own original work by using:

Antiplagiarism software: Teachers say they are catching a surprising number of plagiarizers by simply Googling unattributed phrases they find in students' papers. Often, they say, they find passages lifted improperly from Wikipedia, free essay sites, or other Web pages.

Several new software companies are giving instructors even more firepower to fight cheating., SafeAssign, and a few other new companies have built up databases of millions of school papers, books, articles, and Web pages that they compare against homework. Millions of students around the world now turn in their homework electronically to the companies so that the programs can highlight parts that match other sources. Teachers sign on to the companies' sites to look at the results and decide how much similarity is too much.