Colleges look to outsmart tech-savvy cheaters
ORLANDO, Fla. — The frontier in the battle to defeat student cheating might be here at the testing center at the University of Central Florida.
No gum is allowed during an exam: Chewing could disguise a student speaking into a handsfree cell phone to an accomplice outside.
The 228 computers that students use are recessed into the tops of desks so that anyone trying to photograph the screen — using, say, a pen with a hidden camera, to help a friend taking the test later — is easy to spot.
A proctor who sees something suspicious records the student’s real-time work at the computer and directs an overhead camera to zoom in, and both sets of images are burned onto a CD for evidence.
Taylor Ellis, the associate dean who runs the testing center within the business school at Central Florida, the nation’s third-largest campus by enrollment, said that cheating had dropped significantly, to 14 suspected incidents out of 64,000 exams administered during the spring semester.
“I will never stop it completely, but I’ll find out about it,” he said.
As the eternal temptation of students to cheat has gone high-tech — not just on exams, but by cutting and pasting from the Internet and sharing homework online — educators have responded with their own efforts to crack down.
This summer, as incoming freshmen fill out forms to select roommates and courses, a number of colleges — Duke and Bowdoin among them — are also requiring them to complete online tutorials about plagiarism.
Anti-plagiarism services that vet student papers are a booming business. About 55 percent of colleges and universities now use such a service, according to the Campus Computing Survey. The best-known service, Turnitin.com, is engaged in an endless cat-and-mouse game with technologically savvy students.
“The Turnitin algorithms are updated on an ongoing basis,” the company warned last month in a blog post titled “Can Students ‘Trick’ Turnitin?”
The extent of cheating, difficult to measure precisely, appears widespread at colleges. In surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the past four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams.
The figure declined somewhat from 65 percent earlier in the decade, but the researcher who conducted the surveys, Donald McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers, doubts there is less of it. Instead, he suspects students no longer regard certain acts as cheating at all, for instance, cutting and pasting a few sentences at a time from the Internet.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, physics professor David Pritchard was able to accurately measure homework copying with software he had developed for another purpose — to enable students to complete physics problems online. But some answered the questions so fast, “at first I thought we had some geniuses here,” Pritchard said. Then he realized they were completing problems in less time than it took to read them and were copying the answers, mostly from e-mail messages from friends who had already done the assignment.
About 20 percent copied one-third or more of their homework, according to a study Pritchard and colleagues published this year.
For educators uncomfortable in the role of anti-cheating enforcer, an online tutorial in plagiarism may prove a simple technological fix.
That was the finding of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in January. Students at an unnamed selective college who completed a Web tutorial were shown to plagiarize two-thirds less than students who did not.
The tutorial “had an outsize impact,” said Thomas Dee, a co-author and an economist at the University of Virginia. “Our results suggest a tutorial worked by educating students rather than by frightening them.”
Michael Gorion monitors students during exams at the University of Central Florida, which has gone high-tech in its battle against cheating.