Memorization, Cheating, and Technology

What can we do to stem the increased use of phones and laptops to cheat on exams in class?

October 28, 2015

I suspect that I am in the same position as many others who teach at a university undergoing rapid enrollment increases. Most of my upper-level undergraduate courses have doubled in size since I began teaching more than a decade ago.

Over the same time frame, I’ve noticed a growing resistance in my classroom to memorization. When I tell students enrolled in my paleontology course that they will need to know the geologic time scale, for example, I am frequently asked, "Why?" They know the information is a quick Google search away. What’s the point of memorizing it, they want to know.

My answer is always the same tired refrain: "If I tell you something happened during the Devonian, and you can’t instantly place this in geochronological context, you’ll never be able to understand the story of life on the planet."

There are some things you simply have to know, off the top of your head, to be successful in a college course.

Resistance to memorization, combined with increasing class size, has led to a third disturbing trend: an increase in cases of academic dishonesty. That combination of problems is only exacerbated by the use of cell phones, iPads, and laptops in the classroom. Studies of academic dishonesty (such as plagiarism or copying on exams) and the prevalence of cheating in the traditional classroom are abundant. Comparisons between cheating in online courses and in traditional classrooms are also abundant.

But there is a dearth of research on the region between those two — namely, on the use of online technology to cheat while in the classroom.

Examples abound of students employing creative nontechnological means to resist memorization in favor of cheating. In my classroom, I have found plastic erasers with the names and contributions of early geologists written in microscopic script under the cardboard sleeve. Pepsi and Coke bottles are also popular places for lists on the inside of the label. (You can’t see the list unless the bottle is slightly emptied and tipped.)

Such activities were, and remain, fairly unusual in my classroom. (I think.) But examples of cheating using technology are clearly on the rise. Amazingly, when confronted, students often genuinely do not believe they are doing anything wrong. Why, from a student’s perspective, should they have to memorize basic stratigraphic principles when their phone can produce a list of them in a matter of seconds?

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve found that the most important classroom management tool you can use in this regard: Ban the use of calculators found on phones or laptops for any graded test.

On many exams I give a few problems that involve complex equations. For the past five semesters I’ve allowed the use of the calculator function on phones to answer such questions and the result has been repeated and frequent Googling of answers for the nonmathematical questions. That behavior continues despite my many warnings that it is cheating.

Resistance to memorization, combined with increasing class size, has led to a third disturbing trend: an increase in cases of academic dishonesty.
Even if instructed to bring a calculator to an exam — not a phone with a calculator, but an actual calculator — only about one in five students will. The rest pull out their phones and quietly ignore my prohibition. I’m embarrassed to say that in the past I ignored such transgressions, alleviating my discomfort with a promise to monitor these students carefully. Given the choice between students not having a calculator (phone prohibition enforced, incorrect answer) or allowing them use of the phone (with monitoring) I usually chose the latter, more lenient approach — as I wrote in a 2013 column for The Chronicle. I rationalized that the point of the question was to see if they could answer it with a calculator, not to measure if they had remembered to bring a calculator to the exam. However, that approach was feasible with 20 students; today I have 60 or more.

The cheating goes beyond the simple use of search engines. Students will text answers back and forth across the classroom or upload their class notes and handouts via email or photographs. I’ve even had a student attempt to photograph the exam questions, presumably to pass them on to a friend who has the same class later in the week.

Most of those examples would clearly be understood as cheating to the perpetrators. But for most students, a simple Google search during a test does not register as such, especially if the answer would have required basic memorization.

More than once during the first exam of the semester I’ve been directly asked, "Can I use my phone?" Last semester the answer was clear: No, there isn’t any math on this exam so you don’t need a calculator. The confused follow up was "No, I meant to look stuff up." Or in contrast, "Can I use my phone?" No. "How about just the calculator?" What was the original question asking permission for, exactly?

Solutions, to me at least, now seem obvious. Any appearance of a phone, laptop, or tablet during any class period in which the students are being evaluated is prohibited in my courses. I state this rule on the syllabus and announce it during the first several class meetings. (Students who might need access to their phones for emergency or personal reasons have to ask permission before class and then sit in the front row.)

The policy has had positive consequences aside from eliminating the temptation for students to cheat.

After one semester in which a large-enrollment class was repeatedly interrupted by ringing cellphones I thought I’d try a new tactic. A new colleague, fresh from graduate school and looking all of 21 years old, asked if he could sit in on my 180-seat physical geology course for the first few weeks. I agreed, on one condition: I asked him to hold my cellphone for me during the class (a disposable phone with only a handful of prepaid minutes remaining).

On the first day of class, while I was discussing course mechanics and decorum, I had our departmental administrator call the phone. My colleague, who the students assumed was a fellow student, was mortified. He became even more flustered when I quickly crossed the room, picked up the phone, and threw it as hard as I could against a cinder-block wall, shattering it into a dozen pieces. The reaction of the class was universal — dropped jaws followed by subtle searching through their pockets and backpacks to turn off their own phones.

Not a single phone rang during class that semester.

Scott P. Hippensteel is an associate professor of earth sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.