cover story

How to cheat in school


Book shares tactics used by students, discovered by teachers


By Douglas Burns


At first blush it is all too easy to find oneself with grudging if not outright admiration for some of the ingenious cheating tactics American students employ today.

Talk to nationally regarded cheating expert Stephen F. Davis, a long-time Emporia State University (Kansas) educator and distinguished professor at Morningside College in Sioux City. He’ll lay out the clever and audacious ways kids grub grades with underhandedness. Davis, co-author of the 2009 book, “Cheating In School: What We Know And What We Can Do,” has studied cheating for two decades. He’s done surveys and interviews and held seminars and researched the methods, motivations and consequences of cheating.

His bottom line: As many as 74 percent of college students surveyed said they cheated or engaged in some kind of academic misconduct in high school or college.

One high school principal even made the following comment in a survey: “If they don’t cheat, they’re at a competitive disadvantage.”

The trouble is this: Once you start cheating, you generally don’t stop. Seeing those ill-gotten A’s on the tops of tests or term papers is akin to the crack addict hearing the flame hit the spoon. You want more, more, more. What’s perhaps most disturbing to Davis is the hard evidence he has collected showing that what starts in grade school — a kid looking over another student’s shoulder at a paper — can continue all the way through college and into professional schools.

“If they cheated in undergraduate school, and got by with it, and got good grades, they’re going to cheat in their professional schools,” Davis says.

As a result, Davis goes around the nation giving seminars to educators about cheating entitled “So Who’s Your M.D.?’” We may be able to wave off cheating on an eighth-grade history test as so much tomfoolery, but you want someone who cheated further up the system examining your abdomen?

“One thing I tell my students is ‘Do you want to increase your chances of lying and being dishonest with your spouse or significant other?’” Davis says.

Research — and there’s lots of charts and graphs in Davis’ book — shows a “high relation” between academic cheating and lying to one’s spouses as well as the chances of engaging in crimes.

All of that said, as the nation moved from an agricultural society to an industrial economy to a knowledge-based culture, academic credentials became increasingly valuable commodities. The incentives to cheat to school are higher than ever, says Davis.

David Callahan, author the 2004 book, “The Cheating Culture,” says that as the gap widens into a gulf between winners and losers in American capitalism, the lure of cheating grows more powerful.

“As a society we have become more tolerant of cheating,” Davis said in lengthy phone interview from his home in Hideaway, Texas, near Tyler. “It doesn’t surprise us anymore. It’s just like any other phenomenon in our lives. The more we’re exposed to it, the less surprising and novel and unique and concerning it becomes, especially if everybody’s doing it.”

According to Davis, some of the justifications he hears from academic cheaters are as follows:
“I will never be caught.”

“If you’re not cheating, you’re not really trying hard enough.”
“Ten minutes of cheating is better than four hours of studying.”
“I’m not ashamed. I’m proud. I’m going to get a good grade.”
Davis wants to help educators fight back. He has detailed and passionate thoughts on creating cultures of integrity and honesty and holding institutions’ feet to the fire for not cracking down on cheating.

A key step, Davis believes, is to talk openly about the way people cheat in school.
Instead of concealing these techniques like guarded state secrets, Davis is all-too-happy to share them with educators in the hope that it will help them ferret out cheats.

“I want them to know what’s going on,” Davis says. “Faculty members underestimate the cheating that is going on.”
The information and strategies are there — whether handed down from senior to freshman or downloaded off the Net. Might as well get in the hands of the right people, too, reasons Davis.

“It’s better to have it out there so that everybody knows,” Davis said. “Teachers tend to be so trusting. They wouldn’t even think of that.”

Teachers and students view classroom testing dynamics quite differently, Davis says.

“The teacher’s view and the students’ view are very different sometimes,” Davis says. “For example, if the teacher sits in the front of the classroom and reads a book, or grades papers, or looks out the window during a test, or even leaves the classroom, the teacher senses that that is a statement saying ‘I trust you’ to the students.”

Students, on the other hand, think such behavior shows that teachers really don’t care enough “so we’re going to cheat anyway,” Davis says.
Davis says cheating has reached an alarming rate but the amount hasn’t changed much in 10 years.

So how do students cheat today?
“My sense is that students are continuing to use the old tried-and-true, non-technologically sophisticated methods,” Davis says.
But they are also using technological advances, like texting.
“Everybody uses it, even old people like us,” he says.
(We’ll leave out copying term papers from the Internet because that’s obvious and easy as the proliferation of such sites allowing such activity can be seen with a simple Google search).

Here are some of ways to cheat in school:

1. Desk or foot signals.
Students will use desk corners or a left-foot, right-foot technique to signal answers on multiple choice tests.
This is how it works: You want to cheat from another student in class so you use your hands and fingers to signal, say, the number 14, indicating you need to know the answer to that question. This can be done innocently enough by touching one finger to your head — for the number one — and then tapping four knuckles, signifying four.
That’s how you get the number 14.
Seeing that, the accomplice in the class (the kid who studied and knows the answers or otherwise obtained them) moves his left foot forward for “A” or back for “B” and so on. Corners of the desk also can be designated “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” The student just moves his pen to the correct corner or taps it.
Is this still a popular way to cheat even with available technology?
“Absolutely,” Davis says.
He never fails to see it listed as a technique in surveys.
“Students use that all the time,” Davis says.


2. Is that gum?
Students have placed a cheat sheet in a plastic bag inside of their mouths.


3. The Evian bottle
Take a full bottle of Evian water and don’t open it. Carefully peel back the label and write answers or formulas or other test-enabling information on the back of the label, re-wrap the bottle with it and take your bottle to class.
You can use any kind of bottled water but “Evian works pretty well,” Davis says.
It’s important that there is water in the bottle.
“If you leave the water in, it helps magnify the answers,” Davis says. “Now is that low-tech or high tech?”


4. The plastic Coke bottle
As Davis and his co-authors note, YouTube is a great source for colorful directions on cheating. One YouTube poster, going by the name SmartCanucks, gleefully takes viewers through a process in which the red label from a plastic Coke bottle is removed and scanned. Cheaters then use Photoshop to create a new label, with the iconic Coca-Cola lettering and colors in place but nutritional and other information replaced with answers or materials to help cheat on a test. Just re-wrap with your answer-filled label, and what teacher will notice the difference?


5. Be a hot girl and play off fear
Female students have written answers on their thighs, and then pulled up their skirts during tests.
What male teacher is going to want to challenge that? What if the male teacher is wrong? Is it worth risking a reputation or sex-related charge to prevent cheating?
“What ends up being the case in most instances is that it’s the student’s word against the teacher’s word and any good attorney is going to say, ‘What were you looking there for?’” Davis says.
What’s more, faculty know that they’re likely to not win cheating cases.
“If it goes to litigation faculty tend to lose because previous cases have been resolved in favor of the student,” Davis says.

6. The hidden camera
In perhaps the most elaborate scam, one that reportedly even has been used for college boards like the SAT or ACT, students mount a small camera on their glasses or their ties.
The camera is connected to a transmitter which sends an image of the test back to an outside computer where a “committee” of test takers can view the questions.
The committee then sends the correct answers back to student via a text or pager.
“I haven’t seen this technique used as much as it was 10 or 15 years ago but students were wearing somewhere in their clothing a very, very small camera and actually taking a picture of the test and then the video feed would go outside to a confederate who send via a pager the answers back,” Davis says. “That might be a way to engage in cheating on an ACT test, if you can send a picture quickly and get answers back rather quickly.”
Text-messaging is really opening up opportunities.
“You can really share some answers with friends, either in the same classroom during the test or as happens to be the case,” Davis says.

7. Get answer from teachers
As more funding for schools is tied to test scores, teachers and administrators may be a student’s best source.
“There’s a lot of cheating going on there and the payoffs are really, really very high,” Davis says.


8. Take college entrance tests in rural areas
If you hired Davis as a consultant to help you cheat on the ACT or SAT what strategy would he provide for you?
“First I would be more inclined to be looking for a rural site for the testing because many of the urban centers are going to computer administration,” Davis says. If the tests are on computers then see No. 6 or consider bringing a ringer, a proxy test taker, to pose as you to take the exam.

9. Double blue book it
According to Davis’ book, several students indicated that they took two blue books to an essay exam. They completed one of the blue books at home prior to the exam. The second blue book was placed in the common pile of blank bluebooks. At the completion of the exam, the student turns in the already completed blue book and takes home the blank one he or she received at the beginning of the test.

10. The wall is your friend
“Sit against the wall when you cheat. Fewer people will see you and rat you out, and the teacher comes by less often,” one student suggests in the text of “Cheating In School.” CV


Caption: Students use Coke bottles to cheat by scanning the labels and replacing the ingredients with answers, then reapplying to the bottle.

Caption: Female students write answers on their thighs and pull up skirts during tests.

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