Thursday, November 05, 2009


I spent a couple of hours today constructing a test for my last Friday class, which is a very large and troublesome one in a too small room. Normally it does not take me long to make these tests, because I tell the students the questions and the answers the week before. The tests are just a way to ensure the students are paying attention at the end of class and that they come on time at the beginning. They are also a way for me to give points, since we were told that we are not allowed to use 'subjective' grades, and therefore cannot grade for attendance or participation.

These tests are a way for me to grade for both attendance and participation (both of which are important in oral language classes) under a different name. I give grades on TESTS. They love tests here. It is not all of their grade, but it is quite a large hunk.

The tests work pretty well, in the sense that the ones who attend and participate usually do quite well on them, whereas those who don't, don't. I get a pretty accurate spread of points. The same ones who behave badly in class tend to also do badly on the tests.

But although it is a 'pretty accurate' spread, in the first semester it was not entirely accurate. In fact there were a few students who did a lot better than they should have. That is because they cheat.

I have never caught anyone at it (until now) but I know they cheat, because I have experimented with standing next to one I suspect during tests, at which times he (usually, but not always – sometimes it's she) does very badly indeed. The problem is that I can only stand over one cheater at a time. They are dispersed throughout the classroom, and due to the shape and size of the room I cannot oversee all of them at once. I can stand near one, who frowns earnestly and struggles with the questions (which I told them the week before, along with the answers), and then I go to stand near another, at which point the first one miraculously remembers the answers and writes them down.

This has been annoying the crap out of me, because these are generally the same students who cause me so much grief during class time. They never do the class work, and are ridiculously disruptive, chatting with students who are actually trying to study and claiming, when I finally get to them to see if they need help with an activity, that they do not understand what they are supposed to be doing. They are always attentive and polite when I go over and explain something directly to them, but ignore me completely when I am explaining something to the class as a whole. Nor do they read the instructions I write on the board unless I stand beside them and point and tell them to read it, at which time they understand and do what they're supposed to be doing. Apparently they cannot read unless I point and hover. By the time I have them started on the activity (which is always something they can do – they just haven't been paying attention) the rest of the class has finished and it's time to start on something else.

Before you tell me I should start with the bad students, that doesn't work either, because they are scattered all over the classroom, and when I try to do this I am generally waylaid on my way down the aisle by a good student with a question, and since the good students deserve my attention more than the bad students do I take care of them first. Meanwhile the bad students are distracting the reasonably good (but easily distracted) students all around them. It is particularly annoying that when I get to them and explain to them personally what to do, my explanation is exactly the same as the one I gave the entire class, which they did not listen to. (When I say 'bad' students I do not mean 'low-level' students.)

As you may have concluded by now, this class almost never goes well, and nobody learns very much. But in the first semester I was forced to pass students I did not think should have passed because they'd done well in tests, and I was not able to check all the work they did in class (for an oral language class there are too many students to get around to all of them) so this semester I was determined to stop the cheating so that the students who did not at least memorize the test answers would not get good grades.

Trying harder to police the tests did not work. It just isn't possible when the room isn't big enough to separate the students. I finally decided that, even though it was far more work than I wanted to do, I would mount a sneak attack. I spent an entire weekend constructing a test that was exactly the same as the one I had told the class I would give them, but which had three different versions. It was a multiple choice test. I made all three versions appear to be the same (if you just happened to glance at your neighbour's paper) but they weren't the same. I labelled them with a tiny a, b or c at the bottom of the page so that I could distinguish the three versions, and when I handed them out I made sure that each student in a row of three got a different test, and that nobody was sitting behind someone with the same test.

The biggest surprise for me was that it was a couple of the good (or rather, goodish) students near the front who first noticed the tests were different. I heard them whispering agitatedly and snuck up behind them to explain quietly that yes, the tests were different, and it was because there was too much cheating. They looked guilty and nodded seriously. (And one of them did MUCH worse than she usually does.)

Three or four of the bad students whom I suspected of cheating (but had never caught) scored zero on the tests, having mysteriously managed to write 'a' answers on 'b' tests, or whichever way around it was. A few other students whom I had not suspected also scored alarmingly low, with some (but not all) of their answers being answers from different tests.

All in all, the time I spent constructing this test turned out to be well spent. I have identified exactly how many students I need to keep an eye on, i.e. FAR MORE THAN I HAD SUSPECTED.

(When I told a colleague about my sneak test a few days after the first one she laughed so hard I thought she was going to choke on her curry. She is using the same textbook I am using, and when she finally stopped laughing she asked for copies.)

The next time I gave a test in that class, two weeks ago, I did the same thing again, but this time I only made two versions (because I didn't have time to make three). These were not multiple choice and it was more obvious that they were different, but I thought since word had probably got around about my new tactic it wasn't necessary to conceal the trick.

But it turned out they didn't all know. There was one student who has always been charming and apparently cooperative to my face, distracting and disruptive when he thinks I'm not looking, and who never does any work at all if he can help it. He always sits at the back if I don't move them around (which I don't always do because it takes so long) and had been sitting at the back when I gave the first sneak test. He scored zero on that one, and I assumed he knew all about it.

But apparently he hadn't checked the scores on the back of his name card at the beginning of class, because sometime during the second sneak test I heard him mutter urgently to the student sitting beside him,

"Our tests are different!"

"Yes," his neighbour muttered back. Then he added, "They were different last time, too."

Silence reigned for a moment (as it should during tests), then the cheater yelped loudly,

"WHAT?" He turned over his name card and stared at the numbers tragically.

"SHHHH!" I hissed. (At that moment I totally understood why people become librarians.)

The cheater only attempted one of the questions. He got it wrong. If only he'd paid attention the week before! He might have noticed that I'd told him the answers already.

The next week (last Friday) he did not come to class. The entire class went a little better than usual, which may or may not have been related.

Tomorrow they'll be getting another one of my sneak tests. The questions – and answers – are exactly what I said they would be, although the answers are slightly differently arranged. And while I am a little annoyed at having to spend so much time constructing these tests, I must admit it's kind of fun, too. It's like making something that is at the same time a logic puzzle (for me, making it work), a practical joke, a trap, and a perfectly fair and easy test.

I almost hope the chronic cheater comes back.


Carrie said...

Cheating students can be oh-so-very stupid. I always used to do two or three versions of tests as well. Took forever and a day, but was usually worth it. I'm glad your back to blogging! I missed you.

tinyhands said...

Multiple versions is exactly how my teachers tried to prevent cheating. I'm so glad it worked out for you, although I wonder what it says about me that I enjoy reading about you trapping your students.

Kay said...

As I read the first part of your post, I was itching to tell you I used to make different versions of the test--then, lo and behold! It does work!! But I can't make my own tests in the high school classes where I substitute, so I watch them copy from one another and the TA stamp them as done and give them a grade. Alas......

fallensnow said...

I have to say that I enjoyed this entry a lot! =p

Tamara Marnell said...

I'm not a teacher (yet), but my professors in college had an arsonal of anti-cheating charms in place:

(a) Different versions, like you did. For tests that weren't multiple choice (with diagrams, fill-in-the-blanks etc.) they would put questions in different orders, so it would be harder to spot the right answer on your neighbors' papers (and looking around for it makes it fairly obvious you're cheating).

(b) Assigned seating on test day. They never explicitly put the suspected cheaters up front, but it made it more difficult to hire impersonators in big anonymous lecture halls.

(c) Alternating seats. This might not be possible in your classroom, but professors would force us to sit with one empty seat between students so you couldn't look at other papers without obviously straining.

Shyam said...

GOOD for you! I hate cheaters! When I was a student I hated to be asked to show my answers to anyone (sometimes I did and sometimes I ignored them)... if I showed them, and they got good marks, it annoyed me because they didnt work for their grade and I did. If I didnt show my answers, I was shunned later and/or bullied.

I really do dislike cheaters.

Wide said...

Clever and hilarious! Let 'em have it!

William said...

That's awesome. The programmer in me says there should be a way to automate this test-making, though. :D