Smart Watches in Exams? Why NOT?!

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By Mateus S. Figueiredo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The question of what to do about smart watches in exams came across my feed.

Predictably, the typical response is to simply not allow them. I’ve got news for you all….. this won’t fix the problem.

Anything we do to try and “stop” cheating is at best, a temporary measure.

We should instead be looking much more closely at the root causes of cheating. While there are probably a few people who will try and cheat no matter *what* we do, the vast majority of students would NOT cheat if conditions were different.

My experience over the years has been that the more I trust my students, the more trust-worthy they actually become.

In my work with gamification in the classroom, I have also found that cheating is related to relative amount of (real or perceived) risk that is associated with an assignment or test.

Reduce the risk, and you WILL reduce cheating.

If we REALLY think about why we are teaching something, the approach to cheating can (and should) change.

If we are simply trying to “weed out” those that can’t do our tests and assignments, then fine. I have nothing to say to you.

However, if what we really want to do is to help people actually LEARN something, then why do we not give our students more chances to do that?

Blaming our students for cheating when we make their learning path unnaturally perilous is like me blaming my puppy for stealing that steak when I’m the one who left it lying on the floor.

Here are 5 strategies that reduce the risk associated with graded coursework:

  1. Allow students to fix their mistakes and resubmit their work.
    This can’t be done in every circumstance, perhaps, but trust me, it will NOT increase your workload. Fewer than 10% of your students will take you up on this offer, but ALMOST ALL of your students will now read and reflect on your feedback. As an added bonus, students will complain less, because by doing this you have given them a choice.
  2. Use criterion referenced rather than norm referenced grading – and make sure you tell your students what those criteria are at the same time as they get their assignment. We have faith in norm-referenced grading when in fact there is very little evidence to support the notion that this works at a course level. Sure, if you pool enough assessments (and I’m talking 1,000’s), a normal curve will emerge. Since when does that mean that your class this term is “perfectly normal”? Besides, if our goal is to actually TEACH students, then shouldn’t we be rewarding ALL students who manage to master the material to our standards and not just those who happen to lie above our arbitrary “A” borderline? This is basically a zero-sum game – one person’s gain comes at the expense of another person’s loss. What kind of sense does that make if our stated goal is to help people learn something?
  3. Use cumulative grading rather sectionalized grading. Almost every single course I’ve ever seen employs some form of sectionalized grading, for example:  35% for assignments, 25% for the midterm, and 40% for the final. If a student blows ONE part of the course for whatever reason, they are screwed. Imagine a student who did OK on the midterm, blew one of the assignments because they misunderstood what was wanted, and did pretty well on all the other assignments. Let’s say there are 5 assignments worth 7% each. So:
    OK on the midterm = 18%, Assignments = 4 * 5 + 1 * 0 = 20%. This student currently has 38%. In order to come away from the course with a “B”, let’s say they need 75%. That means that student MUST earn at least 37/40 on the final. How do you suppose it feels walking into a final exam already knowing you’re screwed? Do you suppose that might prompt an otherwise honest student to cheat?
    By contrast, cumulative grading has students start off with 0, and everything they do adds to their score. If they do well, it adds a lot. If they blow something, it adds less. If, in addition to that, you provide just a few chances to earn additional marks, you give students a way to recover. Blowing something is NOT the end. This reduces the risk. This is also how learning is SUPPOSED to go.
  4. Give them choice over their work. Most of us get to teach the same course more than once. That means we likely have a variety of assignments we can give them. Rather than giving them a specific set of assignments, why not give them a choice of 2 or 3 in each “slot”? Allow them to choose an assignment that matches their interests. Giving them a choice increases their investment in the task, thereby reducing the likelihood of cheating.
  5. Use attainment-based assessment rather than time-based assessment. Let’s face it: one of the primary reasons we have strict deadlines for things is for our own convenience. Another is, “They need to learn to work to deadlines.” Well, sure. But don’t they ALSO need to learn to work when there are NO clear deadlines? When do we teach them THAT? I now have almost no deadlines at all in my classes. Know what? My students STILL submit work. If they need a couple of extra days to fix that last bug, I’m perfectly OK with that. I’d much rather they spend a little extra time and learn something than have them give up in frustration and hand in something that will get a failing mark, OR, worse yet, CHEAT.

THINK ABOUT THIS. What do you actually want your students to get out of your courses? Do you want them to learn something? If so, then HELP THEM learn it. I’m not saying we should make things easy for them. I AM saying we should provide them with plenty of opportunities to try.

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