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Your Cheatin' Heart: A New Spin on an Old Tactic

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Now, I do not condone cheating in school, but my job is to have my students leave knowing more than they came in with. Some years ago, I taught sixth-grade English. I noticed that my students could not spell very well, and the literacy coach told me spelling tests were outdated and ineffective. Being a new teacher, I decided to give spelling tests anyway.

The first semester, I gave what would be considered normal spelling tests. The students got the words at the beginning of the week, we worked with them during the week, and then I would give a test in which I said the word, put it in a sentence, and said it again. I could see why the literacy coach thought this was ineffective. It was boring.

The second semester, I told the students they had to memorize the words, eighteen of them, each week. That semester, the spelling test consisted of me telling students to take out a piece of paper and write down the words, with no input from me. They got half credit for remembering the word, and half for spelling it correctly.

After a while, I would notice students trying to cheat. They had written a particularly difficult word somewhere so it was not visible to me, and then they would strain to try to see it and write it down. I knew that if I called them on it, something drastic and punitive would have to be done.

Then it hit me: If students were trying that hard to remember the word machine and how to spell it, they would never forget it as long as they lived. So I let them think I was stupid.

At the end of the semester, I had a massive spelling test in which I chose twenty-five of the 180 words they had worked on during the semester. They didn't know which words I would choose, so there was no way to cheat. I had two classes -- a high-level class and an average one. After the test, I tabulated the averages for each class. The high-level class got an average of 23.5 words correct. The other class averaged 22.5 words correct. Nobody scored less than twenty.

My students, who had come in reading at a third- or fourth-grade level, were mastering sixth-grade words. They were excited about what they had achieved. I never told them I knew what they were doing. They thought they were fooling me, but, really, they fooled themselves into learning. I just had to let them do it.

In the same way, I have had students try to cheat using their cell phones, but, after a while, it becomes a collaborative tool instead of a cheating device. They start asking each other pertinent questions that probe way beyond where they started. They teach each other. I just have to let them do it. That, to me, is what technology offers my classroom.

Moderator's Note: Read Ron's posts about cell phones in school -- Become a Ringleader: Teaching with Text Messaging and A Pencil Is a Word Processor: Making the Case for Cell Phones in Class.

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Jim Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ron - When I am doing a residency and find myself working with disengaged middle school students in a 1:1 school, I often use the term "cheat" openly. I show them how to use a spreadsheet to build their own calculators.

"OK, I am going to show you how to cheat," I begin, guaranteeing that I get their attention. "I'm gonna' show you how to build a calculator that will give you the area of any rectangle - it'll do some of your homework for you. Who knows the formula for the area of a rectangle? Come on... if you don't know the formula, then we can't build this thing... Come on... some one has to know it..."

Then I head to the board, use markers and we "remember" it... And then it is on to the spreadsheet where we build the calculator, and hey, if we can build that, then we can build one for a triangle, but, "...we have to know the formula..."

In a short time I have the kids who show us time and again that they, "don't care," who far too often are found bunched up in the low groups in a school that tracks, using and understanding formulae like =product(a2,b2) and =product(e2,f2)/2 and =product(3.14,g1,g1).

And before they know it, we can begin to create the mother of all spreadsheets - the one that allows a diner to navigate and, dare I say, master, the oftentimes bizarre pricing structure of one of my daughter's favorite restaurants - Pizza Hut. At the Hut a medium pizza may be on special, but the large is buy one get one free, and smalls are 2 for $8.99... Arrgghhh! What is a shopper to do???

But soon the kids and I are figuring it out and taking charge of our ordering by simply finding out how many square inches of pie we are getting for how many cents and then dividing to get the all important PpSIoP(price per square inch of pizza). And hey, even I, with the help of a spreadsheet, can figure that one out!

Cheat on, eh? ;-}

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


That's a great story! I have to figure out how to incorporate pizza into my classes.

One of the things I tell my kids is that they are going to produce digital media that their other teachers don't understand. They don't really believe me at first, but after they try it, they are hooked! They love being the smartest person in the room, and a well-made digital presentation is just the way to do it.

Roberta Hawkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm currently doing my doctoral dissertation on student cheating. Findings suggest that over 70 % of high school and college students cheat-and rather frequently. There is also research that supports the carry-over effect of cheating habits; in other words, those who cheat in high school tend to cheat in college and the workplace. Unless we are willing to live with the fact that medical school students are cheating (and yes, they are), that airline mechanics do, too, and that part of Boston's big dig tunnel collapsed and killed a woman because a company cheated on the quality of the cement, we'd all better stop closing our eyes to the dishonesty-habit. Cheaters overwhelming believe that "it's no big deal", partially because the habit is reinforced and rewarded at school.
So, as a 27 year veteran teacher myself, I can sympathize with your idea that "whatever makes them learn is good", but I would urge you to reconsider your strategies. Your students aren't stupid. They know YOU aren't stupid and they know YOU know they're cheating. They probably think you don't care. I'm sure you don't really want that.

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


i understand your concerns. i have thought much about them, but here's why i opted to do what i did. the students i had were, by and large, fresh from mexico. they were put in my 6th grade class because they were 11 years old, not because they had completed the first 5 grades. in fact, compulsory education in mexico only extends to the 3rd grade. these students were, and their counterparts today are, highly susceptible to the lure of drugs, crime, and gangs. their lack of language skills, in spanish and english, makes any kind of success at school nearly impossible.

having been a teacher for a long time, you know how attached we get to our students, and how much we want them to succeed. my theory is twofold: first, as i mentioned, even though they are technically cheating, they are so bad at it that they end up having to learn the material in spite of themselves; second, these kids NEED a success. they need to be good at something, otherwise, they aren't going to make it past the 8th grade. we must give them a reason to stay in school.

i don't know what grade levels you have taught, but i can tell you that middle and high schoolers, in the main, think they are much smarter than their teachers. in fact, i tell them that they are, that they will be better than me. that's what i want anyway.

leonardo da vinci said, "he is a poor pupil who does not surpass his master". i really want them to do that. if i have to bend the rules to do it, i will. we can't afford to let these kids get away.

Roberta Hawkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well, actually, I taught grades 6-12, and very many of my 27 years experience were in inner city schools, which are fraught with problems, and populated by struggling minority and immigrant children. I understand and appreciate your compassion, and I don't doubt your good intentions, but da Vinci wouldn't suggest that the master PRETEND that the students surpass him. I agree that your students need a success, but they need a REAL one, not a handout. I assure you that your kids can rise to your expectations if you hold them to true standards. And when they've earned some legitimate self-esteem, they will be inspired to more than merely knowing they've cheated and can always cheat again.

Tacker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Unless we are willing to live with the fact that medical school students are cheating, that airline mechanics do, too, and that part of Boston's big dig tunnel collapsed and killed a woman because a company cheated on the quality of the cement, we'd all better stop closing our eyes to the dishonesty-habit

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