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BlogFuture of Schooling

What is cheating?

By July 22, 2009June 14th, 20167 Comments

I recently found myself re-reading this article from eSchoolNews about how students don’t see using technology to answer questions as cheating. When the article came out on June 18, 2009, many bloggers, including Teach42, ConcreteClassroom, and an excellent article on The Future of Education is Here, further examined the issue with their own posts. Almost all, including those who commented, questioned: if a student can look something up, is it worth memorizing? If the question can be answered with a quick Google search, how deep of a test question could it really be?

ReadWriteWeb made a similar point in their post about Wolfram Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that came out early this summer, including various points of view from an earlier article on ReadWriteWeb asserted:

“…it’s clear that Wolfram|Alpha and similar computational software will force the education system to adapt and change. Students now have a new (and certainly easier to use, as it’s on the Web) platform on which to compute things. There’s no point in the education system pretending it doesn’t exist.”

In reading these many posts and responses, I was reminded of Daniel Pink’s three crucial questions for the success of any business:

  1. Can a computer do it faster?
  2. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?
  3. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

Many of the facts we ask students to memorize and skills that we assess would be a resounding “YES” to #1 and #3 and a firm “NO” to #2.

As adults, we often intuitively know what we actually need to remember and have available at a moment’s notice versus what we can release from memory and look up if needed. It is what we actually DO with the data, however, that is the most critical to assess and the hardest at which to cheat.

Take a look at these questions. Which ones can you quickly answer? Which ones have you not bothered to commit to memory due to lack of importance or ease of looking up? Which ones pique your interest more? Which ones actually sound like problems you’ve had to solve?

  1. What is your state bird? Bonus: what does it look like? Extra Bonus: what is the official Latin name for the bird?
  2. What is the driest year on record in your area?
  3. What is the driest year on record in your area that happened in your lifetime and that you can recall? Write a brief blog post about your memories and how the drought impacted your day-to-day life.
  4. You order a $13 appetizer and an $8 glass of wine. If sales tax in your area is 4% you leave a 20% tip, what is your total?
  5. You and 3 friends go out to eat. You and one friend each order an $8 glass of wine, but the other two only drink water. Your entrees are about the same, at $13 per person, plus a 4% sales tax. What’s the easiest and fairest way to split the tab and leave a 20% tip?

Likely, you had to look up at least parts of Questions #1 and #2. (If you bothered…but the importance of asking engaging questions is another post for another time.) You may have used a calculator for #4 and answered that in its entirety. For questions #3 and #5, however, even if you did use a couple of tools to get basic facts, you would still have to draw upon your own brainstorming or background knowledge in order to completely answer the question. Finding the answers to these questions likely required more creative thinking…thinking in which it is harder to “cheat.” (And likely, these were questions that much more closely mirror actual problems in your day-to-day life that you have to solve.)

For my own answers to #3 and #5, respectively:

The driest year on record since I moved to Denver in 1998, according to, was 2002, the summer my husband and I were married. I vividly recall the many wildfires that summer. When I took my family and out-of-town guests out to eat the week of our wedding, we would sometimes try to sit outside on patios. Very often, however, we had to relocate indoors due to the ash that would fall into our food.

Though not an exact answer, I would add $5 to my pre-tax total of $21 and have my other buddy with the glass of wine do the same. For the two who had water, I would ask if they would leave $3 for their $13 pre-tax total. This would leave a total of $84. (If my formal calculations that I did later are correct, the bill would come to $70.72, making a $14 tip acceptable.)

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Theron says:

    This is an interesting topic to me. When I was in high school many math teachers allowed me to use my TI-81 graphing calculator. That calculator was like an extension of my brain. I tried to find ways to use it that the teachers didn’t understand. They expected me to do simple math or graph a formula, but I put free text notes in it or wrote programs that would make my calculations easier. Was that cheating or a valid use of the tools at hand?
    Now the Internet is another level of that extension. I couldn’t do my software engineering job without it, but every so often I get authority figures who don’t understand its power. I had a manager at my last job who was shocked to find that I used Google to look up answers to technical problems. She thought I was just smart and knew the answers; using Google was cheating. She had no clue what I actually did at my job.
    For my profession, the hardest thing to teach and learn is the ability to find the answer. The answer on Google is usually the last step in a long process of investigation, dead ends, backtracks and clues to point you in the right direction. It’s not the knowledge of facts that’s the most helpful; it’s understanding how computers work at a deep enough level to know where to start with a problem and how to proceed in the right direction once you’ve started. Like your question about the driest year you can remember, I think the ability to problem solve is cheat-proof.
    “Cheating” with my calculator by figuring out how to program it prepared me for my current job a whole lot more than memorizing some calculus equation that I have never needed. If I do ever have to do some calculus, maybe I can find some batteries for that old TI-81… I wonder where I put that thing.

  • Theron,
    Thanks for an insightful post from beyond the education realm. I, too, had a recent experience as an adult in which we were in a meeting and were handed a series of questions- (I think about American history.) I answered what I knew off the top of my head, but then immediately started looking things up on my laptop. I was surprised when several people sitting next to me let me know that they thought this was cheating.
    I love your statement that “problem-solving is cheat-proof.” I believe that we absolutely need to teach basic concepts, but then quickly move on to using tools at hand in order to more quickly get to that problem-solving level.
    Thanks for your post.

  • Angie says:

    Educators need to look at their curriculum and determine what is the depth. The book, The Cheating Culture, really has some insights on this as well.

  • Martin says:

    It’s a very interesting topic… However, where do we draw the line between truly working our brains and dumbing ourselves down? Basic multiplication tables and spelling are no longer taught in school. Certainly, the students can just look up the answers, but why should they? These are basic brain applications that we should know, exercises for our brains if you will. Why would I give that up so a machine can do my thinking for me? Where do we draw the line? I’m all for technology; I just don’t want to see it get out of hand.

  • Loretto Patterson says:

    Cheating is a hot topic in education. Do we need to redefine cheating? Educators must teach students to think and problem solve.
    Education has focused on collaboration, technology and problem solving strategies that will change how students learn and classrooms look.

  • Phillip says:

    This is a very interesting article and I really loved the examples of questions. I think Einstein said that there was no need in memorizing things that one can look up later. I have thought about this statement over the past few years in my career as an educator and have tried to change my lesson delivery to embrace more critical thinking.

  • R. Gipson says:

    Technology is such a blessing and a curse…especially for English teachers who are trying to teach students to write papers that marry research and critical thinking. I love the freedom and flexibility that various websites allow me when trying to get students to access current, pop-culture based information and old-school stuff in combination. However, again and again I find that I am having to force students to complete a certain amount of work in class so that I can literally see what they complete and use this as a judgement tool for how much of the paper I recieve is realy and truly their own work. Some teachers see the extra classtime this consumes as a crutch, others say it is a waste when other things need to be covered in the classroom. I often struggle personally with the criticism, but have not been able to find a way around the fact that old school critical thinking is still taking place. I also work to devise unique (yet logical) paper topics that are not already in active use (and therefore readily available for download).
    That’s a long way of saying that I’d like to know how others handle this.

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