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Over the last few years, our university has seen a rise in high-tech academic dishonesty. We have a no electronics policy, except calculators when needed (even those now are provided by the school, and personal calculators are not allowed). However, students still sneak cell phones into the exam and use them in a very inconspicuous way.

We have had students take pictures (presumably with a cell phone) during an exam and have someone outside the room sending them back solutions. We have had them communicate with classmates somewhere else in the room (some have been caught this way giving the right answers to the wrong exam). We have had numerous students using their phones to store notes, copies of old exam solutions, etc., and use them as an aid during the exam (this is the most common).

We have caught some students, but I know it is a small fraction. Students will tell us they see cell phone use routinely during exams, but don't want to squeal on classmates because of anticipated reprisal. Our instructors are quite vigilant in watching the classroom, but it is very difficult to watch 30 to 70 students constantly. (Larger classes have multiple proctors.) Instructors have been informed of the classic cues as well. Our penalties are stiff (first offense, F in the course, second offense, student gets the boot from the school). However, students are still getting away with high-tech cheating.

My question is, does anyone have any sure fire ways of identifying students attempting to use cell phones or other high-tech cheating devices during exams? I'm looking for methods, electronic sniffers, etc.

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    Those cheating methods were actually employed also around 20-25 years ago when I was a student, only with lesser-tech devices (radios and programmable calculators instead of smartphones, solutions left in the restrooms etc.) In this answer, which is somehow related, I suggest another strategy. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 30 '15 at 17:45
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    You can't legally block radio signals via active jamming. Shielding the exam hall would probably be prohibitively expensive. You could try setting up "honeypot" cellular/wireless hubs, but smartphones need not connect to the first hub they find... This is a nontrivial problem – keshlam Sep 30 '15 at 17:46
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    EMP the exam hall. Warn the students in advance that this will happen. If their phones are destroyed, they had notice. Distribute Casio FX991s from a faraday cage picnic basket afterwards, to be returned like 3D glasses after a movie. – J... Sep 30 '15 at 23:23
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    In my four years of undergrad, the best prof I ever had was one who flat out told us, "Ask me anything on the test. Literally - if you don't know how to do something, ask me. I'd rather you learned how to do something right than just skip the question or put down a wrong answer." It unnerved us at first, but eventually we realized that he really meant it. The flip side was that we knew that we couldn't rely on him to pass the test - he didn't have time to help us all - but he became another resource. I don't know if that will help with cheating, but I just want to have it noted. – tonysdg Oct 1 '15 at 1:14
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    I don't know how you are actually watching the students. It certainly helps if there is at least one person behind the students' back, so the students don't actually know what this person is looking at without turning their head and making them suspicious... – traindriver Oct 1 '15 at 6:28

10 Answers 10

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Ultimately, this is not a technological problem but a cultural and pedagogical problem.

The problem with technological solutions is that they set up an "arms race" with the students, in which you will certainly lose. Electronics are constantly getting smaller and obtaining more means of communication, so a student who really wants to cheat will likely have a means that you won't be readily able to distinguish. Consider, for example, the recent emergence of smart watches: are you going to ban watches from the classroom? What about low-tech but still effective forms of cheating like scraps of paper? If you get a frequency scanner, will you be able to catch somebody using non-standard communication bands?

The best defense against cheating students is other students who understand that it cheats them out of the value of their well-earned grades. If you can inculcate a school culture where most students are not just not cheating but actively opposed to cheating, then it will be much harder for cheaters to prosper.

The second best defense against cheating is to design exams that are more about process than product. Think "show your work" and "essay question." Yes, it's possible that a cheating student will outsource their work and render themselves a puppet of an expert whispering guidance in their ear, but that's a lot harder to do than secretly googling for information about Kirchoff's laws. I am, in fact, a big fan of open-book tests, which tend to push students to focus on synthesis instead of memorization. This, I believe, has much more value to students in the long run, and also has the nice side effect of rendering high-tech cheating much less valuable as well.

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    +1 for writing questions that require showing thought and process. – Fomite Sep 30 '15 at 19:42
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    "If you can inculcate a school culture" -- this is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. My personal experience is that a minimum requirement for honor codes to work is a small enough population such that students personally know a majority of their peers, so that their decision making takes into account harm done to their friends by cheating. Otherwise, the dominance of amoral rational agents will quickly find the Nash equilibrium of everyone cheating. – user4512 Sep 30 '15 at 20:28
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    The fact is while we tell them they are cheating themselves, this only applies in a nonexistent reality where students actually benefit primarily from knowledge imparted. In the US at least, college degrees are given as stamps of approval -- diplomas may as well read "we certify this person to be competent to handle general adult tasks" in most cases. If one can get the same stamp of approval with less work and at the cost of diminishing the value of that school's degrees by some unmeasurable epsilon years down the road, those amoral rational agents will do just that. – user4512 Sep 30 '15 at 20:32
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    As an added bonus, all of the evidence shows that students who have to learn the process do better than those that have to learn only facts that can be tested on a multiple choice test. – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 30 '15 at 21:17
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    I had one exam (electronics) where we were allowed to bring in whatever books we wanted. People brought in whole backpacks. What I loved about the questions is that they were built up to fore you to THINK and not degurgigate what you learned the night before. They were actually simple and the ones who took a minuute to lean back and think were done in 15 minutes. The rest was going though the libraries they brought. – WoJ Oct 1 '15 at 12:18
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It is a hopeless task trying to prevent cheating for standard exams.

The suggestion of jakebeal will not work. While I personally never cheated, I would never snitch on someone which cheats. You are working together as a group which builds social cohesion and teachers/professors are an outgroup. You simply do not do that. Apart from that it is not my business to prevent cheating.

The other thing is that the impression of "lazy" cheaters is often wrong. I often wondered why cheaters do often a staggering amount of work for cheating which they could have used for learning. They are getting all possible exams, write down the core questions, prepare their cheating sheets, build groups... There are people out there who are so good that you even do not see cheating in the exam from the next table behind although you know that they are cheating.

My electronics professor in the university solved the problem for himself: He allowed that students bring everything into the exam. Calculators, sheets, lexika, laptops. The students were divided in space, if necessary, he took two rooms.

So he designed the question in advance to be not solvable with pure knowledge approaches. He designed tasks, modified them so people who did read and learned the stuff understood what the design was doing (if they were not sure, they knew easily where exactly the necessary information can be found) and made the design so extensive that it takes time to read and solve the question sequentially. Only five questions for two hours.

The cheaters were stuck. Because the tasks were unique, they could not use old exams (If similar tasks were mentioned, you could bet that the professor modified them so that old approaches were useless or even traps). Information did not help, they had information, but not the knowledge to use it. Because the tasks were so extensive, the time penalty for smuggling out the questions, let them solve frantically by an expert outsider, smuggling them back and write them down was so prohibitive that it was not an option.

The spacing out was intended to make communication not impossible, but simply an ardous and easy to spot task. Even if someone who knew the stuff would help he simply was not able to tell the solution because it needed too much explanation.

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    Yes, I suspect this is the only viable approach. I have used approximations to it, with considerable success. Another aspect is having varying "data" for varying exams (pre-tested to be sure that "workload" is comparable), and numbering exams and passing them out by number so that it is clear later who sat next to whom, also. (Of course, if they "copied" naively, they'd have wrong data... which did happen...) – paul garrett Sep 30 '15 at 21:22
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    You misinterpret my remarks: I would not generally expect students to inform a professor. Refusing to help and displaying social contempt, on the other hand, is well within likely behavior. – jakebeal Sep 30 '15 at 21:33
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    @ThorstenS. I, like most people, discriminate between different degrees of transgression. Cheating on collegiate exams is, in my mind, far worse than the sort of juvenile boundary-pushing in your examples. And that is exactly the sort of cultural view that I think an institution does well to cultivate in students. See, for example, this community's response to a question about being caught cheating: it's not "oh, you were naughty," but "you were seriously dishonest." – jakebeal Sep 30 '15 at 22:32
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    @ThorstenS. Those are not very good examples, simply because when you're at college you're expected to act your age, like the adult you are. Someone cheating themselves to better grades could land a job otherwise only available to those who actually studied for the exam. To me that's reason enough to not only socially contempt the act but also blow the whistle. – Seralize Sep 30 '15 at 22:42
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    My open-book tests in college and grad school were also some of the most challenging. I'm definitely in favor of this approach, but it asks more of the instructor. – shadowtalker Oct 1 '15 at 0:37
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Open book exams and speed

Some types of exams are rather immune to such cheating, namely exams designed to be taken with "open book" (i.e., any and all reference material allowed) with a rather strict time limit.

If questions are designed to test skills obtained during the course instead of memorization, then preparation of any extra "cheating" materials helps the learning process (as it's well known that transcribing material helps you also remember it better).

Another approach is that question time limits can be designed so that you can finish them all in time only if you know the answers right away - where you possibly could look up some answer (or ask it to someone else), but if you have to look up multiple answers would mean that you simply run out of time before even reaching half of the questions. I have had a bunch of subjects with such open book exams, and they were surprisingly effective at revealing differences between mastered/not mastered areas of study.

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    While I agree that speed will indeed help to minimize cheating I'm personally not a big fan of speed exams. A lot of students suffer in a mild form of examination stress. Knowing that you can afford take a mental break for 30 seconds to regain your breath can go a long way. – magu_ Oct 1 '15 at 16:41
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    Even without exam stress, some students simply read and write faster or slower than others and there is a very weak (basically no, probably even sometimes negative) correlation between that and actual knowledge of the subject in question. By college (at least for native speakers of the language being used,) reading speed is probably more correlated with eyesight than anything else. – reirab Oct 1 '15 at 16:47
  • I agree with reirab's comment - writing and reading speed affect these exams much more than subject knowledge. I never once completed a high-school English exam, despite never stopping writing to think (timed tests with word-count minimums). Also, the sort of online test favoured by many job interviews, that acknowledges that since it's online you likely have Google at your disposal and so times you - assuming that the ones who have to rely on Google will run out of time - vastly underestimate the efficiency of people who are not good at the subject, but at crafting Google queries. – Logan Pickup Oct 1 '15 at 19:45
  • +1 For mentioning that transcription of material significantly aids in memorization and understanding. One of my professors had closed-book open-notes tests. You were allowed a single college ruled notebook with anything you wanted, but not your textbook. The professor then collected the notebooks with the tests to verify they were the same handwriting. I don't think anyone was penalized for different handwriting, but then again it was a 100+ student class, so I may not know. – Sidney Oct 1 '15 at 21:33
  • You dont need speed just a exam that is long enough not to have time to pass. The inability to judge progress achieves the same effect as speed. Those that know the subject will just concentrate on what they know those that dont will just search themselves to death. This is what i do in open internet tests. As far as im concerned if you can google the answer in minutes then you know enough of the subject matter. – joojaa Oct 4 '15 at 10:37
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I answered a similar question a while ago. This answer might be interpreted as an extension of the previous one.

The exact same issue happens in my university too and my opinion on this subject is usually met by very negative comments.

I think the reason of high tech dishonesty is not the ethics of students. It is about the examination system itself. While technology is growing exponentially almost quadratically, the students still take exams with pen and paper. Even homeworks are designed for a student to "read the course book" whereas he/she can clearly use the Internet.

When a student uses an Internet article verbatim, it is called plagiarism. But when he/she paraphrases, it is called a good homework.

The students should be able to use any device they want. Cellular phones, laptops, whatever they want. The questions should be prepared accordingly. The students have to struggle to find the correct answer to a question.

If a question is like "how high is the Mt. Everest", students will cheat. Either one might have memorized the answer and does not hesitate to help a friend or just take a look at the answer by typing it in his/her cellphone.

However, if the question is like "please discuss the reasons not to climb Mt. Everest", then (i) there is not a unique right answer, (ii) even though laptops are free to use in the exam, the student should do a tiny research to state the reasons, and (iii) helping a friend becomes being a chump.

By the way, I have never cheated in exams and I am not defending cheating. But at the time a baby is able to unlock and choose a game to play in a smartphone, expecting teenagers or adults to keep themselves away from technology is not very reasonable.

Examination methods must keep pace with technology just as every other thing in life.

Bad news: Google Glass is being used by more and more people and we cannot do anything about it.

  • Although technology is growing, this growth is not exponential. – gerrit Oct 1 '15 at 10:04
  • We can ban Google Glass from the exam room. That's a pretty trivial thing we can do about it. (And that article is old; Google has since stopped selling Glass so there won't be any more people using it unless they start selling again.) – Michael Hoffman Oct 5 '15 at 15:09
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Some universities have taken to disabling the WiFi in classrooms to deal with the laptop use "problem". That doesn't get you around cellular data use on phones, and you can't legally jam cellular signals (in the US) as keshlam noted in their comment.

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    As noticed during a day of open doors at University of Berne (Switzerland), one of their renovated lecture halls actually was equipped to suppress at choice of the lecturer WiFi or/and cell phones so that only the nationwide emergency calls (fire brigade, ambulance, and police) were possible. It did not represent any problem for the presenter (professor in Swiss civil law), as there was a land line phone, too. Compared to the observation of some university libraries where -- except in the first reading room next to the loan booth -- all other sections are blocking the cell phone completely. – Buttonwood Sep 30 '15 at 21:24
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I am aware of several commercial products that can detect phones in areas they are not supposed to be used (typically used by the financial markets to spot inside trading). Such as those from AirPatrol, BV Systems and Libelium. Some of these you buy multiple sensors to work out which "zone" the mobile device is being used in.

Then I suppose to detect electronics generally (that are not connected to a network) you could go down the whole route of metal detecting. Unless they are using tiny mobile phones that are alleged to defeat metal detectors but as the devices are so small reading a vast sum of information off them discretely would be somewhat difficult.

Depends really how far you want to go (full airport style pat-downs?) and how much money you have.

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The solution is a lot more complex than "Do x to stop cheating."

We are moving into a stage as a society where the ability to retain a large amount of facts is not as important as being able to process facts and draw conclusions from them. With the wealth of human knowledge at our fingertips, what is more important?

The ability to recall a billion facts at-will, or the ability to process any given fact in a logical and intelligent manner coupled with the ability to discover any related facts?

If you get nothing from this response take in this one thing:

You will never win this fight. Cheaters will always be one step ahead.

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    the ability to retain a large amount of facts is not as important — First, [citation needed]. Second, exams do far more than test retention of a large number of facts. – JeffE Oct 2 '15 at 21:53
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The best way to counter cell phone use is to not allow cellphones.

In the "most strict" exams I have ever taken (the Canadian/U.S. Government recognized tests for knowing the English language), each person had their own bin in which they emptied their pockets into. No sweat shirts or hats allowed. A gentle pat-down was done, mostly just making sure pants pockets were empty, and one of those metal-detection or electronic detection wands briefly waved over me. All the exam preparation takes place in a different room from the room the exam was taken in, so you can't just leave stuff there before-hand.

During the exam, we were only allowed to use the tools given to us. There was very strict monitoring. Some portions were on a computer, but the short time limit on those sections meant that even if you could get around to the internet or whatever without getting caught, by the time you managed to look anything up the question would be over.


For my own school, there is an official "testing center" in which very similar procedures take place, though not quite as strict with the pat-down and metal detector - it is where all midterm and final exams are taken for every course. I suspect any student who puts enough thought into it and has the courage could cheat in this setting, but the consequence for being caught is very severe - an automatic failing of the entire class and possibly being expelled.


In the case where the exam is going to be taken in your every-day classroom, exam preparation for the previous strategy could be unfeasible, especially depending on the number of students. You'd need lockers, or bins, and some way to keep each person's stuff separate. And the time to sort all that stuff out. There's a couple other ways to enforce a "less strict" version of this policy:

  • If the exam is going to be taken first thing in the morning, collect everyone's cell phone at the door before they enter the room. They can have it back when they are finished with the exam. (In some cases, you could collect all the phones in one bin - when everyone gets their phone back any missing piece of property should readily be apparent, but you'd have to keep everyone in the room until everyone is done and has their phone back. Even then, some issues could arise - there needs to be trust by all parties if they are going to share one "bucket" to put all their phones into - There probably isn't going to be that trust in a room of 25-40+ students.)

  • Have each student place their cell phone on their desk/area in an easily visible spot. Keep extra attention on those who do not appear to have a cell phone, but be sure to still watch everyone.

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    Anyone can borrow a decoy phone to put on the desk. – Davidmh Oct 15 '15 at 11:56
  • @Davidmh sure they can. Same for turning them in at the door. As I said, the amount of effort to completely prevent cheating is probably too much for the standard classroom. But since cheating is often opportunistic (not planned well), this would be as good as anything. – DoubleDouble Oct 15 '15 at 13:51
  • Came here to say this, have the same experience in UK immigration related tests. The only thing missing from your answer is that all students now have to show that they have no earpieces in (anyone in a head-scarf will be asked to remove it for examination, in private before being allowed to take the exam) There is a zero tolerance rule for any breach of the exam rules. – JeffUK Mar 13 at 11:08
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This is a relatively easy matter,

You tell them no cell phones, have them sign a peice of paper that states in large font, "NO CELLPHONES/MOBILE DEVICES, I understand that using a cellular/mobile device(including but not limited to: ipad, iphone, and/or other type of electronic device) I WILL FAIL THE TEST AUTOMATICALLY" sign and dated. The threat and follow through of punishment of actually receiving an F for the exam, will spread like wildfire throughout the school hallways.(The biggest problem with follow through of punishment, will most likely be school administration, whom need high graded students for political reasons...)

AND/OR

You have a group of volunteers(could be other students from a different class, concerned parents, ect ect imagination is the limit...), whom stand behind the students, and observe them.

Combining both techniques, ensures a low tech way of informing of consequences, and removing cheaters, combining them makes a strong stand.

Also, if permissable, a slightly dimmed room may give yourself/volunteers an advantage of spotting the classic bright lit screens of a mobile device...

I will note that I agree with Amagii, at least in part, that changing tests from that of pure memory to that of testing logical thought processing, can change the way our tests are made, reducing burden of "dumb logic" aka reward for just having a good memory, to instead rewarding those with the ability to understand the subject(after all even the greatest and most skilled academics keeps reference books, so why build tests on the false premises that we don't need them?), which in the long run will be far more rewarding. Not just for the current academic settings, but out in the real world.

Best of Luck.

Dr. DS

  • My phone adapts the screen brightness to the environment, so your dimmed lights will make reading the exam more difficult, but you won't see the glow of my screen. – Davidmh Oct 15 '15 at 10:43
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Create a smartphone/tablet app through which the exam itself is administered. This could simply be a stripped-down browser, with no special features like JavaScript support, no navigation controls, and that won't persist if it loses focus, e.g., the student switches to another app to cheat. (You can advise students to enable airplane mode, then turn WiFi on and connect to your special test-taking network, which doesn't provide general internet access, to avoid the risk of an unexpected phone call resetting their test.) Design the app to query a hard-coded server on your network for the address of a landing page, from which the students can select their test, which is delivered in a plain HTML format with basic form controls. If the exam is longer than an hour or so, you could also provide outlets for charging.

If any students don't have (or don't wish to use) a smartphone/tablet, they can still take the regular paper test, but in a separate, small room, which will make it trivial to spot a smuggled device.

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    Panic when an update on any one of a number of mobile operating systems disables your testing software. – Fomite Oct 1 '15 at 4:38
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    What's to stop someone from borrowing a friend's phone and using it to cheat while entering the solutions into the app on their own phone? Of course you could monitor the exam room to try to detect anyone hiding a second phone, but if you could do that reliably, then you wouldn't need the special app in the first place (since you could already detect illicit cell phone use). – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 1 '15 at 5:07
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    And then everyone insists on writing the paper exams anyways because can you imagine typing on your phone for hours? – Jacob Raihle Oct 2 '15 at 12:01
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    a well-written app won't be broken by a system update — Pull the other one. It's got bells on. – JeffE Oct 2 '15 at 21:51
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    "the need to acquire a second phone to cheat raises the barrier significantly" it doesn't. Where I studied, the cost of retaking a subject is the same of that of a cheap smartphone. The moment you cheat in two subjects, it is profitable to buy two phones. – Davidmh Oct 15 '15 at 11:54

protected by eykanal Oct 2 '15 at 18:00

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