When "smart" devices become cheating devices

Increasing numbers of secondary students are using their smartphones to cheat on schoolwork. Exactly what are they doing, and what can be done to stop it?

A generation ago, would-be cheaters had few alternatives more subtle than looking over their neighbour’s shoulder. Today’s students have Google on tap. In the rueful words of one school administrator, “Technology has evolved faster than school policies.” That’s putting it mildly.

In today’s classrooms, upwards of 90% of secondary students carry a personal smartphone. And a growing body of evidence shows they’re not afraid to use it.

Statistics show that cheating among high school students has risen dramatically during the past 50 years, according to the US Educational Testing Service. Research in the 1940s showed about 20% of university students admitted they cheated in high school. Today, between 75 and 98 percent do.

Using smartphones to cut corners has made it all so easy. According to a survey by Common Sense Media, 35% of teens said they used their personal mobile devices to cheat on homework and tests. Sixty-five percent said they’d observed others doing the same. And that was in 2009 - well before the explosion in smartphone ownership by students.

In 2018, student phones are as standard as biros and backpacks - and they’re being joined by a whole new breed of smart devices that are even easier to conceal, from watches and rings to glasses and even contact lenses.

But who needs high-tech, when even a simple cut-and-paste - or snapping a picture of your homework and texting it to a friend - will do the job? Here are some of the most common ways students are using their phones to cheat:

Texting during class

It’s note-passing, only at the speed of light.

Storing notes

This can be as simple as storing info on a phone and accessing it during a test. Or, it can turn really crafty. Several “how to” sites direct students to print their notes out in the form of the nutrition label on a water bottle - and even provide a downloadable template to make it easier. The label is then affixed to the bottle, and voila! 

waterbottle2Hard to say which is more surreal - the technique or the fact that water bottles even have nutritional labels!


This one is as old as your grandpa’s PC. But an oldie is still a goodie - especially if teachers don’t routinely use plagiarism detection software.

Homework apps and sites

These can be used for good or evil - and many of them are free and require little or no effort to exploit. The popular Photomath app is a perfect example. The app scans a maths problem and solves it unerringly, step-by-step. A boon to learning? Definitely. A bonanza for slackers? Absolutely.

Many educators and researchers have observed that, with technology so abundantly available to students, dodgy tactics like this have become “normalised.” Students tend to shrug them off.

“f you’re super, super busy and a teacher assigns a ton of homework that night, you’re in an ‘uh-oh’ moment. You can either stay up all night, or get it from someone else"

- a student informant

Counterintuitively, cheating appears to be more pervasive among high-achievers. They are the students who care more about their marks, researchers note.

Yet they warn too that there can be a fine line between cheating and cooperation - and with the rise in collaborative learning, this has become especially problematic.

The solution

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University who is a specialist in student well-being and engagement, advises, “Instead of trying to chase the problem, get in front of it.

“What I mean by that is to create assignments where it’s almost impossible to cheat.” Asking for multiple drafts of essays and projects, for example. Creating tests that ask for written responses, rather than multiple choice selections. Such practices generally make for better teaching and learning, too.

The digital learning revolution has created new opportunities and new challenges for schools. Family Zone Education Solutions takes a uniquely holistic approach to keeping students focused, safe and balanced online. To book a demo or learn more, visit familyzone.com/schools

Topics: Screen time, classroom management, digital learning, screens in school, smartphone, distraction, cheating

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