World and Nation

Colleges learn cheaters’ tricks to stop them; this includes TEAL

ORLANDO, Fla. — The frontier in the battle to defeat student cheating may be here at the testing center of the University of Central Florida.

The 228 computers that students use are recessed into desk tops so that anyone trying to photograph the screen — using, say, a pen with a hidden camera, in order to help a friend who will take the test later — is easy to spot. Scratch paper is allowed — but it is stamped with the date and must be turned in later.

When a proctor sees something suspicious, he records the student’s real-time work at the computer and directs an overhead camera to zoom in, and both sets of images are burned onto a CD for evidence.

Taylor Ellis, the associate dean who runs the testing center within the business school at Central Florida, the nation’s third-largest campus by enrollment, said that cheating had dropped significantly, to 14 suspected incidents out of 64,000 exams administered during the spring semester.

“I will never stop it completely, but I’ll find out about it,” he said.

As the eternal temptation of students to cheat has gone high-tech — not just on exams, but by cutting and pasting from the Internet and sharing of homework online like music files — educators have responded with their own efforts to crack down.

Anti-plagiarism services requiring students to submit papers to be vetted for copying is a booming business. Fifty-five percent of colleges and universities now use such a service, according to the Campus Computing Survey.

The extent of student cheating, difficult to measure precisely, appears widespread at colleges. In surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams.

At MIT, David E. Pritchard, a physics professor, was able to accurately measure homework copying with software he had developed for another purpose — to allow students to complete sets of physics problems online. Some answered the questions so fast, “at first I thought we had some geniuses here at MIT,” Pritchard said. Then he realized they were completing problems in less time than it took to read them and were copying the answers — mostly, it turned out, from e-mail messages from friends who had already done the assignment.

About 20 percent copied one-third or more of their homework, according to a study Pritchard and colleagues published this year. Students who copy homework find answers at sites like Course Hero, which is a kind of Napster of homework sharing, where students from more than 3,500 institutions upload papers, class notes and past exams.

Another site, Cramster, specializes in solutions to textbook questions in science and engineering. It boasts answers from 77 physics textbooks — but not Pritchard’s popular “Mastering Physics,” an online tutorial, because his publisher, Pearson, searches the Web for solutions and requests they be taken down to protect its copyright.

“You can use technology as well for detecting as for committing” cheating, Pritchard said.