The student had perfect scores on the first two tests in Michele Kerr's math class, offered virtually this summer because of the coronavirus. But, in just a few minutes of one-on-one conversation during her online office hours, Kerr noticed he struggled to grasp the material.
Kerr quickly figured out what was going on. "You cheated" on those tests, she told the student. He admitted she was right.
Kerr, who teaches math and engineering in California's Fremont Unified School District, is always on the lookout for academic dishonesty. But she and her colleagues across the country are on heightened alert now that the coronavirus has forced thousands of schools to offer more virtual learning experiences than ever before.
"I expect cheating to go up in this new environment and I expect that it will have negative effects long term on how much students learn in their classes," said Arnold Glass, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University who has done research on the impact cheating has on learning.
Already, some teachers have reported that grades were higher this spring, when many schools went online only, and wondered if cheating could be at least partly the reason.
Here are 4 tips for discouraging and preventing student cheating:
A big part of the solution, educators and experts say: Give assessments and assignments that require students to analyze information, craft creative presentations, or explain their thinking.
"If you are developing critical thinking and inquiry-based activities that frankly require kids to think and apply their learning, you're not going to have cheating, because you can't cheat on that, you really can't," said Michelle Pearson, who teaches social studies at Century Middle School in the Adams 12 school district in Thornton, Colo.
On the other hand, answers that can be easily found on a cellphone, for assignments like "multiple choice and fill in the blank stuff, [that's] not necessarily higher-level thinking that should be in a final assessment," she said.
It's possible to offer creative, cheating-proof lessons even in a remote learning environment, Pearson said. For instance, last spring, when her district shifted to all-virtual schooling, she asked students to research one of nearly 300 historical sites and create a presentation explaining its significance to westward expansion.
Some educators are trying to create a classroom culture that discourages cheating and dishonesty, even if it's in an online environment.
Teachers at Oriole Park Elementary School in Chicago have been trying to help students understand that assignments and tests are about figuring how best to help them learn. That means starting the school year talking "less about grades, and more about: we want to know how you can get the most out of your education here," said Emily Hogan, who teaches 1st grade.
Hogan's colleagues have also brainstormed creating an "honor code" for their classes that focuses on academic honesty.
"We are talking about character and what character is comprised of and how they can be a good person when nobody is watching," she said. Such conversations are necessary because it would be impossible to cut off all avenues to cheating. "There's no way we can micro-manage them," Hogan said.
That approach can work for older students, too.
Kristin Record, who teaches physics at Bunnell High School in Stratford, Conn., plans to address the cheating issue more directly than in the past.
"My plan is to be a little more overt" than usual, she said, given how easy it is to cheat in a virtual environment. She'll tell students, "Let's be real with each other now, obviously you can take a picture of your work and text it to your friend. What do you gain by doing this? What do you lose by doing this? What's your motivation for doing it?"
Students in Record's class can receive college credit for their work, either through Advanced Placement or a dual enrollment agreement with the University of Connecticut. She'll remind them that the consequences for cheating in high school-say, getting a zero on an assignment-pale in comparison to the consequences of cheating in college, where students can be suspended or expelled from school.
Allowing students to assess each other's work is another good way to cut down on cheating, said Pearson, the Colorado teacher. That's something that's a hallmark of her classroom, both in person and now online.
"I work diligently to really create a community network of peer feedback, where kids are giving direct feedback to each other, they are critically thinking about what their partners are writing," she said. "When you have peers evaluate peers, it reduces [cheating] tremendously because they are held accountable to their buddies."
Kerr also recommends getting a good sense of what students know by asking them to turn in their classwork daily. That wasn't as necessary when her district went all-remote in the spring. "I knew my kids and could tell who was cheating," she said. But it will help when she has a new crop of students.
Technology tools can also help cut down on the temptation to cheat.
For instance, Kerr requires her students to turn their computer cameras on during tests and quizzes. And she disables the "chat" function in Zoom so that the class can only communicate with her, not each other.
Jacob Ryckman, who teaches English and English as a Second Language in the Plano Independent School District in northwest Texas, says some of his colleagues use software, available on Google's Chromebook, that allows teachers to get a glimpse of their students' computer monitors.
Google classroom lets teachers create a quiz or assignment that must be completed in a certain time frame. And it permits teachers to change settings so that students can't open any other windows, making it tougher for kids to pull off a quick search.
But, of course, students could still look things up on their phones or other devices.
"Especially when kids are working remotely, there's no 100 percent fail-safe [strategy]," Ryckman said.