4 Tactics to Cultivate Valuable Learning Experiences in College

4 Tactics to Cultivate Valuable Learning Experiences in College

Googling ‘how to cheat on a test’ returns 45 million hits in a quarter-second.

A chronic symptom of grade-dependant education systems (which is most of them) is cheating. Harvard students do it, high-schoolers do it.

Since grades are entrenched in higher education–for now–dealing with the occasional cheater is inevitable. So why do students cheat and how do you prevent it?

To Cheat or not to Cheat?

An education system that fails to acknowledge students’ merit outside of GPA metrics runs the risk of incentivizing the wrong behaviour.

Every student who cheats does a cost/benefit analysis (knowingly or not) in their heads before committing the act. Is the time, risk, and effort needed to game the education system worth more than the time, risk and effort necessary to follow the academic codes of conduct. In other words, is the risk worth the reward?

If the gains and losses are out of balance, students’ focus becomes “beat the system” instead of “learn the concept.”

Diagnosing the Cheat

In 2004’s Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie Wark criticizes the education system within the context of 24-7 global, digital culture:

“Education is slavery. Education enchains the mind and makes it a resource for class power… Education is organized as a prestige market, in which a few scarce qualifications provide entree to the highest paid work, and everything else arranges itself in a pyramid of prestige and price below.”

Wark’s Marxist rhetoric is intentionally strong, and illuminates the point of view of modern university students: the education system leaves us feeling helpless, frustrated, and without power. This point of view, outrageous though it may be, is the seed for sprouts into the decision to try and beat that system.

Boundaries Blur, Choices Change

Digital culture and classroom culture seem to be vastly different contexts, but in fact they coexist synchronically. In one, there are no rules, a vague sense of identity and information is open, in the other there are entrenched rules, clear and defined identities (“professor’ and “student”) and information exchange is strictly regulated and measured.

Students participating in a digital environment via mobile devices or laptops while sitting in class enable the frame of mind common to each context to blend.

At best, this unconscious blending can plunge students into confusion about which rules to follow when. At worst it can cause the contagious, mass behaviour of breaking those rules which appear unfair. The assumptions and codes of conduct online or while gaming start to replace the assumptions and status quo standards of behaviour in school classrooms.

Why Students Cheat

Guerilla learning has been going on before your course started, and it will continue long after school’s out. Being transparent about this is an act of good faith towards digital natives and creates common ground from which to move forward as allies in learning.

Suspicion is unnecessary; you can assume that if a student is motivated enough to cheat, he or she will find a way. Us versus them won’t work, so why not become allies?

Valuable Learning Experiences Beat Cheating

1. Don’t be afraid of the big bad web. Your students are going to use the Internet as a catalyst to learning your course material. They might not buy the textbooks or do all the assigned reading as long as they can complete their assignments with competency. Embrace the fact that students are finding increasingly new ways to learn course material.

2. Give your students a chance to feel heard in class. Right now, active learning is a buzzword with good reason. If a student is active and engaged in a class with their peers and the course material, they are investing their time and attention in a meaningful way. The dividends are greater understanding, connection, and enjoyment. To the gamer spirit in them all, it’s an experience reminiscent of play.

3. Encourage mistakes, and shift the focus away from grades as much as you can. In fact, mistakes should be praised. They represent a student taking a risk, making an effort to understand, and giving it their best shot. Rather than shaming or criticizing incorrectness, applaud the effort and offer constructive guidance.

4. Use the digital environment to reinvent old practices. Top Hat is a digital swiss-army-knife for today’s professors. Attendance has been around since the beginning of modern schooling. And taking attendance (especially in large classes) has been gamed for just as long. Students forge the sign in sheet for their friends, one student can horde clickers and submit for many, other students may show up for the first bit of a class, check in, then skip the remainder of lecture. Top Hat prevents all of this from happening and ensures only the students who are in class get credit for being there.

Disrupting the Chronic Cheat

Apps like Top Hat can help disrupt chronic cheating. Taking attendance in Top Hat is quick, easy, and yes, even fun. With one click, a randomly generated attendance code is displayed on your projector at the front of the class. Students who are present and logged into their personal Top Hat account input the code into their device and are awarded an attendance score. Students can independently keep track their attendance score throughout the term, allowing professors to focus their time and energy on the teaching moment in class.

Not only does Top Hat Attendance make cheating far more complicated  and stressful to accomplish,but it also functions as a useful metric which students can use to easily track their progress throughout a term.

By making the investment of effort necessary to actually show up and participate less than the effort required to cheat, Top Hat encourages students to take responsibility for their learning, and creates a classroom experience more valuable (and fun) than a potential cheating experience.

Using technology in the classroom opens up endless new possibilities ripe for discussion, debate, and development. If you have any comments or questions about the ideas present here, use the comments below to share them. These ideas are a simple start to encouraging learning and discouraging cheating in a world where the digital and classroom environments have become inseparable.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to facilitate an active and engaged learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click the button below.


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  1. 1
    Andre Trudel

    This past term, I caught 20% of my class using yik yak to cheat on Top Hat. Students that were not physically in class, registered their attendance and answered the multiple choice questions. These students do not agree with the “Disrupting the chronic cheat” section above…

    • 2
      Alyssa Atkins

      Hi Andre,

      Thanks for sharing your experience, that sounds frustrating! I can tell you care about your students’ learning experience and have a strong commitment to being an awesome and fair instructor. It’s possible that a few students will find ways to make cheating less effort than respecting class etiquette. Living in the 21st century (with the internet) ensures that new ways of ‘hacking’ systems, whether digital or social can eventually be found and shared. I’ve just had a chat with your Account Manager about this and will leave the resolution of this to you two. Thanks for the comment, be well!

  2. 4

    I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t know people who cheated. With all the technology around us, cheating is actually quite easy to do whether you want a paper written, or answers to a test. But, as a student you must know that teachers/instructors have ways of figuring stuff out. I remember back in college when two students got caught using their phones during a quiz, they ended up getting kicked out of the class for the day. These students didn’t find it fair, but is it fair that you have your phones out while everybody else took the time to study?

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