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Posted at 1:15 PM ET, 12/24/2010

What some call cheating can help learning

By Jay Mathews

My daughter is with us for the holidays, having survived her first barrage of law school exams in California. The exams were longer and more difficult than anything I ever had as a graduate student in Chinese studies. But her professors allowed students to have notes with them. This got my attention because her boyfriend at a neighboring law school was forbidden to have notes in two of his exams.

At these two institutions dedicated to equality under the law, what my daughter did during exams at one could have been considered cheating if she attended the other. What are we to make of the uneven nature of such rules, just as unpredictable as those found in our public K-12 schools? Open-book exams are okay some places, not in others. Cooperating with friends on homework is encouraged by some teachers, denounced elsewhere as a sign of declining American moral fiber.

Alfie Kohn, a provocative writer and speaker on educational subjects, has a book coming out next year: “Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling.” It addresses this issue in a way that may cause apoplexy in some of those raised on the old rules but makes sense to me.

For instance, insisting that students do homework on their own does not necessarily encourage independent learning. In high school, most students show up to see their friends. If homework becomes a social occasion, even by telephone or Internet, there is some chance it might get done.

Otherwise, except for motivated, college-bound students, it often will not be completed. That is particularly true in schools that limit severely how much homework counts on report cards.

I don’t often agree with Kohn. But he has a gift for seeing past school practices that owe more to habit than results. There are many studies, he notes, that show cooperative learning — doing an assignment with others — raises achievement as well as enhancing relationships and motivation.

“The problem, however, is that aside from the occasional sanctioned group project,” Kohn writes, “the default condition in most American classrooms — particularly where homework and testing are concerned — is reflected in that familiar injunction heard from elementary school teachers: ‘I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do.’

"(Or, if the implications were spelled out more precisely, ‘I want to see what you can do all by yourself, deprived of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments, rather than seeing how much more you and your neighbors could accomplish together.’) . . . Alas, most collaboration is simply classified as cheating. End of discussion.”

Kohn blames much of cheating on the competitive nature of American schools. The majority of high schools in the Washington area are prime examples. Most of the parents are college graduates. They want their children to follow the same path. They seek out competitive high schools to make that happen.

Around here, smart educators and school boards have seen how the urge to beat your classmates can sour the learning process. Most no longer rank graduates by their grade point averages, except in broad categories like the top 10 percent, the next 10 percent, and so on.

At least half of Washington area schools no longer pick just one student with the best grades to be valedictorian. The honor often goes to dozens of hardworking students who have gotten grade-point averages above 4.0 because they took Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses.

More difficult-to-copy essay questions on exams and more attention to what is going on in the exam room may also restrain cheating. But why not start with eliminating rules and practices that frustrate learning? We might make our schools better and make it less likely that students think they have to cheat to get where they want to go.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | December 24, 2010; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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In HS chem class long ago, our teacher gave us a copy of his tests the night before and encouraged us to work out the answers together. This turned out to be a really effective way for my nerdy friends and me to study- we stayed up late together going through every question and making sure that each of us understood the solution. We always did well on the tests and learned a lot. And we didn't share our answers with the class slackers who couldn't be bothered to work with us.

Posted by: bubba777 | December 24, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I can recall--long, long ago--in a sophomore high school English class the teacher handed out the exam three or four days before it was given. The class could look at it but take no notes. When it actually was given, three students failed; they had seen the exam.

In college, I had a take-home final exam in one course that was so gruesome that it took me two weeks (given out that far ahead of deadline) to finish it. This did put me off open-book exams.

As for the suggested homework solutions, I suspect that the law of unintended consequences would make mush of all good intentions.


Posted by: Latania1 | December 25, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

I'm really wondering about the whole concept of testings. My students do well in quiz competitions on the whiteboard but some do miserably on tests. Are tests sacred?

I think there is a better way to perform evaluations. One way, as suggested, is making testing a group effort. The problem there is the smartest in the group will give all the answers while the others coast.

If more than half the class performs badly on written tests, is it the teacher's failure or do the stress of testing and poorly written tests contribute?

Posted by: areyousaying | December 25, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

1. Absolutely agree rigidity of rules or policy is nothing but road block (to learning and everything else).

2. With regard to independent learning and group collaboration, they should be twins (we'll find them together a lot of times...). Spending some time to gain a basic understanding of a topic should take haven place prior to a group discussion, hence, for one thing, student A can contribute to the discussion, and then of course naturally he/she could pick up interesting thoughts/ideas from peers who've also dived into the topic already. What's undesirable is, talking/expressing views/ideas totally off-head (unprepared).

3. "Open" exams, it is likely more challenging if designed in a such a way that it measures more than "rote memorization" of simple facts...

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | December 25, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

How on earth do you get from "open notes on the test" to "cheating" to "collaboration on homework"? Good lord.

If a test is open notes, the professor probably made the test much harder. Without knowing what your daughter and boyfriend's tests were like, you can't possibly make valid comparison. So the idea that your daughter "would be cheating" in the other class is absurd. Perhaps the boyfriend's professor limited the test to questions that anyone in the class should have mastered in order to move on, and the need for notes would be evidence that the student hadn't mastered the basics. That *would be* cheating. Your daughter's professor, on the other hand, might give a far-ranging test that covered obscure material as well as the basics, was much longer, and couldn't be aced without extensive knowledge and extensive notes.

Unless you know they had identical tests, you simply can't make that kind of assertion.

And open notes isn't "cheating". Breaking the rules of the exam is cheating. Bringing notes to an exam where notes are banned is breaking the rules and therefore cheating.

And then you go to "collaboration" as if it is some fabulous thing that has anything to do with basic learning, as opposed to a nice thing to do once you've got basic skills mastered.

"That is particularly true in schools that limit severely how much homework counts on report cards."

Schools do this because teachers use homework weighting policies to distort achievement. They weight homework heavily to give As to students who, alas, can't really understand the material but who go through the motions.

Schools also do this because otherwise, teachers will flunk students who can do the material but don't do their homework.

See, it's odd, Jay, but many schools have this bizarre idea that, while hard work is nice, grades should have a strong correlation with demonstrated ability, and the only way to really get a sense of a student's actual ability is to assess it in a setting where the work is entirely the student's own. This does NOT mean that collaboration is bad or evil. It does mean that collaboration is a useless way of learning, or that schools don't encourage collabortion. It is, rather, that some schools understand that students who don't understand the material should not be given As because it is a lie.

I really don't understand why you string such unrelated concepts togethe or why you spend countless posts praising Michelle Rhee for raising test scores yet seem not to understand why tests are essential to determining actual ability. And why you're fine with promoting practices that make grading no less than a fraud.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 25, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

"The honor often goes to dozens of hardworking students who have gotten grade-point averages above 4.0 because they took Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses."

And of course, in urban and charter schools throughout the country, that honor goes to students who will go straight from valedictorian to remedial classes in high school, because their transcripts, filled with AP classes, are a total lie.

Tht's something you should add to your Challenge Index, Jay. Make schools determine how many of their students go from high school into remediation. Can't answer the question? Then they aren't on the Challenge Index.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 25, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Cal_Lanier. There's no obvious inconsistency here -- each assignment is designed by the professor to test different kinds of things. I may want to test whether students have important facts and skills at their fingertips; therefore, I'll design a closed-book test that good students can do well on without any notes. Or, I may want to test students' ability to put together a coherent essay from multiple sources; then I'll design an open-note, open-book assignment. Or I may want to help students learn how to work collaboratively on a larger project; then I'll design a group assignment. What counts as cheating is different in each case, but that's because different skills are being tested and developed in each case. I'm sure students are smart enough to see the difference and to see that the rules are not arbitrary. Give them some credit, for heaven's sake.

Posted by: crazycatlady | December 25, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Also, give professors and teachers some credit. How about asking us why we design certain kinds of assignments with certain kinds of rules? Every professor and teacher I know spends considerable time thinking about what assignment best fits the skill we are trying to teach and test. We don't just make arbitrary rules based on how things have always been done.

Posted by: crazycatlady | December 25, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"At least half of Washington area schools no longer pick just one student with the best grades to be valedictorian. The honor often goes to dozens of hardworking students who have gotten grade-point averages above 4.0 because they took Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses."

That's just so wrong.

My daughter was one of about 60 "Valedictorians" in the class of 2009 at Washington/Lee High School in Arlington. Her reaction to this "honor" was basically "So what?" because everyone she knew got the same prize, rendering it meaningless.

I appreciate the impulse to reward the hard work done by students who do well in high school. However, devaluing an outstanding achievement like being first in your class, all in the name of political correctness, is just wrong. It sends a message that hard work and real achievement is unnecessary and unrewarded.

We should stick with the old approach of one, and precisely one, Valedictorian, and one Salutatorian. We can then have dozens of "honor graduates" or whatever label is convenient. Honoring hard work of good students doesn't need to be at the expense of the very best.

Posted by: skeptic9 | December 26, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Closed book tests tend to measure what you have retained from your lectures and readings. Open book or open note tests tend to measure your ability to apply what you have learned, to go the next step. In physics the object would be to see if you could do any of those 5 question at the end of the question list at the end of each chapter that most students never get to. These are not tests one can take on a scan-tron.
John Dickert
Mount Vernon Farms

Posted by: 12191946 | December 26, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I recently ran into counterproductive homework collaboration teaching a college class. This cohort had got into bad habits, including doing homework in groups. Many of them never thought through the problems themselves, but went with the best group ideas. Some turned in identical pairs of papers. As a result, 6 students got into trouble for flagrant cheating -- this was against explicit and public college rules. And since most of them never worked to learn the material, 1/6 of the class failed the course. The bottom line has to be, have they learned the material? Can they apply the ideas?

Posted by: Poster17 | December 26, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

My husband returned to school for a master's degree after being laid off and not being able to compete in the job market. He (and I after watching repeatedly) has had it with so-called "collaberative" projects. In two of his 4 classes last semester, 4 of the 6 people in the group did nothing on the "group" project and the 5th did so little it was unusable in the final product. While I cannot speak for the other groups in the class, I have watched my husband pull "Hail-Mary all-nighters to do the work that should have been done by others just to get the project done. That went on for 2 classes. For the last 2 "group-projects" he pulled the entire projects together way ahead of time as a "just-in-case" move that proved to be required. Fortunately, the professors monitored the groups and were aware of the "non-workers" and in one class pulled the group aside and basically told the other 5 to "get your act together and help or I will fail you" Even afer that, they blew off the work as was eveidenced by the e-mail trail my husband turned in with "his" project proving his attempts to get sections out of the group and either the total lack of response from some or just unbelievable excuses from others. You really have to wonder how the unperforming members of the group will do in the real world of work given their total lack of "collaborative" skills, work-ethic,time management, attention to detail, and total absence of self-starting capability. I would not hire any of them (yes, I am a hiring manager and I know who they are) and feel sorry for anyone who does.

Posted by: drmammal1 | December 26, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

I teach at the high school level in a relatively competitive district, and from my experience, the emphasis on collaborative work has only exacerbated the problem of cheating among students. When students "work together" on assignments, it is only the most motivated and capable students who work through problems in the manner described in your post. A majority of students will divide up work and "trade answers" with little critical analysis of their classmates' work. Even more, students will use this method with friends even when the assignment is meant to be independent, and then defend their identical work with the statement, "but we worked together." They see no academic dishonesty in such an arrangement as long as each person did something.

I believe the ability to work with classmates is an important skill to learn and collaboration has its place in the classroom, but too often we are driven by ideal visions of 14- and 15-year-olds conferencing in a manner typical of graduate students. At the K-12 level, we still have an important responsibility to foster *individual* skills, and while collaboration can be incorporated in these efforts, it cannot be the supreme goal.

Posted by: tourney345 | December 26, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

Is school supposed to produce productive members of society or Jeopardy! contestants?

When (in the real world), have you ever been told to do something, but under no circumstances should you ask anyone for any help or use any resources besides you own knowledge.

“I never commit to memory anything that can easily be looked up in a book.” - Albert Einstein

Posted by: someguy100 | December 27, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Just a thought about homework counting as a major part of the grade: If everything you do is part of the grade, when is it safe to not yet know something? Counting all homework for a grade is like a baseball team playing a game for the record every time it shows up on the field, with no practice. Teachers always told us we needed to do math problems at home to practice But then they graded the homework on the basis of the number of correct problems, the same as they would have graded a test. They might go back and explain a problem a lot of us had gotten wrong--more often they simply gave the right answer and asked if we had any questions. Many of them made sure, maybe unconsciously, that they considered questions a sign we hadn't been listening in the first place. (One even would tell us that.) Most of us considered homework another form of testing--but we felt free to ask our friends for help because in most cases it covered material the teacher hadn't explained fully and we had no hope of getting a good grade on.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 27, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

The push for "cooperative learning" and "interdependence" began gathering its Progressive muster in the 90's. I found it repulsive when my children were in elementary school and even more destructive when they were in HS. Rare is the college level course that requires students to work in groups. My daughter was just in a sign-language course which required a group dialogue project, but other than that, all papers and projects were individual, as they should be. I personally think these group projects are just an easy out for the teachers so they have less projects to mark and to embrace a socialist "spread the grade around" method where the slackers benefit from the work of the more diligent students.

Our HS was one of those that eliminated ranking, to this day, I fail to understand the reasoning behind this process which Jay seems to think is "smart". What in the world is wrong with competition? Being named Valedictorian used to be an honor - it is no longer a distinction when 50 other kids gain the same status. I also don't believe students in AP courses should have extra points added to their final grade if they fail the AP exam.

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 27, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Just terrific posts. Thank you. Cal Lanier raises the interesting issue of valedictorians who get 4.0s because of their AP work and easy grading and then have to take remedial courses in college. I suspect this does not happen very often, except in those few colleges that maintain the very tough writing requirements I remember at places like Berkeley when I was young, and who count freshman composition as a remedial course, even though most of the incoming class has to take it.
But to get back to my point. If anyone knows of a fairly recent (last 5 years or so) high school valedictorian with a 4.0 who had to take remedial college courses, and would be willing to tell me about it for publication, send me an email at

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 27, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree with many of the comments already made - different tests designed for different purposes will have different rules for allowing notes. As a science teacher, I want my students to learn how to find information, but I also want them to have a certain base line knowledge so they don't have to constantly look up simple information (like converting millimeters to centimeters - should take a couple seconds in their head rather than a five minute Google search). So if I am testing the root knowledge that should come easily and instantly, no notes (or collaboration) is allowed. This lets me know if they are personally putting in the effort or have missed something along the way that needs to be retaught. If I am testing something at a higher level of thinking - like if they can use their science knowledge to design a solution for a real world problem - then using notes or collaborating with classmates might be more appropriate - since what I want to see is the outcome, not the baseline knowledge. Now, those students who have put in the time and effort to learn the basics will have a much easier (and quicker) time arriving at a solution, since they won't have to look up every detail.

I've that students who get frequent open-book tests begin to rely on it, and soon stop bothering to learn the basics for themselves. They then waste tons of time on an open-notes test just searching for the answers to simple problems and never get to the higher level thought. Suddenly an hour is no longer enough time for a 20 minute rote-recall test because they have essentially "turned off" their own minds and don't even to bother to think about the question - and if something is not phrased identical to the book or notes, forget it - the students are more likely to skip it and leave it blank. In my practice, I've found students are more likely to fail an open-notes quiz or test than a no-notes one - even when it is the identical test, simply because they think open-notes means no-thought.

Posted by: emailkate | December 27, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Gosh, Jay, there was an op ed piece just recently on the subject of a school with students having taken 9 AP courses but over half of them going on to remediation.

Where did I see that again?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 27, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Oh yes. Fine piece. All you have to do is find me one who was a valedictorian, fits that profile and is willing to be quoted.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 27, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I endorse collaborative learning/testing. Rarely are we required to operate in a vacuum. Most business decisions, training events, or work areas require and in face embrace collaboration and working together as a team. How does that match with individual events?

Look at your degree. Does it say you were in the middle of the class, bottom of the class, or near the top. Mine doesn't say one way or the other. Just remember, 50% of all doctors graduate in the lower half of their class. Many doctors collaborate on medical issues or refer to a book. When you are having your head cut on, would you rather the doctor try to remember something or take the time to look for it in the book?

Posted by: jbeeler | December 27, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Ha. Talk about moving the bar. It's not enough that a school is giving As and declaring their student body is "100% college ready" when half of them are remedial.

Suddenly it's not damning enough to have a 3.8 student with nothing but AP courses ending up in remedial ed. Nope. Now it has to be a valedictorian--who might not want to go public.

And of course, all you'd have to do to find one is go to one of your "Striver" schools--the ones where fewer than 10% have a passing score--and you'd find a valedictorian who meets that criteria. Why not do some reporting on that? Instead, you declare that it's up to your readers to find one, and if they can't produce one, then it's not a problem. Talk about ignoring a problem out of existence. (Summit doesn't qualify because it's a suburban charter with mixed abilities. Summit valedictorians aren't rock stars, but they aren't remedial, either.)

You know what's even more interesting? This blog entry isn't even about GPA. It's about your absurd conflation of tests and collaboration. Why use this entry to start making weird demands about remedial level valedictorians?

Why not talk about my op ed piece, which directly challenges your AP for All credo, and respond to the problem?

Nope--instead, you decide to ask for remedial valedictorians in a thread on collaboration. Go figure.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 27, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

for Cal---I didnt say I am depending in readers to find one. I have many other sources, but I have found over the years that readers of this blog, including you, are a rich source of information, so I would be a fool not to make the request.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 27, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

I suppose a lot of this boils down to how people see their content area. I teach math and engineering, and I can't think of a WORSE way for you to use your brain then memorizing a whole slew of formulas and conversion factors. (How many times do you have to look up mm in a cm before it sticks anyway)

Its all about the process, and you can't cheat your way through the process.

Posted by: someguy100 | December 28, 2010 1:00 AM | Report abuse

Engineering programs usually have at least a few courses with group projects because ABET accreditation documented student outcomes including "an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams".

As previous posters has said, an open book or open note exam will have different kinds of questions and expectations than a closed book exam. Jay's equating of different exams with different rules for different courses at different law schools at the beginning of the article is silly.

Posted by: bluewater3 | December 28, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

It was Dr. Wm Glaser's, Schools Without Failure, in the early 70's that is the scientific base for the success of this method. It is the difference between the science of student response and the science of natural intellectual development. Another unscientific aspect is that all the comments are about high school and college. This potential naturally begins at the age of 2 1/2 to 3.

I give my student's the choice of being an independent entrepreneur, a partnership or a team in a game of free enterprise. In my teaching experience it works starting at age 2 1/2 to 3.

When the child's formal education is based consistently on their natural developmental ability the education experience itself becomes scientific and not just some course that needs to be taken.

Posted by: LaserArtsMan | December 28, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

[[But why not start with eliminating rules and practices that frustrate learning?]]
Since when does study, i.e. learning, “frustrate learning”?

[["(Or, if the implications were spelled out more precisely, ‘I want to see what you can do all by yourself, deprived of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments, rather than seeing how much more you and your neighbors could accomplish together.’) . . . Alas, most collaboration is simply classified as cheating.]]

It seems that you’re conflating several different activities under homework:
- homework as practice – to reinforce what has been taught
- homework as new material in preparation for the next class.

Forms of collaboration in the "real world environment" of school:
Here are a few ways that two students might collaborate on homework:
1. They read the assignment, discuss it, draft a plan, each one adding and deleting until they have a common plan. Then, they do the work independently, checking on process, accuracy, final product/answer; OR
2. They read the assignment. Discuss it. Then divide it up: You do the first half; I’ll do the second half; OR
3. I’ll do math; you do English; then, we’ll discuss what you wrote, then, what I wrote as we rewrite each other’s assignments; OR
4. I’ll write the paragraph; you paste the pictures; OR
5. Can I borrow your Spanish homework? OR
6. Can I copy your Spanish homework before next class? OR
7. Can I copy your Spanish homework before before he collects it?
8. Oh wow; you got an A on your Spanish homework; can I borrow it?
- - - - - - -

School rules, like laws, are made to be broken. The more they are relaxed, the more they will be broken – the more "the resources and social supports" of society will be devalued and the unprepared will suffer will be stuck even more with the disproportionate burden of consequences.
- - - - -
Teachers who have taught both advanced and unprepared or disinterested students notice some patterns:
Work copied by advanced students is more sophisticated; they use synonyms, rearrange sentences, change tenses, break up paragraphs differently, and even include minor, diversionary errors. Arguably, there are some skills at work here.

Deficient students turn in copied work, errors and all, so glaringly copied that one can suggest a "Law of School Collaboration": The more deficien the student's knowledge or interest, the less overall benefit there is from collaboration on assignments. In turn, that offers new insight into Alfie Kohn’s “resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments”:
A person who knows so little and copies without thinking about the information or its meaning has no “resources or social supports” to contribute to well-functioning real-world environments; rather, that person contributes dysfunction to “well-functioning real world environments.”

Posted by: ehmartel | December 28, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

It was in the early 70's that Dr.Wm Glasser's scientific research on schools without failure pointed to the natural potential intellectual development of open book testing. Scientifically it is the difference between the science of student responce and the science of natural student intellectual development.

The natural intellectual development starts at the age of 2 1/2 to 3. All of the comments are about high school and beyond.

I give my student's the choice of being an indavidual enterpruneur, a partnership or a teem. It is a game of free enerprise. It starts a age 2 1/2 to 3 but can be a conscious choice starting at age 4 1/2.

Posted by: LaserArtsMan | December 28, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I also remember being reprimanded by a teacher for submitting work on a fun, creative but non-complex assignment (creating sentences that used vocabulary words in ways that demonstrated their meaning) that was "too similar" to what others had submitted.

Thing is, we had worked on the assignment together and we LOVED doing it! No surprise we learned a great deal, too. It came as a total shock to me that the teacher had wanted us to work alone, treating the silly assignment almost as if it were a test rather than a learning task.

I never forgot that rebuke, and when I was a graduate-level instructor, I made sure to tell students in my class that I would not be upset in the least if they worked together and submitted responses that were very similar. Tests would reveal who truly understood the material, anyway. Instead, they should treat homework assignments as formative feedback for themselves and as opportunities to learn, just as I'd use them as formative feedback to get a sense for how the class was progressing with understanding challenging concepts.

It is a shame that homework turns into "tests." Homework really should be about learning.

Posted by: Magoo1 | December 29, 2010 4:47 AM | Report abuse

Oh, Jay! I love how you get the conversation going! I'm shocked that AP students do so badly in college that they need remediation, and look forward to your piece on actual examples.

Posted by: MaryFloyd | December 31, 2010 12:16 AM | Report abuse

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