How to Catch Cheating with Clickers? Here’s an Idea

I received an email today from a colleague asking me if I knew of any “clever, low-hassle” methods for catching a student cheating with clickers.  In a large class (say, 100-300 students), one student might bring his friend’s clicker to class and respond to your clicker questions using both clickers, making it appear as if the absent student is present.  This is an issue if you use clickers to take attendance.  It’s a bigger issue if you use clickers for graded quizzes.

My colleague was asking the question in the context of a team-based learning (TBL) course in which students take quizzes first on their own, then in teams.  Their individual and team quiz grades are averaged (using some weighting) to contribute a good portion of their overall course grade.  In this context, clicker cheaters are a big problem.

Here’s what I wrote to my colleague.  I invite your thoughts and “clever, low-hassle” ideas on catching clicker cheaters in the comments below!

Some clicker systems have a “pick a random student” feature that selects one student at random from those that just voted on a question. If your system has this feature, then you can use it every now and then to “cold call” a student. (“Okay, the system has picked Jason Smith. Jason, what was your answer to this question and why did you select it?”) If the system picks a student who isn’t in the room, then you’ve caught a cheater. And the threat alone of being caught this way might do the trick.

This method assumes that Jason’s friend Nick doesn’t answer your cold call, pretending to be Jason. However, that’s a much more egregious instance of cheating than simply bringing Jason’s clicker to class and voting for him.

Of course, if your clicker system doesn’t have the “pick a random student” feature, then you’ll have to take another approach. I usually answer this question by saying that this is a classroom management issue, not a technological issue. When you’re not able to spot clicker cheaters yourself, you might enlist TAs to sit around the room and spot them. You can also make clear to students that this kind of cheating isn’t allowed. A warning might reduce this kind of cheating, but probably won’t eliminate it. Some schools have included statements about clicker cheating in their honor codes, which helps, since that usually means the punishment for getting caught is greater, which deters cheating.

I often recommend that instructors worried about cheating use low-stakes clicker questions so that even if some cheating happens, it won’t give students a significant advantage. Grading on effort, not accuracy of answers, is one way to do this, as is making the clicker quiz grades a relatively small component of students’ overall class grades.

In a TBL context, however, the individual student quizzes are relatively high stakes, right? One of the components of TBL is that students earn some of their points on individual quizzes and some on team quizzes. If the individual quizzes don’t count for much, the pedagogy doesn’t work the same.

Here’s an idea that might work. What if you asked the following clicker question: “What’s the last digit of your social security number?” Assuming you have a record of each student’s social security number, you could check the clicker responses to your records. If Nick brought Jason’s clicker to class and if Nick doesn’t know Jason’s social security number (a safe assumption), then there’s a 90% chance he’ll answer this question incorrectly. That will flag Jason as a cheater. It won’t flag Nick as a cheater, but perhaps you can get Jason to turn on his conspirator. That works on Law & Order all the time.

What do you think? Might this work? And if social security numbers wouldn’t work in your context, perhaps there’s some other student ID number you could use.

So, readers, what do you think of this idea?  Do you have other ideas for catching clicker cheaters?

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