How to Cheat in Online Courses

An article in Chronicle of Higher Education explains how the increase in online courses has made cheating a lot easier. For example, Bob Smith (not his real name) successfully arranged a test-cheating scheme with several friends.  The tests “pulled questions at random from a bank of possibilities” and could be taken anywhere, but had to be taken within a short window of time each week:

Mr. Smith figured out that the actual number of possible questions in the test bank was pretty small. If he and his friends got together to take the test jointly, they could paste the questions they saw into the shared Google Doc, along with the right or wrong answers. The schemers would go through the test quickly, one at a time, logging their work as they went. The first student often did poorly, since he had never seen the material before, though he would search an online version of the textbook on Google Books for relevant keywords to make informed guesses. The next student did significantly better, thanks to the cheat sheet, and subsequent test-takers upped their scores even further. They took turns going first. Students in the course were allowed to take each test twice, with the two results averaged into a final score.

“So the grades are bouncing back and forth, but we’re all guaranteed an A in the end,” Mr. Smith told me. “We’re playing the system, and we’re playing the system pretty well.”

Researchers who study cheating are urging cooperation. “Historically this kind of research has been a bit of a black box,” says Neal Kingston, an education professor at the University of Kansas and the director of the school’s Center for Educational Testing Evaluation. “It’s important that the research community improve perhaps as quickly as the cheating community is improving.”

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Caleb B

And this is why people do not respect degrees from on-line, for profit colleges.


Saying this is a for-profit issue or an "online" issue is just ignorant. Cheating has taken place since the beginning of time. Students are always one step ahead of teachers. Besides most progressive online schools do not use multiple choice tests anymore. Sadly it is state schools (that offer online classes as well) that still use multiple choice testing as a good way to determine content mastery.
BTW, can you imagine this sort of scheme being masterminded by people who have never met each other? If this is happening... it's probably at Community College's where people already have established relationships.


I would argue the opposite is true. Community Colleges have a transient student population with little interaction ("established relationships") between students. Four year schools have organizations that lend themselves to this form of cheating (ex. fraternities and sororities.) I teach on-line and face-to-face at a CC and the bulk of our "proven" cheating comes from the local private University students, not from the CC students. That said, the only way we have found to minimize most of the cheating is to have students take exams face-to-face in a testing center that requires photo identification.

Joseph S. C.

Isn't ok to cheat on tests nowadays? It's 2012.

Tests are not supposed to see if you have a better memory than other people. That was from "before computers". Tests real meaning are supposed to check if you can find a solution. It doesn't matter how you found the answer, as long as you found it.

The "Goldcorp Challenge" was also a collaboration-cheating system:

PS: Guys from Freakonomics, I know you're not questioning in this article if cheating is right or wrong, and I love the way you usually show data without "all that emotion" attached.


"It doesn’t matter how you found the answer, as long as you found it."

Well, no. Especially not if you are taking these online courses for your own enjoyment/enrichment. The tests should measure how well you've learned the material. (I'll agree that few actually do this effectively.) Saying that it doesn't matter how you got the answer is like that woman a few years back who "won" the New York Marathon by taking the subway a lot of the way.

Enter your name...

It depends on what "the material" is. If it's memorizing facts, then cheating hurts you (you don't learn the material). If it's developing skills to explain or analyze something, then cheating might be harmless.

Patrick Diemer

What do you expect when you assign multiple choice questions for an exam? This shouldn't surprise anyone in the education field.


lol- this guy's way behind the curve- i hooked up Watson to my PC and have been acing school ever since- i always get those pesky single subject/object questions wrong, tho...

Not My Real Name

I took an online course (from a state university) that was set-up similarly in that I had roughly 35-50 questions from a test bank and a limited amount of time to take the test. I would go through and answer as many questions as I could from my memory, but the ones I wasn't sure on or didn't know at all, I'd go to Google and, almost always, find someone who had used the question (and answer) as part of a study sheet somewhere.

Turned a lot of would-be Bs or Cs into As.

(One of my very early online classes had 10 question quizzes we could take as many times as we liked with only the last score counting toward our grade. In that case, I could answer the ones I knew but didn't even have to really look up the others. Since the test was so short, I could just use trial and error until I got a 100.

The problem was that we could only take the final exam once, it was timed, and it counted 45% of our overall grade. I went from a 100 average to an 81 after the final).


Greg Marshall

The easiest way to defeat online cheating is to use a large question pool, make it open-book, set a short-time limit, AND move to questions that show application and understanding of knowledge not just the memorization of facts.

For both face to face and online classes, this will eliminate most of the ability to cheat.

Joe Dokes

While in a perfect universe a teacher would never have to give a multiple choice (or as I like to call them: Multiple Guess) exam. The reality is that with current student loads most teachers give multiple choice tests out of necessity.

I have 180 students, at a measly 2 minutes per test translates into six hours of the most mind numbingly boring work you can possible imagine. At 4 minutes the work load doubles to twelve hours. At eight minutes you're looking at twenty-four hours of tedium. In the case of teaching grading papers is simply tedious and boring. While the first few papers grade have an important benefit in telling a teacher what the students learned and more importantly where the students still struggle. This information plays a significant role in helping good teachers improve their teaching, but after half a dozen papers the work becomes tedious, repetitive and soul sucking.

A five paragraph essay takes approximately 1-2 minutes to grade. Short essays take between three and five minutes. Term papers take a minimum of eight to ten minutes to grade. I give at least one of each, each semester.

The reality is that for an entry level course multiple choice exams is a perfectly acceptable form of evaluation. While I don't believe it should be the ONLY form of evaluation, having a course with three multiple choice exams and a written paper seems like a perfectly valid evaluation scheme to me.

As others have pointed out the solution to this form of cheating is quite simple. 1. Increase the question pool so this type cheating is less likely. 2. Narrow the window to take the exam. 3. Place problem solving questions on the exam that require more critical thinking. None of these negate the validity of multiple choice exams in fact they would strengthen the entire process.

Finally for those who would like to argue, "If you don't like grading papers, find a new job." As with any job (And I've had a several) there are always aspects of the job that are simply put a pain in the butt and you'd rather not do them. For example, for a sales associate expense reports and sales journals are often seen as tedious. For doctors, dealing with insurance companies and billing is probably a major pain. With any job you take the good with the bad.


Joe Dokes


Monica L. Hendleson

In a perfect universe, as you mentioned, tests would not exist. The only purpose of the test is to evaluate whether or not a student has learned the material. "Tests" and "Grades" create incentives for students to learn as well as distinguishing factors for top students. This perfect universe that you mentioned would mean that students put their best efforts to learn solely for their purpose of increasing their knowledge.

In this universe, it is in our human nature to seek out for the simpler and easier paths - Cheating. I'm sorry, but the truth is, cheating is inevitable. Developing newer methods will only provoke newer and more clever cheats. It will be an endless arms race.

Lew Ayotte

My wife received her degree from a reputable public university who offers online courses. There were many things required by some of these teachers to take her quizzes and tests. Most of them required her to use a "lockdown" browser, which basically prevents you from accessing anything else on your computer while in test mode. Some professors required her to take major exams at a local exam center where someone watched her (for a fee).

It sounds to me that Bob Smith's professors are simply uneducated in offering online exams.


A "lockdown" browser doesn't stop you from using a laptop, tablet, or phone to look up answers while you take the test. As others have mentioned, the real solution is more challenging questions.

Marci Kiser

I've seen a few of these online courses, and there are elements this article doesn't even touch on, such as:

1) Test banks. Many of these online courses are 'pre-fab' courses from test makers like McGraw-Hill or Kaplan, so they draw from a test bank that has been used elsewhere, meaning a simple Google search will find most of the questions with the correct answers.

2) I have seen some courses which utilize programs that 'locks' a person's desktop, so that theoretically they cannot do anything on their computer but take the test. This of course is the sort of purchase that can only be made by someone who has never heard of a smartphone (or borrowing your friend's laptop during the tests, for that matter).

Having taken innumerable standardized exams in my education, the only real value of those exams is that they teach you how to take them. I always explain to pre-med students that the point of the MCAT isn't to show how much you know - that's why you're going to school - but how well you test. Why? Because you will have to take your MD boards and then sub-specialty boards, and your med school wants someone who tests well and isn't going to mar their 98+% pass rate. This of course applies equally to law school/business school/whatever.



"""“So the grades are bouncing back and forth, but we’re all guaranteed an A in the end,” Mr. Smith told me."""""

Maybe I'm failing this test, but how is trhe first guy who takes it and gets a C or a D guaranteed an A when the average is of two tries?


It's probably easier to cheat with online tests than with in-class tests but but I doubt online schools see a substantially higher cheating rate (I wish there was a way we could reliably measure this though). I go to a well regarded private university and I can assure you everyone cheats at least a little bit. What I don't understand is why anyone is surprised or offended by this. We've been doing it this way for hundreds of years. The schools reward good test performance so that is exactly what they will get. If educators don't want us to cheat why do they continue to operate a system that rewards cheating? Besides, what we label as cheating in school is collaboration in real life and that is a much more important skill to master than memorization.


I am taking online courses for my masters and am required to use a proctoring service ( for all our exams. You must have a webcam, show ID, and literally scan the room with the webcam prior to starting the test. The proctor must enter a code in order to access the test and "watches" in the background to make sure you aren't googling.

Of course, I'm sure this isn't a fool proof anti-cheating device- but it feels like more scrutiny than a 500 person classroom.