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To Catch a Cheat

EIME student TJ Bliss receives funding for a study on cheating.

19 March 2012 5 Comments

It takes work to catch a cheat. Based on his proposal to research statistical methods to detect cheating, EIME graduate student TJ Bliss received the Joe E. Covington Award for Research on Testing for Licensure. This award, sponsored by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, gave Bliss $6,000 towards his study of statistical methods to detect cheating.

Bliss’s work focuses on data related to cheating and numerical methods of detecting it. “One common way is to look for similar response patterns in students, especially incorrect answers. If two students’ answers mirror each other, statistically, it’s more likely that someone’s cheating,” Bliss explained.

Recently, however, with many tests being administered on computers, measuring response time has become a popular way to look for potential cheaters. A computerized test monitors the amount of time spent on each individual question, and test taking irregularities become apparent. “If a student spends very little time on difficult questions and gets them right, it’s something to look into,” said Bliss, “especially if they spent longer amounts of time on easier questions or got easier questions wrong.”

Bliss added that use of statistics alone does not confirm cheating. Even if the numbers suggest cheating, other factors must be taken into consideration. “If two students have the same test results but one took the test in Texas and the other in Canada, we can be pretty sure they weren’t cheating, despite the statistics,” said Bliss. “If we find that they were sitting next to each other, that’s a different story. The statistics flag irregularities, but they don’t prove anything.”

Bliss’ work will produce a literature review of the gathered statistical information, which he plans to publish in a measurement journal. “It’s all happened really fast,” said Bliss. “But things are going well. The award was a pleasant surprise for me.”

19 March 2012


  • Larry Bliss said:

    I had college professors who were trying to figure this out from 1965 thru 1969 at Southern Utah University. If two thesis reports were almost the same, he sent them back to the people with a very unpleasant “F”. What is the world coming to to anyway? Really proud of you son.

  • TJ Bliss said:

    Thanks for the props Dad. What I’m finding so far is that, like you said, educators have been grappling with this issue for a long, long time. There is actually an entire book about how to prevent and detect cheating written in 1925! Statistics and other quantitative methods are only useful to a certain point, however. To detect the kind of cheating you’re talking about (copying papers, plagiarism, etc.) still requires a lot of old-fashioned hard work and time. In fact, what I’m finding is that even in cases where you can use statistics, you still need to apply other traditional techniques like interviewing, surveillance, and common sense in order to “prove” cheating has occurred. The statistics can simply help you narrow down the possibilities.

  • Bill Quinn said:

    Your article seems to suggest you will be looking only at student cheating. As a life-long professional evaluator, I can testify that individual student cheating is a relatively minor problem compared to teacher, school, or district cheating on high-stakes tests.

  • TJ Bliss said:

    Thanks for your comment, Bill. The literature review I am conducting is focused on primarily on student cheating because statistical methods are mostly effective at detecting that form of dishonesty. Also, the funders of this project (The National Conference of Bar Examiners) are mostly concerned with methods that they could use (in addition to their other security measures) to detect cheating on bar exams. Teacher, school, and district cheating do not apply in these contexts generally. But you make good points. I’m not sure what work is being done on the incredibly important issues you bring up.

  • Sue Womack said:

    Congratulations on your award! It’s always exciting to see people you know being recognized.

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