For Exams, is Using the Internet Considered Cheating?

| May 9, 2012 | 6 Comments
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Erin Scott

By Ann Michaelsen

Students sit in the test-taking room, with full access to computers and wireless connections. As they work on national exams, they can be seen accessing the Internet from time to time. Are the results from this test going to be corrupted because these test-takers are not isolated from global information resources?

What is high-tech cheating exactly? Is it really a problem, or do our old-school definitions of cheating need rethinking?

Most educators agree that students must meet certain requirements if they’re going to succeed as citizens and workers. “The term ’21st-century skills’ is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world, according to Education Week.

“Our exams have to reflect daily life in the classroom and daily life in the classroom has to reflect life in society.”

But when you look closely at these competencies and think about how students perform on exams, it starts getting complicated. What qualifies as cheating and what qualifies as a natural extension of learning, when students are increasingly expected to apply online research skills to find specific information in the vast ocean of facts and data?


In November 2009, 14 Danish upper secondary schools used the Internet during written exams, and a follow-up report  in 2010 by a group of auditors concluded that the experiment was a success. “The Internet is an integrated part of students’ everyday lives and education so this development is natural. The experiment shows there is a range of positive effects,” the Danish minister of education is quoted as saying.

What went on in Denmark classrooms during the testing experiment? A BBC reporter, who visited the school, reported that during the exam, students are limited in their Internet use and violating the rules is considered cheating, which can carry a severe penalty. But the most significant part of the report is not about Internet use, but about the test itself.

“The teachers also think the nature of the questions make it harder to cheat in exams. Students are no longer required to regurgitate facts and figures. Instead the emphasis is on their ability to sift through and analyze information,” the reporter says.

“Our exams have to reflect daily life in the classroom and daily life in the classroom has to reflect life in society. The Internet is indispensable, including in the exam situation,” says Minister for education in Denmark, Bertel Haarder.

If this is a success in Denmark — dating back to 2010 — why aren’t more countries doing this? Minister Haarder predicts: “I’m sure that it would be a matter of a very few years when most European countries will be on the same line.”


What then are the implications for students and how will this alter the way they work during their exams? My English class at Sandvika High School in Oslo, Norway will be participating this month in a national trial for using the Internet during examinations. The Norwegian Department of Education sent out an invitation to all high schools in February, asking for some innovative “connected” schools to take part. The testing will only involve a small number of schools and students.

Since Norway’s first experiment involves a small number of students, the exam questions will not be changed in any way. All students will take the exam across the nation — the only difference is that one group will have full access to the Internet. Searching is allowed, communicating with each other during the exam is not. The difference for participating schools is that students don’t need to memorize information.

“Students are no longer required to regurgitate facts and figures. Instead the emphasis is on their ability to sift through and analyze information.”

It’s 2012. Why is looking up information during an exam or test considered cheating? That’s how the world works. No one is expected to know or remember all the facts and information available out there.

The world is constantly changing and keeping up with even the most important new content is difficult. Imagine writing about global challenges like famine, drought or global warming without being able to look up any information (these are topics likely to be addressed in the exam). Instead of barring the Internet, students should be taught how to filter the information, judge its credibility, and use it to build logical arguments and greater understanding.

We should concentrate on getting our kids online and “Net Smart,” as Howard Rheingold advocates in his new book. Searching online can be time consuming, and under the pressure of timed exams, students will have to be very careful about the minutes they spend searching online. That is my main concern. Test-takers who will have access to the Internet need to practice: Where will I find reliable sources? How much information do I really need? When must I stop searching and start writing? And how do I document my sources?

Students participating in this trial say their biggest challenge will be identifying reliable sources. But they’re also afraid that since they have online access, they will be judged differently. The ministry of education has promised this is not going to happen, and the teachers grading these exams will be monitored carefully.

If communication and collaboration are valued 21st-century skills, it will not be possible to hone these skills unless exams are changed in radical ways.

Ann Michaelsen recently joined PLP’s new international Board of Advisors. She will write a follow-up after her students participate in Norway’s experiment and share some of the experience with us.

A version of this post originally appeared on Voices from the Learning Revolution.

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  • Randall Satchell

    This parallels the transformation mathematics assessments underwent in the 1990’s with the introduction of graphing calculators. A math test which only assessed computation skills was no longer useful, and so they changed to assess deeper mathematical reasoning and analysis which was enabled by using a graphing calculator.

    The conclusion of this article is exactly right. If we value teaching skills such as collaboration, information analysis, and critical reasoning then we must change exams to assess these skills, as opposed to simply assessing stored knowledge. This is not an easy nor a quick change, but I believe it is an inevitable one.

  • Dr. Solis

    This is more reason why we need to see more authentic assessments where students can demonstrate not only content knowledge but problem solving, critical thinking skills, higher order thinking, and collaboration.  Perhaps a project based learning or portfolio assessment approach may be more practical in today’s classrooms.  How do traditional assessments/tests prepare students for the real-world/work-force?  Other than simply recalling facts from texts and lecture notes…………they don’t. 

    • Daniel Bartell

      It depends what you want to measure, right?
      two things come to mind 1. Sometimes you want to measure recall, in other words knowledge acquisition. Do you want a health technician always searching the internet to recall a dosage? Some things you just have to remember. 2. People tend to paint current assessment strategies all with the same broad brush. Improvement is surely needed but there are many tests given that do better then just check how well you memorized a lecture

      Actually a third point- I would guess that many tests designed to check net smart wont be much better then those designed to check lecture or textbook smart. Because we trust people with no training to give them. Hopefully as others move to designing tests like those described in articles, they will do so with the same care. A worse outcome would be to make them just a test on ability to find info, with traps and tricks embedded.

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  • Susan Singh

    I do not see a problem allowing students to conduct web based research to answer complex questions.  It makes sense when students search the internet they will acquire the additional knowledge and possible teamwork communication skills that is so vital in this tech era.  To often using technology has broken down the skills of how to communicate effectively.


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