Cheating as Learning

This week I have joined the open course Rhizomatic Learning – The Community is the Curriculum, and I look forward to participating with an open mind and few goals, so far!

The first week you introduce yourself and your goals, get acclimated (FB, Twitter #rhizo14, P2PU) and a share your thoughts on the topic of the week. Discussions and examples are everywhere and the abundance seems like a huge smorgasbord. Cheating as learning is for starters!

The idea of cheating as learning really challenges the very view of learning! What do you know when you know something? How do you use your previous knowledge to solve problems? Where do you find support? What is the proximal zone of learning nowadays? How do you study? We discuss it at my school every year in connection with the national tests and we are not in total agreement, to say the least.

I teach at the upper secondary/senior high level and every time I ask a group of students if they have cheated on a test, every single one has! They are surprisingly willing to share their methods with me, when I tell them that we are not going to have traditional tests (apart from the national ones). Their creativity knows no limits when it comes to cheating; in fact the cheating methods outnumber the common learning strategies by at a guess five to one.

Is the cheating frequency related to performing anxiety or is it due to the playfulness of doing something forbidden? If, so, does this alert the students, who thus perform better? Is cheating the result of procrastination? Is it simply the lazy short cut to good grades? Is it perhaps due to the ways we teach and test knowledge? Is it a combination? However, last year I decided to use the energy to the favor of learning.

In the second grade I examine the history of literature (in Swedish), which is quite a difficult part of the course, as it requires a general understanding of the literary and the political currents. The test  consists of both analysis and creative writing. I have always told my students to prepare (why not together) and bring the notes to the test, which they also did. Pages of them, which make the “cheating” hard to manage, since the time is limited! This time I told them to bring only one handwritten cheating sheet in a4 formats, and a few interesting things happened. The word cheating instantly triggered their interest; one of them had heard that the method was used at an Ivy League University, many looked bewildered, some were skeptical and a handful obviously did not follow (neither my arguments, nor my instructions).

The interesting thing is that the results of those who followed my instruction and carefully summarized what they found most important did so much better than those who copied and pasted their cheating sheets. Curious about how they had done, I collected the sheets and one sheet stood out from the rest. This student had actually cheated when creating his cheating sheet: At first sight it looked a4 and it was written by hand in small letters. Looking closer I saw that you could also unfold smaller rectangular pieces of paper that he had cut and pasted on the sheet when he had filled it. (I will see if I can find it and upload a picture). I was outwitted and happy about it! And he never used it in the test situation.


The time and effort spent really paid off and he and many others did brilliant analyses, identified features in texts and art and wrote two texts in the style of Goethe and Dostoevsky.

Having said this, I think cheating is a learning strategy worth considering!

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