A Cheat-proof Exam

I was reading Matt’s “Cheating and Chinese Students” entry on Metanoiac, and it made me reminisce about how I dealt with cheating students during my tenure at ZUCC in Hangzhou. My own experiences might be helpful to some teachers out there, so I thought I’d share.

Throughout my 7 semesters of teaching spoken English at ZUCC, my class format never stopped evolving. I just want to share some of the major evolutions here and the reasoning behind the changes. At the root of the changes were always two questions: (1) Will this improve the students’ spoken English? and (2) How will I assess the students (i.e. grade them)?

My first semester I relied heavily on vocabulary. My reasoning was that it’s easiest to grade (by quizzes/tests), and if the students can incorporate the new words into their spoken English, they’ll become better speakers. I focused on common, useful idiomatic expressions and slang. Nothing tricky.

I quickly discovered this system was flawed because: (1) the focus was on learning vocabulary, not improving spoken English proficiency, (2) the students weren’t really learning to incorporate the new vocabulary into their spoken English, and (3) it was really hard to stop the rampant cheating on tests and quizzes. Another unwanted by-product of this system was lots of time-consuming paper grading.

I moved on to a skit-based class. Vocabulary was still important, but grading was based on the use of vocabulary and overall spoken English in performed skits instead of on paper. My students felt very awkward about performing at first, but soon got really into it and had a lot of fun.

Later I learned that the skit-based class only works well for certain groups of students. One of my subsequent classes was almost totally devoid of imagination, and their skits would inevitably be translations of some story they heard elsewhere, with the target vocabulary forcibly (and often painfully) inserted into the dialogue. Furthermore, I began to realize that although skits can be a great fun tool, they’re too fake to be the mainstay of a spoken English class.

I came to understand that as boring as they can sometimes be, discussions really should be the meat of a spoken English class because they’re the realest way to practice spoken English. Over several semesters I developed a discussion-centered class model which proved surprisingly successful, and worked even on somewhat large class sizes. [I plan to put this complete model online in the near future.] Vocabulary was reduced to the role of a tool — as it should be — and was provided to help students through the discussion rather than to drive the activity. Vocabulary was kept to a minimum to promote talking. Grading in discussions was based on preparation and participation.

Finally, I return to my point for this entire post. Following my discussion-based model, I think my exam format was pretty much cheat-proof. I decided that in spoken English class, all tests and quizzes should be spoken. The final exam consisted of small-group discussions (2-3 students each) in which the students discuss amongst themselves one of the topics that we had discussed as a class that semester. They knew all the topics; there were no secrets to obtain from other students. The topic for each group was determined by random, and each group got 5 minutes to mentally prepare (no notes allowed, and nowhere to hide them), followed by 5 minutes to talk. All I had to do was listen to the testing group and make notes or guiding questions while keeping an eye on the preparing group in the back of the class. A new group would be moving in every 5 minutes, so a 40 student class could finish in about an hour and ten minutes, in theory. In practice it wouldn’t exceed an hour and thirty minutes.

The advantages of the system are as follows:

  • The students have no way to cheat.
  • Students who have regularly attended classes all semester are at a definite advantage.
  • The material on the exam has all been covered in class before, so it’s unquestionably legit material (as opposed to some teachers’ finals, which may have nothing to do with the semester’s content).
  • The teacher can give adequate attention to each student’s spoken English performance.
  • The exam can easily be finished in a normal university exam time allotment.
  • There are no papers to grade. When a class’s exam is over, the teacher should already have all the exam grades for that class.

There are some issues, though:

  • Classes should have less than 50 students.
  • A significant portion of the semester must be spent teaching students how to have a discussion (no joke). This exam format works well as a result of an entire semester of the discussion-based class, and is not expected to work as well independently.
  • This will not work on students with only low level English (but should be doable for intermediate).
  • Some students feel “cheated” by their foreign teacher if a large proportion of the semester is devoted to the students’ discussion and they don’t get to hear the foreign teacher talk as much as they are used to.
  • Some students can’t understand that language proficiency is a skill rather than a form of knowledge, and, as such, must be practiced. That this practice may or may not involve much new material is hard for many to accept.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that the system I developed worked well for me in a certain part of China at a certain school for a certain class at a certain point in time. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I just hope that some of the ideas I present here might help other teachers with their classes.

Related Link: Sinosplice’s Teaching in China: A Guide for the Uninitiated.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Hi,
    I stumbled across your blog while i was searching for a chinese learning center in Shanghai. Sorry for barging in like this, but i was wondering if you could give me more information about the courses over there and the facilities they provide. I’d be really greatful if you could send me some websites.

    Thanks in advance!

  2. I can vouch. John was the undisputed teacher of teachers at ZUCC.

  3. Indeed. That sounds like an awesome structure and I hope I have the energy to put something like that to use in the future.

    Unfortunately, my recent run-in with cheating was for a writing class.

  4. As someone who is planning to come to China to teach English, I am grateful for any and all discussions like this. Thanks for your wisdom, John

  5. Roger, go through the archives. Teaching was the focal point for many many many months.

  6. to practise
    the practice

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: January 8, 2005 at 8:25 am

    They really should bring back corporal punishment to schools, especially the urban schools in America!!! A few cane-swipes across the back, and those kids wouldn’t cheat at all, whatever test you give them!!!

  8. Yes they would, Da Xiangchang.

    Anyway, my own approach to oral English testing back when I had the autonomy to do things my way (oh how I miss those days!) was a combination of three tests: A speech (yes, many will simply read a newspaper article, but that’s more lazy than cheating), a skit (yes, very dependent on the creativity of the class, but it gets them doing at least something) and a one-on-one conversation (obviously only good for a class of thirty or fewer- and yes, such classes do exist). Obviously that would be adjusted to suit the circumstances. Maybe the conversation could be replaced with John’s discussion. My reasoning was that the students had a second chance if they screwed up one of the tests. And I saw very little cheating.

  9. I quite agree with you, John, that language proficiency is a skilll; and as with all skills should improve with practice. The problem with your system, as it appears to me, is that you have moved the “Chinese corner” into the classroom. If the students are diligent and are already attending a “Chinese corner”, then what are they getting?

    In addition to speaking, there is the art of listening and understanding what one is told, a very difficult skill in itself. I am acquainted with a manager whose pronunciation is very good, but his vocabulary is rather limited. It does not take long and you can put him in a very embarrassing position. Consequently, I tend to hold very short conversations with him and send more detailed info by email. His reading skills are much better than his listening skills.

    I do not think that the whole class needs to be forced to excell beyond some elementary level, but for those students who do wish to excell, there should be a system setup so that they not only practice their speaking and listening skills, but also are challenged to add to their vocabulary. It is quite often when we keep raising the bar do we actually jump higher.

  10. I apologize, where I have “Chinese corner”, it should read “English corner”. I would like to blame the chilling cold for numbing my thinking, but it was while I was outside doing various chores that I realized my error. “Chinese corner” is what I am looking for.

  11. JFS,

    Let me assure you that turning my class into an English corner is the last thing I would do.

    In my discussion-based model, discussion is not (and cannot be) the only class activity, but it’s a central feature of the curriculum.

  12. Matt,

    Ah, the much-hated writing class. You have my sympathy. I was fortunate enough to never have to teach a writing class.

  13. Ben–I heard that American spelling mostly comes from simplifications that were making the rounds in Britain, made it over to the colonies, but then failed to take hold in the mother country. Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Anyway, I think representing English with Chinese characters would be a real improvement. Just get rid of all those pesky spellings.

  14. Alex Ferguson Says: January 9, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    John, I agree with your statement that in learning a language you learn a skill. And truly it is important to nouristh that belief with good teaching practices.

    Having now spent 15 years of my life learning Chinese (i am 25), and only recently (Feb 2003) arriving in china to teach at ZUCC i was surprised by a couple of things.

    See I realised quickly that university level chinese does not equal native fluency regardless of what country you are from. I knew i was able to buy my food, and maintain my life without assistance from my school or my students. But holding a conversation, and i mean a REAL conversation in chinese was TOUGH.

    So i regreted one thing, that in my language courses at university and highschool, more emphasis was not placed on CONVERSING and developing the language in a natural format and learning vocab on the fly, as oppose do to the parrot fashion learning that dominated my university life.

    In the english classes i taught at ZUCC, although i am not qualified to teach anything other than math, i insisted that my students speak ONLY english in class. Coming down on them harshly in the first month to set the standards i expected of them. It wasnt my job to be a friend, but it was my job to be friendly, AND more importantly to educate these students. Using a variety of one-one opportunities, and group discussions, all with focused goals we started our semester in a open fashion. having concrete learning objectives set the mood, but it was the INTRICATE english phrases learnt as a result of these discussions that made the difference to their lives.

    In retrospect, having spent 6 months in china, i have learnt more intricate methods for speaking chinese than i have learnt in the 15 years of my formal and informal education.

    I thus recommend this to any budding english tutor or teacher. Have goals, but in discussion, when a student stumbles around an idea that might be represented only by a mastery of the enlish language that they dont yet have, TEACH them. Take 10 minutes and explain to them the meaning of an english idiom. put it in THEIR terms, and in this way you will be teaching them a great deal more. for they shape your class, you still achieve your learning objectives, and your students are better off for it.

    Whats more, do test them on all that you teach them (dont be afraid of this). I know testing times seem hurt most teachers; the idea of testing for more than 3 hours is hard to swallow, but think about your kids, and make an Investment in THEIR future. After all, my mathematics exams go for 2.5 hours, and are followed up by an entire week of marking for myself. Is not the study of english, just as important to these students as mathematics is to engineering? I hope so, and i hope more teachers take up the challenge like you have John, and put their students first, ahead of the convenience of reference materials and pre-establised teaching plans.

    Until i return to china. It is good to continue reading yours and gregs and the ZUCC blogs



    Ok, for all those who want a quick lesson in how to deal with cheaters.. it works like this..

    GIVE anyone who cheats 0. (But warn them before the exam)

    I did it for a math exam i gave my chinese students at ZUCC, and i called all 12 of the 42 in my class up to the front immediately after the exam, and called the class prefect to bear witness. Then proceeded to tell them all that regardless of their excuse, each of them was getting 0 for that test..

    Do this for low weighted exams throughout your semester. and you have a ZERO cheating rate in your finals. In fact, have the balls to do it for even ONE class and one exam, and every class there-after will be event free. (News gets around fast between students).

    Of course, no need to tell the school. It is between you and the students, dont make them loose more face by having the school get involved, typically this response has come from chinese teachers turning a blind eye to such activity for not wanting to make waves.

    Instead, inform the students that they have just lost their 10% or whatever, and you will not hessitate to take the rest if they try to pull the same stunt.

    ADDITIONALLY. NEVER leave ANY exam you have printed at a school, available for ANY staff or ANY student to gain access to PRIOR to an exam. and DONT print out ANY answers until after the exam has been done.

    In fact, dont even give your exam to the school after your students have sat for it unless you are specifically ordered to do so. This will just promote cheating for the next year if you use the same materials.

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  17. Susan Allen Says: April 3, 2013 at 12:43 am

    Looks like the comments here stopped long ago, but thought I’d add a small piece of advice. As John, all my exams for oral English classes are oral, but as I was allowed as many class hours as I liked for exams they were individual and focused more on pronunciation (demanding pronunciation of the end of words, among other things!) However, some of us do have to give written exams for other kinds of classes, and I hit upon one fairly effective method to prevent cheating (though not completely fool proof). I would print out the exam in two or three different formats, all with the same questions, but arranged in different order and each row would have a different one. Another very effective touch is to stand at the back of the class during the exam–this way students can’t see who you are watching and wait for your head to turn, you can see into their desks from the back as you walk around and observe any unusual movements they may make. However, it is good to keep in mind that Chinese don’t view cheating with the same abhorrence that Westerners do and can become quite bewildered and hurt if your reaction is too strong. If you really intend to automatically fail them if they are caught cheating, Alex’s suggestion is quite good.

  18. John – I have been trying this idea for my year of teaching freshman / first year Speaking & Listening at Tianjin University & Science Technology. Although the actual final assessment is next week, we have had two full scale (‘dress?’) rehearsals with me providing full feedback on the 6 or 8 criteria I marked them on. It looks to be working well. Groups of 4. Topic of discussion is a specific, provocative sentence (randomly chosen from a bunch of 50 I have dreamed up) based on the introductory management topics (they are studying for a join USA / Chinese taught Management Science double degree) I have covered with them in the second half of the year. Students prepare for 6 minutes, then discuss for 6 minutes. About 30 in each class, total of 86 doing the course. And yes, I have spent some time helping them understand that I want to hear pros & cons, and before opinions. I also want to hear and see agreement & disagreement. I want their sentences to be connected to the previous speaker. I’m also looking that they discuss the specific sentence and not only the general topic. I’ve been a bit stressed marking as it is very ‘live’ – so different than marking a written test. On the other hand, they are showing that can talk and make a conversation, so it is a very valid assessment. (I do a separate final Listening assessment for those and note-taking skills.) So a great idea. I’m really glad I read this about a year ago and would do it again if I was teaching in similar course in future. AND yes, after the discussions are finished I only have to get Excel to do its thing with the numbers to produce a final grade. Wonderful.

  19. Thanks a lot! This has been a tremendous help. As a first year teacher with absolutely no guidance, I can say that your website offers great direction and insight into the Chinese mentality and school system.

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