Exam cheating ain’t what it was – stopping it now takes drastic measures

Tried and tested. Cheating via Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

The recent move by the Uzbekistan government to block access to the internet – coincidentally on the same day as national university entrance examinations – is rather an extreme example of the ongoing battle between authorities and would-be cheaters over the fairness of educational assessment.

Throughout the world, students of all ages in schools, colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to perform well in “high-stakes” tests. The outcome of these tests really matters for the future life chances of students in the global economy. For example, in Uzbekistan the university entrance exams decide which 58,000 of the 431,000 taking the test will be able to go to university. In Nepal you can’t even apply for a driving licence unless you pass your School Leaving Certificate.

And such tests aren’t just “high-stakes” for pupils. Teachers around the world are also under huge pressure to raise pass rates and grades year on year, to improve their school’s position in league tables or to ensure they get their salary rise. No wonder the exam papers in Nepal have to be delivered to the testing centres under armed guard.

Temptations for students and their teachers to cheat are growing ever more intense. Even if only the tiniest minority ever try to do so, their methods must become increasingly sophisticated and devious to avoid detection. And in a world dominated by smartphones and other new technologies, exam invigilators need to up their game as well.

Back in the day

In the old days it was fairly straightforward. If you wanted to cheat in an exam, you wrote key facts that you might forget on the inside of your pencil case, up your arm or on the palm of your hand (which was always a bit risky as you tended to sweat).

If the tables in the school gym were well-spaced out it was always a bit difficult to see over your neighbours’ shoulders to copy them – and they might have written the wrong answers anyway. Putting your hand up for a toilet break was a good bet; you could either sneak a look at the best student’s answers as you walked past, or hide a copy of the textbook or your notes in the cubicle to consult. Even if the invigilator accompanied you to the toilet, they wouldn’t come into the cubicle with you; it was even possible to add some strategically-placed academic graffiti on the inside of the door.

Collaborative cheating, such as passing surreptitious notes around, was a high-risk strategy as the invigilator might spot it at any minute. But I’ve been an exam invigilator and I know how soporific a two-hour stint in a hot and airless exam hall can be: it’s easy to miss things.

Yet I don’t think that I’d miss some of the more outlandish examples from Uzbekistan, such paid cheating rings, with people secreted away in “bunkers” correcting wrong answers. Surely that would require collusion from the school, and this can of course happen, particularly in less well-regulated systems.

The widely publicised example of a former examination board official in England running seminars to help teachers “lead” their pupils through oral language exams suggests that temptations exist in all countries and at all levels.

With the advent of increasingly sophisticated calculators permitted in some maths and science exams, enterprising students could program in key formulae or write them on the back. As a result, some examination boards have started issuing approved lists of such devices.

Smarter cheating

No phone zone. Francis Storr, CC BY-SA

But the real step-change in the potential for cheating has come with the smartphone, with which you can look up the answer to any question and even download whole model essays geared to your particular exam. The most straightforward response to this is of course to ban phones from exam halls – certainly no school or university in the UK would let you in with one. Typically all you are allowed are some pens and pencils in a clear plastic bag.

But it can be difficult to detect whether someone has a smart device on them without performing a rather intrusive body search. And there are other devices on the horizon. In 2013, one Belgian university banned all watches because of the possiblity of cheating with smart watches. Google glass is another future challenge: but would all exam invigilators recognise a pair if they saw them?

It’s actually pretty easy to spot copying from the internet, particularly if the essay has been submitted electronically as a piece of coursework. All UK universities and many schools now require students to submit work to plagiarism-detection software such as Turnitin, which flags up strings of words that appear anywhere on the web, together with all previous essays submitted to its database. This means that some students get caught out plagiarising themselves from a previous assignment (it’s perhaps just as well that some academics’ publications aren’t subject to the same scrutiny).

Keep it in context

But the use of coursework as part of high-stakes assessment in schools is dying out fast in England. Recent changes to GCSE exams have replaced most coursework with end-of-course exams or controlled assessments, which are undertaken during normal lesson time, but under strict conditions.

The assumption behind these changes is that coursework – especially if done at home with parental support – encouraged cheating. Yet the replacement of this varied assessment diet by one consisting only of pencil-and-paper tests risks disadvantaging many students while compromising the validity of our attempts to measure attainment. Perhaps a little cheating is the price we pay for an examination system that gives fair chances to all.