A culture of cheating

Why cheating in education made the headlines, and how it got there

What’s the problem?

Issues of cheating in education have made worldwide headlines throughout 2018 and into 2019. 

‘Algeria shuts internet to prevent cheating in school exams’; ‘Thousands of students caught cheating across north east’; and ‘India’s “cheating mafia” gets to work as school exam season hits’, are just some of the headlines that have hit the mainstream media over the last year. 

The report Malpractice for GCSE, AS and A-level: summer 2018 exam series, published by the UK Government in December 2018, states that 2,735 penalties were issued to students in schools and colleges across England in 2018. 

The main reason for these penalties, the report confirms, was students being in possession of a mobile phone. Phones accounted for 47% of all student penalties in 2018, an increase of 22% since 2017. 

Despite this increase in phone-related penalties, the overall number of penalties issued in 2018 was actually marginally less than 2017.

So why is cheating making headlines now? Matthew Glanville, head of assessment principles and practice at the International Baccalaureate (IB), says that it is the way in which cheating is happening that has changed.

He comments: “What we have seen are increases in cases of commercialisation of cheating, where once it was an agreement between friends, now it is a business.” 

The change in how cheating is happening affects the way the public views these cases, Glanville argues. “It is easier to empathise with the parent, teacher or friend who is trying to help a struggling student achieve the grade they need, and it is harder to imagine yourself selling essays to strangers,” he says. 

Glanville’s colleague at the IB, academic honesty manager Celina Garza, says that it is also true that cheating is now a lot easier to identify and report to the public. “What we have now are better tools for identifying such cases and the dissemination of them. News outlets have a wider reach supported by social media and therefore the public is more aware of such instances. Cheating has just become more ‘visible’,” she says. 

The Breakdown:

  2,735 penalties were issued to students in schools and colleges across England in 2018.

  Phones accounted for 47% of all student penalties in 2018, an increase of 22% since 2017.

  “Cheating has just become more ‘visible’.” – Celina Garza, IB.

  The number of staff penalties in 2018 is actually down from 2017, but isolated incidents are still occurring.

  “The increasing high-stakes nature of examinations holds teachers and schools responsible for delivering great grades rather than great teaching.” – Matthew Glanville, IB.

  Schools and colleges can refer to the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) for official exam rules.

  “A shift towards a different educational paradigm needs a change in attitude towards performance.” – Celina Garza, IB.

Who is involved?

It is not only grade-hungry students that are participating in cheating. First of all, a spokesperson for Ofqual told ET: “Exams officers say that most students don’t intend to use their phones to cheat. Students are penalised for having their phones on them, in breach of the rules, even though they didn’t use them.” 

This means that a student is reported as having engaged in ‘malpractice’ even if they haven’t tried to actually cheat, per se. This has a large influence on statistics; especially the 47% of penalties issued due to mobile phones. 

Secondly, even in the cases where cheating is intentional and planned, sometimes teachers are in the know, if not even encouraging of the behaviour. The number of staff penalties in 2018 is actually down from 2017 (from 1,030 to 620), but isolated incidents are still occurring. 

Kamilah Hale, a personal tutor in Kent, has heard reports from pupils of teachers encouraging cheating during SATs exams. 

Talking to Education Technology, Hale said: “I’ve had a couple of pupils ask me, ‘is the headteacher supposed to sit next to you in the SATs and give you the answers?’”

Hale says that the increased pressure on schoolteachers to present a portfolio of favourable exam results is adding to these instances. 

“We’ve had 10-year-olds talking about the Government pressuring teachers. They’re regurgitating a lot of stuff that has obviously come from very pressured teachers. And this has increased in the last three years.” 

These pressures happen throughout the school journey, and can certainly add to the instances of malpractice and cheating, says Glanville.

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“The increasing high stakes nature of examinations, especially holding teachers and schools responsible for delivering great grades rather than great teaching, has created a culture where teachers feel forced to ‘teach to the test’ and students are looking around for every possible advantage in their assessments,” he says. 

Where does tech fit in?

A breach of the regulations that might undermine the integrity of an exam may constitute malpractice. It includes attempts by students to communicate with each other during an exam, and failures by school or college staff to comply with exam board instructions – Malpractice for GCSE, AS and A-level: summer 2018 exam series

Despite technology being a large part of education in 2019, exams are somewhat anachronistic. This means that tech is often problematic in an exam situation, says Glanville: “At the moment technology is more of a hindrance than help, but this is because nearly all examinations are still following the 18th-century model of candidates writing examinations in a large hall.”

However, there are multiple opportunities for tech to improve exams, he says, especially in terms of changing assessment to more ‘meaningful’ tasks, such as the possibilities of simulating scientific experiments.  

There are also ways in which tech can be a help to academia in general, such as spotting plagiarism. Glanville says: 

“In terms of academic integrity, tools like Turnitin help spot plagiarism in a way that would not have been possible in the past due to being able to compare all current and past student essays together with the internet. We can also use technology to spot patterns in student answers in examinations.” 

If tech has such possibilities, why are plagiarism and cheating still such big problems? It has a lot to do with how easy tech has made the cheating process, says Garza. For instance, plagiarism has always been possible, but with the advent of the internet, and the power of cut and paste, copying large quantities of information has never been easier. “Other forms of cheating are made easier as well,” Garza says, “such as sharing live examination information via social media.” 

At the end of the day, it’s about properly harnessing the power of tech, and making sure that its possibilities are met by educators and invigilators. “Despite all the opportunities, technology is being better utilised by those trying to cheat than those trying to prevent it,” says Glanville. 

Tech also enhances the ability for cheating to become a global issue, says Glanville: “The global nature of technology has helped the tiny minority of students wanting to cheat join up with like-minded people around the world and has supported the commercialisation of cheating. The ‘echo chamber’ effect also helps people to think this behaviour is normal.” 

What happens next?

The increasing high-stakes nature of exams has created a culture where teachers feel forced to ‘teach to the test’ and students are looking for every possible advantage – Matthew Glanville

So what can schools and universities do to curb malpractice? An Ofqual spokesperson told ET that schools and colleges can refer to the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) for official rules. “JCQ’s guidelines for the conduct of examinations are clear, and exam boards expect schools and colleges to abide by them,” they said. Ofqual also contacted all headteachers in May 2018 to “remind them about the important job their exams officers perform over the series and throughout the year,” a spokesperson told ET. “We suggested ways in which they could support their exams officers to minimise the opportunity of mistakes and malpractice arising.”

For universities, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is a good place to start, Ofqual suggests. 

Schools are under the biggest burden to discourage cheating, says Glanville. “The battle for academic integrity is really won or lost in the school,” he says, “because this is where teachers can influence students and parents positively. Awarding bodies punishing those they catch can only influence the perception of risk the student has of cheating, not convince them it is wrong.” 

Being role models for academic integrity is the best thing that lecturers and teachers can do, says Glanville, and that the education around the morality of cheating needs to start as early as eight years old. Garza agrees, commenting: “Children understand what integrity means, so teaching about integrity and reinforcing attitudes that favour integrity needs to start early on. 

As the student progresses in the educational system, schools need to adapt their strategies to offer activities and examples that support their student’s understanding about this.” 

For now, it is important to remember that there is a larger systemic issue at play here, and that the education system as a whole needs to change before we can expect to see a real shift. “When all that students can see is that they will be measured according to their academic achievements, it is easy to see too that universities and schools have a difficult battle in front of them,” says Garza.

“More emphasis needs to be put on quality of teaching and the development of the student to face the challenges of the future world, but a shift towards a different educational paradigm needs a change in attitude towards performance.” 

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