RIYADH: As the second semester draws to a close, students, parents, and teachers alike wait to see the impact quarantine has had on grades.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic drove everyone in academia into a frenzy. Schools and universities quickly shut down, and students and instructors were forced to adapt to online classes and exams. With no end to the lockdown in sight, no one knew how final exams were going to work.
But while finals for many school students were eventually canceled, with their grades determined by the first semester’s results, university students were still obligated to take them from home — making it easier for them to cheat.
Arab News spoke to a few of these students about how and why they cheated on their finals. Due to the controversial nature of the subject, the students asked for anonymity. Their names have thus been changed.
Badr, a college freshman, said that even with university countermeasures in place, there were still plenty of ways to cheat on digital exams.
“Most exams will give you a time frame in which to log in, so you don’t have to enter right away. There’s a window of about 15 minutes. What we’ll do is have the best student go in first, start solving questions, and send screenshots via WhatsApp or another messaging app,” he explained. “We’ll all log in at various times after them and check the chat whenever we need answers. Even if the questions are randomized, we’ll know the answers either way,” he added.
A well-designed exam should have analysis questions, questions that depend on the student’s ability to solve a problem or reach a conclusion.
Dr. Hala Ismailm, assistant professor and chairperson of the Department of Linguistics at Prince Sultan University in Riyadh
For harder questions, or ones that involve written answers, Badr and his friends will simply fall back on Google.
“Sometimes you get lucky and your professor is kind of lazy and will just lift questions from teacher resource websites. Even though the exam software our university uses won’t let us exit or minimize the screen unless the exam is completed and submitted, anyone with a phone, iPad, or second laptop can circumvent that easily enough,” he said.
Amira, a senior graduating in computer science, said that even in a field that requires a lot of personal input, such as in coding or solving math problems, people have found ways to cheat.
“Someone from my class paid a private tutor to FaceTime them while they were taking a math exam and had the tutor do all the work while they just copied down the explanations and answers. Lots of tutors do it because they can make good money from it. With everyone worried about money during this pandemic, I’m sure they aren’t hard to find,” she said.
Amira said that students will likely always find ways to cheat, especially when working unsupervised from home. For some, the temptation might be too great to resist. For others, they might simply take advantage of the situation and decide to take the easy way out.
“I just want to be done with this chapter of my life as I feel like the odds are stacked against me at such a critical juncture. It’s making me do things I normally wouldn’t,” she said.
Both Badr and Amira believe that cheating is ethically wrong. Given their current circumstances, however, they feel they have no choice.
“If I were the only one doing it, I would feel bad about it. But I guarantee you, everyone is cheating now. The odds are against me anyway. I can study hard and work, and someone who cheats will still get a better grade than me. That’s not fair,” Badr said.
Amira echoed his sentiments, saying that the exams they were taking from home were far harder than those they would have
“In normal circumstances, I would never cheat. But our exams have been way too hard since we began taking them at home. In trying to stop us from cheating, our professors have actually driven us to cheating since that is the only way we can actually do well on their exams,” said Amira.
As for the instructors themselves, most are fully aware that students are going to cheat no matter what. Their feelings on the matter are mixed.
Dr. Hala Ismail, assistant professor and chairperson of the Department of Linguistics at Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, said that students have plenty of misconceptions about what makes an exam easy or hard to cheat on.
“A lot of students assume that it’s easier to cheat on digital exams but in reality, it’s easier to cheat on a poorly designed exam. A well-designed exam should have analysis questions, questions that depend on the student’s ability to solve a problem or reach a conclusion, not just parrot back knowledge copied from their books or lectures,” she said.
Ismail, who teaches professional ethics, believes that education in academic ethics can also benefit students who might not be aware of the real consequences of their cheating.
“I like to ask students what they would do if they knew that their professor had cheated. Or if they would trust a doctor whom they knew had cheated on all of his university exams. I tend to find that these discussions make it very hard for them to cheat,” she said.
“As an educator, you want to evaluate your students fairly and make sure everyone gets what they deserve from the course. When students cheat, it makes it harder for us to be fair. It also makes it harder for us to design good exams,” she added.
Dr. Orchida Fayez, leader of the digital humanities research group at Prince Sultan University, said that she believed the whole education system has changed and that the time of traditional exams had already passed.
“We should do away with the traditional format of giving a student an essay or task to complete in a limited time, the results of which we correct afterwards,” she said. “Starting a project or activity in class and holding several dynamic discussions in which everyone participates equally is far more effective, engaging and enjoyable for the students.”
Fayez pointed out that in this age of technology, students and teachers both have more access to knowledge and resources on the Internet and should not waste energy focusing on things that do not matter.
“Being fixated on cheating is wrong. Going through a lot of trouble to make things too difficult is not the solution,” she said.
She advised instructors and educators to instead hold discussions with students and follow up on their progress through assignments.
She also believes that non-traditional examination methods, such as open-book exams or asking for a final project instead of an exam, can be much more effective.
“Open book exams, for example, aren’t just exams where you can copy what’s written in the book. It’s all about the analysis of the information,” she said.