How the student cheating epidemic can be tackled
The coronavirus pandemic pushed almost all schools, colleges and universities online, for both teaching and exams. Surveys soon showed a huge increase in cases of students cheating. Did many more students suddenly begin to cheat, and if so why, or did the technology make it easier to uncover the cheating cases that have always existed?
Let me try to explore this important issue. I will focus on exams and leave aside the teaching part of the online education that we have moved to.
First, few instructors (statistically) give exams that require no proctoring, such as essays or open-book exams. Almost all tests require some monitoring. But how does one monitor students taking exams on their laptops or tablets alone in their rooms? We have no choice but to use technology — i.e., either have humans monitor the students via webcam or use software to prevent students from accessing files or websites, while, if possible, recording the session to flag any “suspicious” behavior?
Unfortunately, none of the above solutions are foolproof and students have quickly found ways to cheat the system. One company, ProctorU, which specializes in remote human proctoring, reported that its employees caught students cheating on less than 1 percent of the 340,000 exams it monitored between January and March 2020, i.e., just before the pandemic. However, between April and June 2020, i.e., just after we all went online, it administered 1.3 million exams and found 8 percent of students cheating. I should stress that these are cases where students knew they were being watched (via webcam) by human agents during the entire exam. We can only imagine the rates of cheating when students knew they were not being proctored by any human being.
In fact, most online tests are conducted without monitoring. Indeed, using human proctors is expensive and unfeasible on a wide scale — just imagine how many exams are given during finals week, for example. Most colleges and universities have adopted the simpler, cheaper software solution of locking students’ browsers and, if possible, recording them through their webcams. But students quickly realized that webcams do not see their hands, their smartphones or even any books or papers nearby, and communication between students (often via WhatsApp groups) or with “tutors” (often in other countries) was rampant during exams.
Online tests also provide “interesting” multimillion-dollar opportunities for companies that sell tests and homework with answers. Students just pay subscription fees and get entire tests with answers, especially multiple-choice ones. More disturbingly, students can also get answers to questions live during tests from the “tutors” who work for those companies.
The online modus operandi seems to have facilitated and amplified student cheating, but the problem has always existed, in fact far more than professors tend to estimate.
One of the most extensive surveys of student cheating was conducted by Dr. Donald McCabe of the International Center for Academic Integrity (at Clemson University in the US) from 2002 to 2015. He surveyed 70,000 high school students and 64 percent of them admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism, and 95 percent said they had participated in some cheating (on a test, plagiarism or copying homework). In another study, 44.4 percent of the 71,300 students who participated said it is OK to cheat on homework but not on tests, while only 39 percent said it is not OK to cheat on homework or tests.
One official UK study conducted in 2018 on GCSE, AS and A-level high school exams found major academic integrity violations in relatively few cases, but with the use of mobile phones making up 75 percent of them. A study conducted by the American Council for International Education and the Chief Economic Development Officers Society (Ukraine) in 2016 found that US students cheat much less frequently than their Ukrainian peers. Other anecdotal evidence states that academic cheating is much more prevalent in other parts of the world than in the US.
Why do students cheat, even in conservative and religious societies?
Several studies have examined the causes of academic cheating and concluded the following: Students cheat more readily in classes they don’t like much, when they feel they are overburdened by assignments, when they do not see any benefit in the topic or the assignments, and when it is too easy for them to cheat.
Furthermore, there are social factors that boost cheating: Academic pressure (there is too much emphasis on grades in schools and students can’t cope with it); peer pressure (“everybody’s doing it,” and “we must help each other”); and social pressure (parents and society tend to shame children who get bad grades).
Most depressing is the fact that students do not understand the deeper danger in cheating; not just the impact on their transcript and reputation if they get caught, but more deeply the impact on their lack of knowledge and expertise, and more widely how cheating in school often spreads to other areas of life and society, which becomes corrupt.
So what should we do?
We don’t want to turn the education system into a police state, but deterrence is better than prosecution.
First, every school and university should have an honor code to be signed by students at the start of every year, with regular reminders that cheating reflects one’s character (who wants to be known as a cheater?).
Secondly, students should be shown the tools that easily expose cheating, including plagiarism detection software, cameras in testing venues, etc. We don’t want to turn the education system into a police state, but deterrence is better than prosecution.
Finally, we teachers need to re-examine our modes of teaching and testing and make sure that students do not fear exams but rather see them as mere checks on their learning and mastery of a topic. Indeed, students should realize that graduating with low skills and little knowledge is dangerous for them. Society’s future is at stake.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum