University students cheating – who is to blame?


Some weeks ago, soon after exams were over, a friend brought me a couple of pairs of expensive sports shoes that she had found in a skip on campus, and asked what I thought about them.  As these picture show, written all across them were formulae that had clearly been put there to ‘assist’ their owner, or to put it more simply to help them cheat.

I have seen numerous forms of cheating before, but this was a first for me – and I would have thought that it was highly risky for the perpetrator!  Invigilation in exams has become ever more rigorous, and we are regularly sent lists of things to watch out for.  I recall on one occasion even being told  as an invigilator to be aware in case students wearing short skirts had written answers to questions on their thighs.  How we were meant to investigate this, I was never told.

Why, then, is cheating so rife?  I guess, in large part it is because of the increasing credentialism and pressure that is put on students to learn and regurgitate, rather than actually thinking for themselves.  If questions in exams were primarily designed to explore how students thought, rather than on what they could remember (although the two are obviously closely related), then there would be much less benefit in trying to cheat.  I am also sure that cheating in part derives from the fact that many students have to spend much of their time earning an income to cover the costs of fees, accommodation and maintenance, and therefore are unable to acquire the level of knowledge that we expect from them when it comes to exams.  Some might even be lazy, and simply cheat because they prefer to do that, with all the associated excitement of being caught, than actually doing the exciting intellectual work required in the first place.

In all instances, though, this is such a waste!  Students should surely go to universities because they want to learn, to think for themselves, and to develop understandings that will help them influence the future for the better.  No amount of cheating, regurgitating accepted truths will ever help achieve this.

The scale of cheating across universities is immense: in 2006, the Daily Mail reported that 90% of students cheat when writing essays; in 2008, the Guardian reported some 9000 cases of plagiarism across 100 universities in the UK under the heading ‘cheating rife among university students’; and the Canadian publication Macleans recently commented that ‘With more than 50 per cent of students cheating, university degrees are losing their value’.

Plagiarism software has gone some way to prevent plagiarism in the writing of course assessed essays, but this does not avoid cases where a student pays someone else to create an entirely new essay for them – which happens far more frequently than one might expect! There are also numerous websites which claim to provide a service that will not be picked up by the most sophisticated plagiarism checking software.  It is ironic that one of the most important reasons why course-assessed work was introduced was that it was thought to be less stressful for students, and that they would therefore do better in it than in unseen terminal exams.  Perhaps, because of so many abuses, it would be fairer to all if we just went back to such unseen tests – although I guess this would put many companies producing the plagiarism checking software out of business!

This is all just so sad, and reflects once again the commodification of knowledge that I have railed about so much in the past.  Students should want to go to university to learn to think for themselves, and not just to repeat what they are expected to remember.  Cheating is a sign both that we have accepted the wrong people into university, but also that we have failed to inspire them to think afresh.  But then again, if universities have become just higher education institutions, teaching people to learn and regurgitate accepted facts, and if that is what society wants, then I suppose we just have to accept cheating as being central to modern life.

Just think, we could do some DNA testing on the shoes, sample all graduates, and identify who used them.  I wonder what degree they actually finished up with?

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Filed under Higher Education, Universities

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