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Do not cheat!

One of the more depressing discoveries I made from my first year or two of education blogging (Brian’s Education Blog still not working sorry blah blah) was the inexorable spread of cheating in Britain’s schools and colleges. The BBC reported yesterday that a diktat has just been emitted by a committee you will probably not have heard of until now, called JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), saying that this must stop and here is how blah blah:

A rise in the number of students in the UK, including undergraduates from overseas, is likely to mean increased plagiarism, a report has said.

Colleges and universities are being sent guidelines written by experts in the higher education technology organisation, Jisc.

The authors say: “student plagiarism in the UK is common and is probably becoming more so”.

JISC makes much of the presence of foreign students in large numbers, but presumably phrases this more delicately than the BBC’s report does, in its first paragraph above, with verbiage more like the following:

A “holistic” approach is needed which establishes “underlying cultures and beliefs”, “placing academic issues at the centre of the discussions”.

When you are saying that foreigners are cheats, words like “holistic” come in very handy, I should imagine.

However, another reasons why academic cheating is on the up-and-up is diktats from national committees, demanding that British schools (where most British students are still incubated despite all those dodgy foreigners) must do better and better, and get better and better marks, and better and better exam results. This is the process I call sovietisation, and the rot afflicts everyone in the entire education system, up to and including the Secretary of State him (now her) self. Simply, the politicians want the educational numbers to look better than they are, and they cheat.

Time was when the teaching profession was pretty much left to its own devices by London, but those days are long gone. And time was when, if you cheated, you had to make sure your teacher did not catch you at it. Nowadays, your teacher is liable to be the one helping you to cheat, so you can get through your exams, and he can tell London that he is doing a good job. And London will believe it, because London wants to believe it. I think the Soviet vibe here is clear enough. Steel production figures anyone?

Sending out yet another instruction saying that you jolly well must not cheat has a distinctly Gorbachevian air. It amounts to begging that our top-down command-and-control education system must please, please, not behave like what it is. There will be quotas, but no quota fiddling. Dream on.

See in particular, this posting, where I noted how continuous assessment encourages cheating, because it involves asking teachers themselves to tell the higher-ups how well they, the teachers (and the higher-ups), are doing. Exams at least get someone else to say how well things are going, and are more likely to be honest. Although of course the politicians put pressure on those to dumb them down too.

David Gillies responded to that posting of mine, with a comment which I copied over to Samizdata. Gillies noted, you may recall, that there is another reason why foreigners equals cheating. Foreigners equals money, and British colleges do not want to lose it by telling said foreigners that they have done badly in their exams. There is a lot of this about just now, and the less corrupt educational exporters must now be very afraid.

Perhaps there will now be yet another Initiative, demanding that each school and college must set in motion an Anti-Cheating Plan. The more obedient ones will comply, as best they can.

Others will say that they have done this, but their Anti-Cheating Plan will only be observable when the inspectors come calling.

They will, that is to say, cheat.

14 comments to Do not cheat!

  • 1327

    Sadly I fear cheating has simply spread upwards from the old Polys and FE colleges. When I was attending such dire institutions in the early 90’s for ONC’s , OND’s , HNC’s and HND’s I was always shocked at the level of cheating going on and the blind eye being turned to it. For instance it was customary on exam days to turn up early in the morning. A trusted member of the class would have been given the exam paper already and we would all read it. I was told that it simply saved the authorities work. To pass a student required a simple signature but to fail one required 3 forms and a possible hearing.

    Whats the result of this ? Well I passed my exams but the qualifications are worthless as everyone who has done them knows. When I interview staff now I ignore them and try to look for other ways of finding out if the person is technically capable.

    Incidentally there is a private sector solution and it works. A number of the larger American IT firms now issue their own qualifications which are usually quite hard to obtain. In my field I sometimes come across teenagers who have paid to take basic level Cisco qualifications. In my mind that qualification means 100 times more than your ONC , HNC , GNVQ or whatever the latest vocational qualification is called.

  • If you are interested in educational standards, you may find this little Freedom of Information Act disclosure of interest, regarding the reasons why the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment rejected the sample from England as being too biased for international comparison.

    Apparently too few schools and pupils were recruited by the Office for National Statistics, despite financial incentives which rose up to £1000 per school.

  • Innocent Abroad

    There’s a simple fix. Replace grades with percentiles

  • Giles

    I think there’s another reason why foreigners equals cheating and its that generally their education system relies alot more on rote learning as opposed to critical thinking – which is a characteristic of Brian distinction between Roman and anglo saxon education systems. And the whole idea of wote learning lends its self more easily to cheating.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Innocent Abroad has the right idea.

    Use the gaussian curve. This removes the need to cheat.

    However, improving exam grades might not solely be because of teacher collaboration. In Singapore, the trend of increasingly good results in the A levels is due to the presence of practice books(Ten Year Series) that compile past year A level exam questions into a single book which students can work at. The types of new questions which setters can toss at students are getting more restricted by the year, because setters are running out of new ideas!

    Does that mean students are getting brighter? Nah, it just means they’re getting more practice and having better opportunities to find their errors. No need to cheat, really.

    I didn’t know the above when I replied to David’s post a year ago. Then I entered the national teaching institute and heard some of my lecturers, who are former teachers, lament about setting questions which are relevant to the syllabus and yet new to the students. There’s only so many ways we can present a chemistry problem to students, so many ways we can ask them on covalent bonding, for example, without introducing concepts they had not learnt(and inciting serious hurt from enraged parents).

    Subjects like english are easier in this respect. The world is the canvas.


  • As an American, I always saw that the ones who cheated were those placed in classes beyond their abilities (even if they passed it off some other way). Cheaters, especially in high school, got away with it, no matter what the school administration did or tried to do to stop it.

    Only when it was left to the kids themselves was there any kind of stop put to it, and even then, the pushy parents pushed their kids into classes that the kids didn’t belong in–and those kids cheated. The same kids grow up with a really weird sense of what is morally right and wrong; if it helps them, it is both right and moral; if it helps anyone else, it’s cheating.

    I am so very glad my youngest is now out of high school and going to college.

  • Chris Goodman

    “The same kids grow up with a really weird sense of what is morally right and wrong; if it helps them, it is both right and moral; if it helps anyone else, it’s cheating.”

    One of the few television programmes I have learnt something from is “Jerry Springer”. The variable moral geometry on display is very instructive for understanding the psychology of politicians – especially those on the Left. Passionate outbursts of moral indignation are accompanied by an astonishing lack of insight into their own hypocrisy.

    I notice by the way that the Left hate the recent trend towards “reality” programmes with particular venom. Maybe it is because unlike documentaries and dramas the editorial control – which is generally used to supply us with Leftist preaching – is diminished?

    Call me an old cynic – or a product of the British Comprehensive/University system – but I cannot recall learning very much from my “education” [except perhaps contempt for Leftists].

    It would have been much more interesting to have had an apprenticeship in some sort of business [hopefully not working down a coal mine!] than to be schooled in a system which rewards adherence to a party line.

    Having said that maybe educating people in the discipline of mindlessly adhering to the party line is a good preparation for corporate life – those corporations that is whose market shares slowly sinks due to their inability [unlike their founders – who hopefully made lots of money] to identify what people want. It is certainly good preparation for working in the State Sector – whose motto seems to be “We do things to suit ourselves – be grateful for what you get!”

    Returning back to the topic! I watched Tony Blair the other day and it struck me that lying and cheating seem to have done his career no harm. If democratic politics is a marketplace for votes, lying and cheating and stealing seems to be a successful strategy.

    Why be moral? I have no idea, but it has nothing to do with anything any teacher or institution has ever taught me – quite the opposite. I suspect that the reason why I do not lie or cheat or steal or adhere to a party line is sheer perversity. It is how people get on in the world.

    Sorry I am rambling again………

  • Chris Goodman

    How people get on in the short term…but of course in the long term we are all dead. Maybe that is why they invented punishment after death?

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Chris, you’re not wrong. In fact, a certain degree of immorality(as defined traditionally) is required to get ahead, so to speak, but at the same time, society demands a certain conformation to the moral code if anybody is to survive, because none of us are truly self sufficient, and we have to rely on others for services and goods.

    Traditional morality is useful as far as it aids progress. When it’s not useful, it can be discarded quite readily. As simple as that. Morality is useful only in ensuring our own personal safety and prosperity, but for those who want to get ahead, be uncommonly successful, they’d have to act immorally.

    Or maybe it can be better said that their moral systems are different from the rest of us. Machiavelli identified the dilemma long ago, and the rest of humanity is still trying to solve his problem.

    Or more accurately, we’ve solved his problem, but there’re consequences to deal with, such as the change in our moral systems.

  • Doug Collins

    This discussion reminds me of one I had long ago on the same subject. One idea that stuck with me from that time was: Why not develop a pedagogical system that is nothing but tests?

    I have often heard the lame adage – generally from a defensive teacher – that, “tests should teach you things and the questions you miss should teach the most. ” My reaction – usually unspoken – was always: “Great. But then, the fellow who learned the most has flunked the test and is now flipping hamburgers!”

    If tests are such a wonderful teaching vehicle (and I tend to agree that they are) why not use them all the time? Cheating would then just be a method of study. Learning the answers to the questions would just be learning the subject.

    What I haven’t figured out, is how one would introduce new concepts as a part of testing. You could hardly expect the student to begin pre-Newton and over time derive all of modern physics, for example. You need to tell him some concepts, if only to save some time.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Tests do NOT teach anything. They are strictly assessment tools for educators to evaluate students, and to come up with remedies for missing gaps in knowledge. A students who has flunked a test simply shows that he lacks the knowledge and skills to answer those questions. Somebody will have to put in extra work to teach him those knowledge and skills. There is also the motivation/shame factor of tests, for which I made several important discoveries recently. Wonder if my tutor picked it up for her research?

    Also, too many tests kill enthusiasm, and it’s generally known in educational psychology that children are more enthusiastic about learning BEFORE they enter school at the grade 1/primary level. One reason for that is tests, of course.

    A remark by a friend of mine has always stuck with me. He says he cheats all the time, and we ask how. He replied, “I’m copying from the knowledge stored in my brain.”

    Quite right, too.


  • dearieme

    “Innocent Abroad has the right idea. Use the gaussian curve.” It probably is part of the right idea, but not all of it. You also need to make the exams harder, otherwise you end up trying to discriminate between performances that earn 98% and 97%, the difference between which will be just “noise”. Set a hard exam so that the tremendously good performance gets 85% and the pretty bloody good gets 75% and then the marks will be stretched out and your percentiles might be meaningful, at least at the top. And, since you are awarding percentiles, no one will be worried by scoring “only” 75%. The people at the bottom shouldn’t be taking the same exam, otherwise you’ll run into the lack-of-discrimination problem at the bottom of the class. Oh yeah, and cut out all or most of this coursework/practical exam stuff. A young friend explained that at her school a teacher instructed them on how to cheat for an AS practical exam and friends have boasted to me of doing coursework for their children; “it’s cheating not to, because everyone else does it!”

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Well, we do have some analytical tools available to assess the effectiveness of a test in terms of differentiating the good from the average from the poor, and evaluating the effectiveness of test questions.


  • bbridges

    I’m a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine and cheating is not only common here but part of the “shadow economy” Teachers are paid so little that receiving bribes is part of the expected pay package. Students openly prepare for and discuss cheating with family and friends. Teachers blatantly solicit bribes.

    And none seem to recognize the negative consequences.

    A Ukrainian friend was explaining how her studies allowed her to pass tests without cheating and how she was thus in a better position in life than the students that were forced to pay because they don’t study. The idea that she would be receiving a diploma that is virtually worthless since it reflects no guarantee of knowledge, had never occurred to her.

    Ukraine evidently had a reputation for a superior educational system at some point in its history. I fear an entire generation is being lost right now though.