Polska wersja artykułu jest dostępna tutaj. Nie jest ona dosłownym tłumaczeniem poniższego wpisu, ale ma za zadanie przekazać tą samą treść.
This entry aims to dispute cheating in general and events at Warsaw School of Economics, as they are described in press and social media, are just a starting point for this dispute. I am not judging university, its students, neither employees, just comparing the possibilities to solve the problem of cheating students.
At the time of writing this text, summer exam session is now coming to the end at all Polish universities. Warsaw School of Economic (SGH, for short), the top Polish university of economics, is no exception.
During one of them, students had to prove their fluency in German language. Sounds like nothing unusual, but this particular, and seemingly not interesting, event was a source of a nation-wide debate about university education.
What has happened?
During mentioned exam, a female student was cheating using her smartphone. The other male student, known as Kamil, noticed that and decided to publicly report this fact to the exam supervisor. According to sources close to SGH, he started loudly pointing a girl who was helping herself with a smartphone. Obviously, the cheater failed an exam.
What is the problem?
The female student was cheating, which is clearly against the rules of university (not because she is a female, only because she is a student). She got caught, she failed, however still has chances to pass the course during resit session in September (known in Polish student slang as “September Campaign”). It is not really a harsh punishment, compared to what she could expect at West European universities, which often just expel cheating students. However, different culture, different climate, different punishment. Personally, I think that the fact of gaining, not necessarily positive, media attention is worse punishment than being unable to continue with the study at the university (even if, she could probably still be able to transfer to another university, at least in Poland).
Although situation with the cheater is clear, the main debate is about Kamil.
On one side, the student who reported the another did the right thing. Cheating is definitely wrong… wait, is it?
Why students cheat?
I know cum laude and honours class students who become such because they cheat, or opposite – once they managed to make it to the faculty’s top, they feel pressured to maintain this position by cheating.
Aim of the exam is to check one’s knowledge about the subject. This is a reason why they are organised. However, it is not the reason why people sit them. Usually, it is all about getting a piece of paper, certificate, diploma that is needed in other spheres of professional (and not only) life.
High school students need high grades in their final exam to get to the best universities. In the Netherlands, university students with high GPA are more likely to get better job after graduation. At Erasmus University Rotterdam it is easier for top scoring students to get positions of teaching assistants or university ambassadors during their study.
Also, Erasmus University has quite strict binding study advice – students who fail to get 60 ECTS credits during their first year of study in most of the cases drop out and are unable to apply again for their programme during the next three years.
Many parents put pressure on their children to get the highest possible degree, often in a very specific field. These children, who become university students have very serious problem. They might have different passions or even completely be unaware what they want to do with their life.
You might ask, how is that possible not to become passionate about anything during 18 years of life? Children, more and more often pressured to not only perform at school but also extracurricular piano, tennis, swimming and language classes chosen by the parents. Recently I have even heard of parents hiring personal coaches in competitive debating for their children!
All these young people do it often to please their families and not necessarily become passionate about such activities. Children usually trust their parents and often consider following what elders say as the best way to go. However, one day they might realise that all of this, what they thought was a right thing to do, deprived them of their personality. In such moment, they have no longer idea what to do with their life, but pressure still exists. Families say, e.g.: graduate this degree, not that, and then you can continue our family business or get a full-time job, your parents can arrange for you, in these difficult, post-crisis times of rising precariat.
Do you already feel sorry for these people? Maybe you think they lack willpower to oppose and follow their own path?
Our own families usually try to take the best care of us. Also, most people prefer having peaceful life rather than strive for every single thing one wants. For these reasons, revolution and turning back to everyone might not be the best solution. However, you have bigger incentive to ease your suffering and have more time for things you like, whether it is painting, building robots or just getting drunk at parties.
One of methods to achieve this was discussed by British media some time ago, and the case is also known in the Netherlands – drugs. Some of them increase study efficiency, ability to focus and general mental capability. Drugs, which might cause health hazard, are used for studying, not just before exams, therefore such “supporting material” cannot be detected by university invigilators.
Other method, which is not connected with health risk but with accusations of fraud, is cheating, either using smartphone, copying answers from a neighbour, given you have good eyes (otherwise you need good glasses), or any other method. Many of them have not changed since introducing public schooling in Europe.
It is not true that cheating is only a thing everywhere but Western Europe and North America. In my opinion, the only difference is that in Western Europe cheating on exams is a taboo – everyone pretends it does not exist. Students that live on the eastern bank of the Oder do not have problems discussing it in public.
The truth is clear: in every place in the planet there are students who cheat and most of these, who do, probably never gets caught. For this reason, it is not as useful to discuss what to do with these who commit frauds during exams, only how encourage students not to cheat at all.
This gives background to ask important questions: Are not these pressured young people justified when using forbidden material during their exam? Is that worse than using drugs, only because university is unable to punish people who use Modafinil or Aderall when they study? What actually cheating says about the cheater?
Cheater – the b*ass?!
Now, it is clear why students cheat in general, so we can think of what kind of personality is the cheater.
It might be the person who just wants to have an unjust advantage over others and such kind of behaviour I find wrong. This is a kind of people who later work for the call centres trying to sell as much stuff as possible, even if we really do not want it.
However, many of cheaters are just desperate and brave. Desperate because they do not see other option than using illegal material during the exam and brave because they are able to act against the system, which otherwise might harm them (and still does, when they get caught). They have also to be creative in order to successfully hide their source of information from the eyes of invigilators.
People I discussed in the previous section might also have an attitude to satisfy wide-array of agents with mutually exclusive interests. This is useful in professional life, when they have to deal with different interests of customers and managers. They are even able to gain profit for self. Is this not a thing that is expected by employers in 21st century corporations? If we take away the personal profit part, does not the cheater look a bit like a superhero?
It is an argument that is often raised when discussing such issues, but it can also backfire.
One party, organising the exam, agrees with another party, the people who take the exam, on certain measures to guarantee high value of the exam. The value of the exam is increased, when more of the high scores go to people who actually possess required knowledge and skills, while lowest scores go to these who lack them.
However, is it the case for universities? I know cum laude and honours students, who do not know how to write a scientific paper. I know people, which are considered by the university as top students, but during their tutorials, they have serious problems explaining course material to others. On the other hand, there are students who get awards at international scientific competitions, but find it hard to pass the regular exams.
Such observations uncover the low value of the exam and cause its further devaluation. Students seeing how others achieve their position in an unjust way, start doing the same thing. Exam administration, which notices the higher number of high scoring students, asks lecturers to prepare more difficult exams. Exams, that are harder to pass, discourage next cohorts of students to be fair, because at certain moment they realise the effort they need to put in their work is just too high for their capabilities.
Another trust issue relates to the idea of student solidarity. While people usually agree on what should happen to the student that cheats during the exam, the discussion group on Facebook about SGH event, is more fiery about the student who reported the other one. Whether one should report the fraud and whether Kamil should do it in a slightly more discrete form than he has allegedly done (I have not been there, so I am the last person that can make judgements).
It can be argued that on one side he has done right thing – uncovered the fraud that was happening and reported it to the proper person. It is commonly agreed that when one sees a person drowning in the water or having heart attack, one should react. One should react when one witnesses robbery that is happening or someone torturing animals. The sources that justify the reaction relate to value of humanity, but also law that forbids certain acts, like murder.
The exam cheating example shows however, that most people do not consider law or rules as relevant. They rather justify their reactions using empathy, mutuality and no-harm principle. We, as the people, are willing to help the tortured animal because we can at least imagine how much physical and mental pain it causes. We are willing to call an ambulance to the person having a heart attack, at the same time hoping that someone will do that once we get into the trouble.
This also explains our approach towards exam cheating. We are willing not to report the student cheating at the exam knowing, that we might once need illegal support during an exam as well. We empathise and are aware that circumstances of such behaviour might be complex and not necessarily related to this person’s desire to gain unjust advantage.
This gives logic behind explanation of the anxiety towards the person that reported the student committing the fraud. The unwritten contract between the students, which includes clauses justifying certain kind of behaviour under certain circumstances, is ruthlessly broken. This results in other students less trusting the one who denounced the other, but also less trust among each other. Once such a thing occurs, no one knows whether someone will do it again in the future. It also relates to other spheres of life. How do we know that this or other person will not denounce us for other offence we can commit outside university?
What motivates to report the fraud?
It is virtually possible that the idealistic student does that because of the principles. However, there is also possibility of personal issues that these two have between each other, so generally desire to revenge. If the reason to report the fraud is related to possibility of obtaining personal gains, then generally it should not be approved.
Apart from causing harm to the students that cheats, in terms of failing grade at least, it seems there is nothing to be gained from reporting the fraud, unless university has student ranking lists. If it is said that the top students get scholarships or other benefits, there might be an actual profit for the denouncing student in form of higher place in the ranking list.
At the same time, it can be argued why the student needs to do such a thing in order to maintain higher place at the ranking list? Why the students cannot study hard enough to get to the top but do cheat or do report others cheating? Is the student reporting the fraud better from the student cheating? This question can be answered using the idea of the false loop of devaluation of exams, described earlier in the text.
Any solutions possible?
The dilemma is virtually possible to solve by changing the attitude of the whole society, to the one that includes possibility of failure from time to time. Right now, we live in times when everyone is required to strive for perfection: in beauty, education, income, family model etc. The mass media try to shape everyone to look alike, not leaving much space for independence.
However, this requires giant move from multiple parties in the society, which might involve a lot of time and effort. Easier thing to do, which can be also treated as a step in that direction, is strengthening the student community. Students can solve such issues on their own – it can react when they notice that someone abuses the system for personal gains or abuses the “right to cheat”. It is up to the community, represented e.g. by student organisations, to determine what kind of instruments they will use to achieve this goal. Organisations have also higher bargaining power when discussing such things with lecturers and university administration.
I also think that approach Polish universities show towards cheating is more just than the one showed in Western Europe. People deserve the second chance. At the same time, universities should either condemn recidivists or find the reason of their behaviour and try to solve it. What might help is wise counselling that might result in student changing the programme to the one he or she is more passionate about. Due to high work-load, students might also suffer from burn-out and become unable to find motivation for studying.
In no way I say cheating is good, either at the university or generally in life. However, I believe that instead of punishing students who cheat, universities, but also all other public institutions, should understand and convince everyone that cheating is bad for all of us in general. The policy of second chance, in a wider sense than the one Polish universities currently practice, would convince the whole society that it is better to fail sometimes rather than commit a fraud.
P.S.: I know a university professor who has never failed a student. At worst, he gave a pass during the resit. As he says, “life will verify, whether he or she is competent enough, not me”. Maybe this is the way to go? No one is harmed by the universities, but everyone has an opportunity to excel.
featured picture: Warsaw School of Economics C-Building