"Cat and Mouse" (CC BY 2.0) by katie_mccolgan
Every week there are reports of cheating in school and university exams and assignments and it's easy for some to inperpret this as a purely modern phenomenon enabled primarily by digital technology. Is cheating really on the rise or has technology enabled us to detect it more easily? What makes people go to such lengths and expenses to cheat the system? A recent revelation here in Sweden showed that some people were paying well over €10,000 to cheat on their university entrance exams. If you have the cash you can get someone else to write your essay for you and they will also guarantee that it will pass any plagiarism detection system. University entrance and qualifications are hard currency and whenever there are clear rewards on the table the temptation to cheat will always be there. It's certainly prevalent in business, politics and sport so it's naive to think that education should be exempt.
Cheating and counter-cheating is becoming a frantic arms race as each side tries to out-trick the other. Online examination proctoring services are flourishing such as Proctor U and Software Secure. These solutions offer secure online examination by locking down the students' computer and using multi-factor identification, screen, webcam and microphone surveillance and keystroke analysis. In the traditional campus exam hall students can now use their laptops but in most cases they are offline, locked into the exam administration system and monitored. However for every new solution to increase exam security there are counter moves from the cheaters. A classic case of cat and mouse.
This cat and mouse game is discussed in a new post by Donald Clark, Lecture, essay, cheat, repeat… plagiarism, why it's endemic and 10 ways to avoid. He sees the traditional reliance on summative assessment as the main problem. Predictable exam questions can easily be memorized and it's easy to get ready-made answers to many common titles, especially if you're willing to pay for it. He suggests several alternatives to summative assessment methods.
Essays are sometimes appropriate assignments if one wants long-form critical thought. But in many subjects shorter, more targeted assignments and testing are far better. There’s a lot of formative assessment techniques out there and essays are just one of them. Short answer questions, open-response, formative testing, adaptive testing. I’d argue that student blogs are often better than essays as one can see progress and it’s not something that’s easy to plagiarise. Truth be told, HE wants it easy, and essays are easy to set. They also have to accept that they are also easy to cheat.
One simple trick Clark suggests is googling your essay question and see if the answers are already out there. We simply have to set assignments that aren't so easy to cheat. If you do set an essay then provide formative assessment by reviewing the drafts to see how the work is progressing. Interviews, face-to-face or video, can give an excellent idea of the student's ability and are very difficult to cheat in. The investment from the teacher's part is often less than that of marking written papers. despite this very few dare to move away from the examination methods that are so clearly easy to cheat. Clark blames institutional inertia and tradition for the situation:
This has reached crisis point. Everyone knows it but there’s a conspiracy of silence. Universities are scared to admit the scale of the problem, as they trade on reputation. We’ve created this monster but institutional inertia is incapable of solving the problem, as they refuses to change.
Clearly no-one benefits from playing cat and mouse and although we'll never eliminate cheating from education there must be better ways of assessing students' ability. The essay or scientific article has for so long been the prime medium of academic communication but maybe we should widen our scope and include other forms of expression for assessment, moving the focus to a richer assessment mix of formative and summative methods as well as using peer assessment and assessment of practical work experience. By widening the focus like this we can at least make cheating extremely difficult.