‘It’s so easy to get away with it’
Cheating is a cat-and-mouse game
‘It’s so easy to away with’, says 19-year-old UG student Myrthe. ‘I don’t think they could ever really stop it.’ Whenever she has an exam, she uses the internet, as well as WhatsApp to talk about the answers with her fellow students.
David (21) also cheated during the first set of online exams before the summer. ‘I was taking an exam while someone else in the room was taking the same one’, he says. ‘The course it was for was a bad mess. It made me feel less guilty, even though I knew what I was doing was wrong.’
David and Myrthe aren’t the only ones cheating on their exams. The past few weeks have seen a myriad of students cheating. The exam committee at the law faculty recently discovered evidence of over fifty cases of it. Last week, the international business, mathematics, and micro-economics departments nullified the results of their mid-terms, since they found out that students discussed the answers to them over WhatsApp.
Seems to me like that bit might be from someone else
During a university council meeting, history professor Antoon de Baets told a story about how in one exam, the font suddenly changed from Times New Roman to Arial. ‘Seems to me like that bit might have come from someone else.’
An UKrant survey held in October among a hundred random students confirms this. A quarter of the students questioned admitted they cheat occasionally, while thirteen say they do so regularly.
Four out of five students are convinced their fellow students cheat. Only six students didn’t think so. Sixty of the one hundred students knew someone who cheated. In the meantime, their lecturers are working overtime trying to prevent cheating while still providing their students with proper exams.
‘Students are abusing the issues that the corona pandemic is causing’, says statistics professor Casper Albers. He discovered that psychology students were cheating on his course by exchanging answers over WhatsApp when students who were part of the group chat turned them in.
Just because a bike is unlocked doesn’t mean you can steal it
Now, Albers and his colleagues use special software to write questions for their exams. Each student receives a separate exam with unique numbers. Setting everything up took an enormous amount of work, says Albers, and he’s still not sure it’s completely cheat-proof. ‘I think it’s terrible that students abuse the system’, he says. ‘Just because someone forgot to lock their bike doesn’t mean you’re allowed to steal it.’
Assistant professor of history Leonieke Vermeer agrees. Normally, part of her exams covers just facts. But she’s since retooled them to contain mainly essay questions. ‘I’m trying to test the students’ insight and analysis skills more’, she says.
Mixing it up
She also mixes up the questions, which means the students all get different questions at different times during an exam. Finally, she uses a time lock and scans for plagiarism. She takes a random sample after the exam.
‘We picked a couple of random students to take an oral exam. They had to identify themselves and prove they understood the material’, says Vermeer. But this is pretty much all she can do. ‘You can never be sure if everyone is taking their own exam.’
The whole warrants further investigation, especially since the grades have been unusual lately. Students’ grades aren’t as high as they used to be, but the number of bad grades has decreased dramatically. There’s no telling whether this is due to them cheating, though.
There are fewer high grades, but also fewer low ones
‘Not being able to test students’ knowledge of facts is an obstacle. Essay question answers are rarely completely wrong. You can’t just discount those answers in their entirety’, says Vermeer. But it’s frustrating. ‘It’s just not cool to abuse the situation’, she says.
In the meantime, students are well aware of everything that’s being done to prevent them from cheating. They talk about lecturers who make their exams extra long or extra hard. In many cases, they can’t return to a previous question on an exam.
Before the summer, linguist and information science professor Martijn Wieling tested out controversial proctoring software, which takes over students’ laptops during the exams. During his statistics exam, his students were filmed with their webcam. The software also tracked everything that was happening on the students’ screens.
It’s just not cool to abuse the situation
Students had to sign off on the software being used; anyone who refused was allowed to take the resit.
But Wieling realised that privacy isn’t the issue when it comes to the controversial control method. ‘The recordings are perfectly safe’, he knows. ‘They make note of who’s watching and where the data is stored. On top of that, we decide when the data needs to be deleted.’
He doesn’t think the experiment was a success, though. They soon found out that the company that made the software had trouble picking up on irregularities. Wieling ended up watching a hundred recordings himself, which led him to suspect a few more students of cheating. ‘I can’t be expected to do that for every exam.’
He thinks the solution lies in a combination of in-person exams and online exams using proctoring software. ‘We should always aim for in-person exams. But students who are sick or who have symptoms can take the exam at home while we use proctoring software to monitor them. It’s easier to keep track of a small group of online students.’
What about the student pledge, the promise students make ahead of the exam saying they won’t cheat? It doesn’t actually prevent anything, but it does make students aware of their responsibilities, says assistant professor of American history Jelte Olthof.
The student pledge is nonsense. It doesn’t work
The pledge is used all over the university, but very few lecturers actually think it works. ‘It reminds me of one of those forms you have to fill out when you’re taking a plane to the US’, Albers says, laughing. ‘They ask you if you plan to commit any terrorist acts. What kind of terrorist would actually answer that honestly?’
Matthijs van Wolferen, assistant professor of European law, agrees with Albers. ‘It’s nonsense. It doesn’t work at all.’ He decided to make a randomised exam consisting of three statement. The system would pick one at random. ‘We did hear instances of people working together on that exam as well. But it was a long essay, so I doubt that anyone could have cheated off someone else completely.’
So far, he’s seen no results that indicate massive cases of fraud. At least, not for his course. And in spite of all the extra work and fuss, some lecturers can acknowledge the good thing about online exams.
One of Van Wolferen’s student currently lives in a war zone in Armenia. ‘In spite of the horrible situation he’s in, we managed to have him sit the exam. That’s beautiful, and we can learn from that.’
Olthof is cautiously optimistic. ‘A lot of lecturers have gained digital skills. Those might turn out to be useful.’
I’m planning on cheating, or I won’t make it
For now, lecturers have to keep making quality representative exams, says general law lecturer Laurent Jensma. ‘We don’t want people to think that a diploma gained during corona is less valuable.’
None of the attempts to curtail cheating will stop 20-year-old student Adam, though? ‘My lecturers keep making us answer more questions in less time. So yeah, I’m planning on cheating. I won’t make it otherwise’, he says.
Francisca (19) blames the lecturers. ‘Last year, I had a multiple-choice exam. We could literally look up the answers in our book. Pretty much everyone got a perfect score. I’m sure lecturers understand that people cheat if you make it so easy on them. They should do everything they can to prevent it. I know they.’
Jensma is disappointed. ‘We work so hard to prevent cheating. I think students tend to forget that it’s in their interest, too.’