The global evolution of exam cheating and malpractice

I was fortunate to be invited to speak recently at an event hosted by EY in London.  Working with the Centre for Islamic Finance at the University of Bolton, EY were examining the phenomenon of fraud across a number of industries, including education.  This article follows on from my discussion on the global increase in fraud and misconduct within higher education and professional training.

An age-old problem

Cheating in education is not a new problem.  So, it is surprising that it receives so little dedicated focus and attention from researchers.  Modern technology, whilst allowing for the development of increasingly sophisticated assessment methodologies, is also facilitating the continued evolution of exam malpractice and academic fraud and so in order to keep pace, it is very important that a proactive approach be taken by professionals in our field.

A recently published report funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training, highlighted a number of interesting aspects of the modern contract cheating phenomenon.  Most notably that a key driver for this rapidly growing mechanism for fraud, is a change in market conditions within higher education wherein there is a greater sense of the transactional nature of education.  Learners regards themselves as paying customers, with an expectation of a product in return for payment.  This is far removed from the experience of older generations (in the UK) for whom access to higher education was dependent on ability, was government funded, and was considered a great privilege.

What motivates a cheat?

When looking at the practical question of how fraud and malpractice in education occurs, it can be useful to refer to the idea that fraud requires a motivation, a mechanism and a justification.  The most intrinsically complex of these three factors being the justification or rationalisation.  As humans we are extremely adept at shaping our perceptions of experience to suit our own purposes.  Whether we are altering a painful memory so as to reduce the hurt that we feel in the here and now, or we are deliberately affecting our expectations of a forthcoming event (for example using visualisations to build courage before a job interview), our species has an uncanny ability to change events in our minds to fit with our agenda.  In the case of Lance Armstrong, this can be seen in his personal justification of his fraudulent activities that cost millions of dollars and undermined the legitimacy of an entire sport – ‘everyone else was cheating too’.

Is cheating the new normal?

It is reasonable to suggest that changes to our attitudes to cheating and one-upmanship, have been promoted throughout our global society by our increased exposure to fraudulent behaviour and the seemingly endless list of people who get away with it.  From international interference with the politics of other countries, to a US President settling $25M claims against his own branded university for lying to students, to college admissions scandals and the dishonest actions of leaders running household brands, there is no shortage of stories exposing corruption at the highest levels.  Whilst increased internet access and the rise of independent, investigative journalism seeks out and lays bare these stories for us all to read, it is often the case that the perpetrators receive no, or minimal, comeuppance for their crimes.

How can cheating and malpractice in exams be prevented?

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer.  However, it seems clear that the answer must mirror the problem in its nature.  As is the case with a game of Go, the winning solution must be multi-dimensional and adaptive in response to a challenge that shares these characteristics.

As humans we yearn for simple answers that avoid the need to pose additional questions.  People do not like to answer a question with a question.  And yet it is often the case that this is exactly what needs to happen in order to make progress toward a satisfactory conclusion.  For example, if the question is ‘how can we prevent cheating in this multiple-choice examination’, then it is correct to ask ‘are our current procedures around exam security and assessment design really sufficient?  Are they modern?  Do they reflect the current conditions or are we out of date?’.  If exploring the answers to these subsequent questions makes individuals within the assessment team uncomfortable, then so be it.  Whilst the frank and honest exploration of exam malpractice holds up a mirror that can expose a side of humanity that many people would prefer to passively avoid acknowledging, this is a necessary pain to endure in the pursuit of a truly meaningful response.

Establishing the truth

One of the main limitations of current studies into exam malpractice and academic fraud, is that they rely on the confessions of learners who have not only been willing to cheat, but who have a willingness to admit to it.  If one in seven university students admit to cheating at some point, then it is not ridiculous to suggest that the real figure could be closer to 50%.  As with other types of deceptions, it is the successful ones – the incidents that nobody ever knows about – that represent the greatest danger to the integrity of any assessment.  Therefore, perhaps the start point for a pragmatic response should be the presumption that an individual could be cheating, rather than a preference for assuming that they are probably not.

The introduction of comprehensive exam security measures is also undermined by uneasiness about the potential afront to individual candidates.  Facial recognition, handwriting and syntax analysis, CCTV, body-worn cameras, metal detection equipment and signal jamming technologies, all exist and are all highly effective at addressing specific, modern risks associated with exam delivery.  Yet we commonly find an unwillingness to employ these types of physical security measures and deterrents, from stakeholders other than the exam candidates themselves.  It is possible, even likely, that honest exam candidates would welcome enhanced security measures in exams, in the interests of protecting the value of the qualifications that they stand to gain.

Sanctions against exam cheats

Awarding bodies are typically unwilling to impose significant sanctions against people who are proven to have cheated.  A two-year ban on a candidate who has exposed themselves as failing in the fundamental personal qualities of honesty and integrity, is not a sufficient response and is not protecting the integrity of the assessment and the qualification.  Such limited responses have an effect over timelines far longer than a single exam cycle as they undermine the efforts of all the honest, hardworking candidates who have successfully achieved their qualifications in the past through their own endeavour.  Ultimately, failing to respond at an appropriate level, erodes the value of qualifications and training and leaves learners with the question of ‘why bother’.

It seems that the solution is to be proactive.

Energetic, customer-focused exam delivery combined with comprehensive yet unoffensive security measures is a good place to start.  Engaging learners in the solution is also effective.  For example, perhaps universities and awarding bodies should offer rewards (financial or otherwise) to whistle-blowers?

And of course, awarding bodies and educational institutions need to be willing to impose significant penalties on people who are proven to be undermining their examinations – just as they would do if they discovered a threat to their business from a supplier.

The future of assessment

The long-term solution to this problem may materialise as an artificial intelligence that accompanies each person throughout their lives, and that is able to track their individual life-long learning on multiple levels.  Such technology may accurately assess not only academic learning, but also social skills, emotional IQ and cultural intelligence.  This futuristic lifetime AI may also be able to assess an individual using multiple assessment methodologies that are both active and passive – scanning for evidence of learning 24/7.  This may finally address the greatest weakness in examinations – that some people are just not good at performing well under exam conditions.

Of course, this would require individuals to agree to a programme of lifelong monitoring by a machine.  This idea raises a vast number of questions for example, when will this be agreed to – at birth by the learner’s parents?  Where will all of the data be stored?  Against what framework can an individual’s lifelong learning be assessed?  How can evidence of this assessment be provided to a potential employer?  And of course, as with any system that has been designed for assessment, we must assume that people will seek to identify and exploit weaknesses within it for their own personal gain.  To prevent this from happening, we would need to provide the system with the means to protect itself from the threat posed to it by human nature – handing over lifelong administrative powers to a non-human entity!

This is likely to be a long way in the future.

In the meantime, we must be willing to engage more openly in difficult discussions around cheating and exam malpractice and be willing to address aspects of human behaviour that perhaps reflect a less than perfect image of the world that surrounds us.  If the fundamental value of any education and training is ensured through the quality of teaching and assessment, protecting the integrity throughout should be the first, not last, consideration.

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