Mind Hacks. How Neuroenhancement Technology Fuels Cheating in Exams and Assessments

Neuroenhancement Technology (Neurotech) and its potential to enhance cognitive function, poses a rapidly evolving threat to the integrity of exams and assessments.  This emerging field, encompassing pharmaceuticals, brain stimulation devices, and other cognitive enhancers, offers the users another means by which to increase their chances of success in educational settings – with little or no equivalent increase in effort.  In this article, we will explore how neuroenhancement technology can be exploited to gain an unethical advantage.  From this, we see that yet again, the latest technologies created with good intentions, are being used by some to undermine the fairness and validity of assessments and examinations.

The Temptation of Cognitive Enhancement

Neuroenhancement technologies, (a category that includes smart drugs like modafinil, but also brain stimulation devices such as transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)), can enhance focus, memory, and information processing speed.  Whilst these effects can be lifechanging to people who suffer from a wide array of medical conditions, it did not take long for athletes, students, and many other professions, to realise that they may just give you the edge you need, in the hyper-competitive world in which we live.  With the pressure to excel in a competitive educational environment, some individuals are resorting to using neuroenhancement technology as a means to gain an unfair advantage over their peers.

Improved Memory Retention and Recall

Memory plays an essential role in exams and assessments.  Neuroenhancement drugs like Ritalin and Adderall have been shown to enhance attention, focus, memory retention and recall.  By consuming these substances, students can potentially memorise and recall a vast amount of information with heightened accuracy and speed.  This advantage can tip the scales in their favour, enabling them to achieve higher scores by recalling information that would have otherwise eluded them.  In exams where a pass or fail can be separated by 1%, then the minimal effort required to swallow a pill, with the chance that this might increase your focus by up to 10%, makes this seem in many ways to be a no-brainer.  Afterall, we all take caffeine, don’t we?

Enhanced Cognitive Functioning and Processing

Neuroenhancement technology also augments cognitive functions, such as problem-solving and analytical thinking. For instance, brain stimulation devices like tDCS have been shown to enhance cognitive performance by stimulating specific brain regions.  The underlying idea behind tDCS is that by modulating the electrical activity of targeted brain regions, it may be possible to enhance or suppress their function, leading to potential cognitive benefits.  Students experiencing these benefits can process complex information more efficiently, solving intricate problems with greater ease.  Consequently, they can tackle exam questions more swiftly and accurately, placing them at a considerable advantage over their peers who rely solely on their natural abilities.  Whilst it may be hard to imagine an exam candidate discreetly answering questions whilst wearing one of these Electrode Placement Caps, we live in an age of  personalisation and this applies to exam day experience as much as it does to online shopping.  If a candidate demands to be allowed to use neurotech in an assessment by way of a ‘Reasonable Adjustment’, and if an awarding organisation is not aware of this technology or its potential use / misuse, then they are unlikely to have meaningful countermeasures in place.

Difficulty in Detection

One of the biggest challenges in combating cheating facilitated by neuroenhancement technology is detecting its usage.  Unlike traditional cheating methods, such as copying from another student or using unauthorised materials, neuroenhancement technology operates on an internal level.  In the case of Smart Drugs, these leave no visible trace of their use, making it difficult for invigilators to identify those who have gained an unfair advantage.  This detection challenge further encourages students to exploit the benefits of neuroenhancement technology, knowing that the risk of being caught is significantly lower compared to conventional cheating methods.  At present, the effects of Neurotech on exam day performance, and the lack of research into this phenomenon, also make it impossible for Machine Learning models to access sufficient data with which to compare a candidate’s progress in an exam.  This type of response, in which an algorithm can detect and predict that a candidate has taken a smart pill before beginning an exam, may well be part of the next generation of advanced counter measures, but for the time being this is not possible.

The rise of neuroenhancement technology reminds us of an uncomfortable phenomenon: the increase in cheating during exams and assessments of all types.  With the ability to enhance memory, cognitive function, and problem-solving skills, Neurotech can provide students with an unfair advantage over their peers.  The allure of higher grades, intense competition, and the difficulty in detecting such methods make neuroenhancement technology an appealing option for unethical individuals.

To safeguard the integrity of educational evaluations, it is imperative for educational institutions and policymakers to develop robust strategies to address this emerging threat effectively, and for these to be enforced through rigorous exam day and operational procedures.

Once again, we find ourselves coming full circle to realise that whilst emerging technologies can bring with them cascades of both positive and negative effects, they are only tools for people to employ.  It remains the case that the most effective way to protect the integrity of all exams, and to provide the best exam day experience to all candidates, is through the effective use of technology delivered with the very best, human-powered exam invigilation service.

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