Monday, September 22, 2008

"If you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough"

I've been reading Freakonomics and am fascinated by the chapter on cheating among Chicago schoolteachers who, it seems, have had a tendency in the past to correct their pupils wrong answers before sending their tests in to the exam board. The idea of teacher fraud was new to me, but I'm familiar with that of rampant student cheating.

In fact, anyone who has spent any time in a French university knows that students here generally* have a completely different attitude to cheating in exams to anything one might have come across at one's alma mater. Over the years, I've had many discussions about this with my students and it seems impossible to communicate satisfactorily to them the stigma associated with cheating in universities in the English-speaking world. They laugh and argue that cheating is simply a game played out knowingly between examinee and examiner; that passing notes during an exam is a sign of "student solidarity"; that cribs (antis├Ęches) are legitimate reference tools; and that only losers don't at least try to cheat. It makes exam invigilation a tiresome game of cat and mouse.

So we all agree that cheating is bad and certainly not at all comparable to telling tiny fibs through omission to the telephone people in order to secure a new phone. Good, I'm glad we got that straight.

*I'm not suggesting, of course, that every single student in France cheats all of the time. Many students are scrupulously honest.


materfamilias said...

The big issue we deal with at my university, as at many, is plagiarism. It's close to top of my mind in any assignment designing -- even more, it tends to shape my course readings as I'd rather work with novels that a student can't easily buy essays about. In so many ways, though, I think we've done this to ourselves by allowing knowledge to be commodified so the degree becomes merely a means to an end rather than a joyous pursuit in its own right, a privilege. And feeling a rant coming on, I will now step away from the keyboard . . .

BeefKing said...

It's very cultural. I've met Western teachers at Chinese universities who have beaten their heads against walls about this. The Chinese younger education system is so rote-oriented that even at graduate levels, students cannot distinguish between plagiarism and synthesis. And the professors are not allowed to fail plagiarists, because it makes the school itself look bad. So the plagiarism never gets truly corrected, and the problem continues. Tricky.

deborah said...

From what I understand I should say an outright lie Lesley. But brazen is the word that comes to mind rather than cheat.

So fortunately it would be impossible to class you with the average sneaky cheat. You are up there with the gypsies, much sharper than your adversary. Ever since hearing a lecture on the wonders of Romany culture in 1960 at boarding school for me Gypsies can do no wrong, and am always amazed that people don't 'get' gypsies.

I sometimes point out mistakes in shops when I could have gained by saying nothing. However the other day I got back to the car and realised I had bought two plants for the price of one more or less. I just could not be fagged to go back. (everyone must have their own example of this sort of gleeful outdoing, in my case excused by 'not being fagged').

But you are all right about the cultural aspect. Cheating or dishonesty is for me, an Anglo Saxon, the pits!

Jonathan Wonham said...

This is very interesting. I had no idea...

This is how I feel about cheating: when I was at school, my biology teacher let slip that the object for our A level dissection exam would be a heart and that we should all go away and revise hearts. It was, he said, perfectly normal for this information to be released in advance as there were insufficient hearts for every A level student to dissect them on the same day of the year and the network among biology teachers was sufficiently close that the information always got out in adavnce of the exam. Not to revise hearts would put us at a disadvantage with regard to all the other students who had also undoubtedly been told to go away and revise hearts.

I went away from the lesson disgusted, and made a point of never turning to the page on hearts when revising.

beaverboosh said...

Didn't think much of Freakonomics myself... Tipping Point was good...
Cultures with a Calvanist heritage are not as prone to cheating!

Dick said...

Drawing on Materfamilias' comment concerning 'knowledge (as) commodified so the degree becomes merely a means to an end rather than a joyous pursuit in its own right', as a newly retired teacher I miss least of all being part of that commodification process. My objection to cheating, whether of the old-fashioned looking-over-shoulder type or Internet plagiarism today, was never moral in nature. My reaction was always one of sorrow rather than anger - sorrow that a student felt impelled to cheat towards attaining a product rather than taking deep satisfaction in pursuing a process.

Where all other areas of human endeavour have, over time, been made subject to evolution and, in cases, fundamental change, education remains firmly rooted in the notion of schooling towards specific extrinsic goals. For as long as that remains the case, some students will cheat their way towards the final prize.

BeefKing said...

When I entered university, all the incoming freshmen were treated to the university president's "Aims of Education Address". Her name was Hanna Gray, and her point was that we weren't there to learn a trade; we hadn't come to gain practical skills; we shouldn't expect to become qualified for any specific job... the reason -- the only reason -- that we should be there was to get educated. For our own benefit, for our own curiosity, nourishment and good.

As it turns out, learning how to think is quite practical in many different jobs, but my university experience specifically was not geared toward employment, but rather pure academic satiation.

And cheating would simply have turned that whole incredible experience into a waste of time.

Princesse Ecossaise said...

After reading this post I turned to FP and asked him outright if he had ever cheated on an exam at university. He gave a puff of laughter and said 'yeah, of course' like I was the silly one for asking such a question.

I am rather disappointed, it has to be said.

The French eh!

Lesley said...

Materfamilias : Ah, plagiarism. Yes, another bugbear and easy to spot in essays but much more difficult to pinpoint in oral presentations.

Beefking: Yes, I agree. If we haven't made them understand that cheating defies the whole purpose of going to university in the first place then we've failed in part of our mission.

Dick : I wish my reaction was, like yours, one of sorrow, but I'm afraid it's closer to irritation. Irritation that the students have so little respect for the teaching we give them, the time we put into creating stimulating class material and devising fair exams.

Deborah: Yes, I'm brazen! (I think I told you about the time in Barclay's bank in Bx that the teller gave me £50 by mistake. I'm sorry to say that I did not point out her mistake)

Joanathan : If we believe Beaverboosh's comment, you must be a dyed in the wool Calvinist (and very admirable too).

Princesse Ecossaise: I'm sure that he is lovely in every other way!

Thank you for all of the interesting comments.

Betty C. said...

I've also been very surprised about the attitude toward cheating here. I teach in a private business school here in France and we have had to deal with cases at different times, and the students seem surprised that it is taken so seriously.