Students cheat, but why?

The moralistic, high-handed approach, which is generally used to curb cheating in exams, may not actually be working, writes Meera Vijayann

Bits of paper, writing on palms, peeking into a friend’s exam sheet — cheating in examinations at school or college is not something new to most of us. What’s funny about this, is that although most people laugh it off over conversation, they tend to carry forward a sense of ‘innocent’ guilt or still remain secretive about it in their later years.

After talking to several co-workers, former classmates and a few high-school teachers, I realised that the core of the problem lies in us trying to make sense of cheating only in an ‘authoritative’ way. It seems that the moralistic, high-handed approach, which is generally used, is actually failing in stamping out a problem.
The truth is, children don’t always cheat because they don’t know any better. Teachers and parents will be surprised if they gave themselves time to understand their situation.

A friend of mine, who I know was a star student at high school, confessed under anonymity, “Well, I initially cheated for the thrill of it, but later it became a back up plan in case I’m confronted with topics I did not prepare for exams.” Another college student of a reputed fashion institute laughed it off, “It’s nothing serious. Most of the time we only do it for fun.” This, perhaps, is the most common reason citied among many young students today.

Teachers like Sunetra Raje, a teacher at Holy Angels High School, feel that it’s the thrill factor and peer pressure which students face that drives them to cheat. “Students who are poor often nudge a good student to show them his or her answers. If they don’t show them the answers, then they are branded a ‘teacher’s pet’ and outcast from social circles in school,” she stresses. Citing incidents in her school where students have approached her, admitted they cheated under her invigilation, and asked if she had noticed, had shocked her initially. But that wasn’t all; sometimes students were straightforward in cheating only to prove to teachers that they were better than them.

The surprising thing is, it is when you compare two ends of the spectrum; where students seem to think it is fun being rebellious, and teachers blame students for being deviant, there seems to be a clue in understanding why children cheat. And it isn’t just about rebellion or thrill, rather it’s mostly about performance.
Rohit, an MBA graduate from Christ University, who now works in a reputed IT firm, recalled his formal engineering background in Chennai. “It’s the system. In college, we had so many tests and hardly anyone understood every lesson. We had ‘open book’ tests where we could look up answers we didn’t know.  This was a nice way of taking the pressure off our backs. Students weren’t compelled to cheat because they had access to the answers.

The trick was that our texts were so huge that if you hadn’t studied, there was no way you could find the answers to pass in that little time anyway.” Sashi, a PR executive, who admitted to cheating when she was in high school told me, “I never felt guilty. The exams never made sense to me as in my opinion an annual exam is not the best way to judge a student’s overall growth and performance. They should focus on doing away with the stigma attached to failure as this is what gets to a student’s psyche and drives him or her to take extreme measures.”

Pressure to excel

Caught in a traditional system, there seems to be an increasing pressure on students to excel and a pressure on teachers to produce such students against all odds. Sunetra, tells me in honesty, “There needs to be a way that this can be a student-parent-teacher relationship, rather than the blame for students falling entirely on teachers.” What drives students to cheat is not only the constant plodding for high marks but worse, the threat of what could happen to them if they failed.

With a ban on corporal punishment in schools, teachers too, seem to be at a loss in trying to stamp out the cheating habit. “We try to deal with cheating, not by pointing out students who cheat, but rather by checking them, allowing only stationery inside the examination halls, and constantly taking turns invigilating,” Sunetra says, “but there has to be a role that parents play at home as well in instilling values in them.”

Measures

This seems to be a general concern in schools. The first thing that parents could do if they suspect their child has cheated, is to take a moment, take a deep breath and accept it. Then, try talking to the child rather than by taking extreme disciplinary measures or threatening.

This could ease the pressure that children often feel at school, and allow them to discuss their feelings and studies openly. In recent times, the instances of cheating have increased drastically — The CBI arrested young pilots cheating in their Commercial Pilot License Exam, students were caught cheating in their repeat exams at the HSC and SSC level and many other students have also resorted to using technology like mobile phones to cheat as well.

Institutions have begun taking extreme measures too; The Mahamaya Technical University (MTU) has installed mobile phone jammers and uses a biometric system to monitor students. The University of Madras has invested in spy software for detecting plagiarism and the University of Punjab, has even gone to the extent of using metal detectors at exam centres.

Despite all these efforts taken to curb cheating and stress of marks, more than half of the graduates in India’s institutions are not employable. This is perhaps a reminder for each one of us to step back and ask, not “How can cheating be curbed?” rather, “Why are students cheating?” for a fresh perspective could open doors to real learning to students across the country.

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