Students riot after teachers try to stop them from cheating on exams

If someone had made this up I might have thought they had gone a little too far down the satirical path to be entirely believable. And yet…

‘Outside, more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent their rage, smashing cars and chanting: “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” The protesters claim cheating is endemic in China and that sitting the exams without help puts their children at a disadvantage.’

One parent assaulted an invigilator who had refused a bribe having confiscated a cellphone hidden in a student’s underwear. The invigilators were holed up in the examination halls and had to send calls for help over the Internet. Radio transmitters and receivers were confiscated (some hidden inventively in erasers), and at least two groups trying to communicate with examinees were found in a nearby hotel. I don’t know whether they found all of them. Probably not, if they were anything like those discussed at which reports on things like earpieces that had to be surgically removed when they got stuck or, most awe-inspiring of all, an ‘interphone’ that exploded inside a student’s abdomen.

A study at suggests that 58% of Canadian students cheated in high school exams, though the numbers fall as level of study increases, with ‘only’ 9% of graduate students admitting to cheating in exams. The level of cheating in coursework is significantly higher across the board. These are sobering figures, given that the results are self-reported and may thus give an optimistic picture.

From ingenious uses of high tech cameras and transmitters, watches that display books’ worth of notes, and hidden earpieces, to bottles of water with crib sheets printed on the inside of the label or engraved notes on fingernails, cheating technologies are big business.  There are some amazingly smart tools and methods available online such as those at, and (which, for any students thinking this might be a good idea, invigilators know about too Smile). However, with embeddable technologies, tattooed circuits, and increasingly tiny smart devices the possibilities are growing fast.

This is an arms race that no one can win. Cheats get smarter at least as fast as institutions get wiser but some will always be caught and all will live in fear of being caught. However, the value of a qualification is directly proportional to its validity so, if that is called into question, everyone loses – cheats, institutions, non-cheats and society as a whole. It is more than a bit worrying that there are medical professionals, safety inspectors and architects who cheated in their exams, especially as the evidence suggests this attitude persists throughout cheats’ careers. Endemic cheating is a tragedy of the commons. If you cannot trust a qualification then there is no point in having one and all become valueless.

Can we do something about it? Yes, but it requires a concerted effort, and better detection technologies are only a small part of the answer. It is perfectly possible to design assignments that are engaging, personal, relevant and largely cheat-proof. I’ve yet to find a foolproof method that cannot be foiled by a determined cheat who employs someone else to impersonate them take a whole course on their behalf. However, we can stop or render harmless simpler contract cheating, plagiarism, collusion, bribes and other common methods of cheating through simple process design. Courses where no student ever does the same thing, where learning is linked to personal interests and aspirations, where each part is interconnected with every other and the output of one part is the input of the next are both more engaging and more cheat-proof. Amazingly, I have had students who attempt to cheat even then but, because of the built-in checks of the design, they fail anyway. Multiple examiners and public displays of work are a good idea too – non-cheating students can usually be relied upon to point out examples of cheating even if the examiners miss it. We can get rid of the traditional regurgitation format of exams, or make use of alternative and less spoofable variations like oral exams, especially those that require students to draw on unique coursework experience rather than uniform replication of process and content. We can help educate students how not to cheat and make a point of reminding them that it is a bad thing to do. And we can get to know our students better, both to reduce the likelihood of cheating and to discover it more easily should it occur. Most of these methods cost time, effort, and money when compared with the common industrial one-size-fits-all models they are up against. But they all lead to better learning, provide more reliable discrimination of competence, greater immunity to cheating, and are fairer to everyone. If we stack that up against the staggeringly high costs of endemic cheating, they begin to look like much more efficient alternatives.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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