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The Astronomical Rise of Exam Cheats

In the UK, the number of school students caught cheating in exams has risen 25 percent in two years; among uni students, that number has surged by 40 percent. Why?

by Annie Lord
01 May 2019, 10:19am

Collage: Marta Parszeniew 

Aiden was bad at remembering formulas. So bad, in fact, that the morning of his A Level Physics exam he wrote the values of the Avogadro, molar gas and Boltzmann constant around his belly button, and took solace in the knowledge that he'd get at least one question right. But he was still nervous: his gums were bone dry as electron and neutron ratios blurred around his brain.

Aiden knew he had to do well; his parents had coughed up £25,328 a year for his school fees and they wanted a return on their investment. He was a stock in free fall that so far had yielded nothing but unpaid internships and carpet stains. Aiden got away with cheating, but a lot of young people don't. Instead, they find themselves with deducted marks or a U grade.

Last year, Ofqual recorded 2,735 penalties issued to students for cheating on exams, a figure that's up around 25 percent from 2016. And the problem isn't restricted to schools. In 2018, the Guardian found that cheating at the UK's Russell Group universities has surged up by 40 percent, from 2,640 to 3,721 cases between the academic years 2014-15 and 2016-17.

So why is cheating on the rise? Are students just lazy, or should we blame the exam system for placing an unnecessary strain on pupils, pushing them to cheat? Or perhaps the fault lies with how education has become a commodity? With most students shelling out in excess of £50,000 for degrees, and schools running like businesses, it's no wonder many of us feel we are owed good results. How else are we supposed to get a job?

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Photo: Christopher Jones / Alamy Stock Photo

According to Ofqual's research, most students caught cheating in 2018 were penalised for taking phones into the examination hall, others for having study guides on them, while a further 19 percent were punished under the vague category of "other reasons". While Ofqual provided no data on what exactly these "other reasons" were, from those I spoke to, it appears cheating methods are as creative as ever.

One girl wrote the dates of the Yalta, Teheran and Potsdam conferences on her thigh and wore low denier tights so she could see the facts through the sheer fabric. One guy spent the whole of his CATs test (similar to an IQ test, taken on a laptop) guiding Dagenham and Redbridge to Champions League glory on Football Manager. When teachers saw how badly he did, they made him sit another test to see if he had learning difficulties. He pretended to be struggling, so now he gets 25 percent extra time on all his exams.

One guy spent £519 on an invisible earpiece from the company Monorean, which promises to help students "cheat on tests with absolute discretion!" The device is so subtle, invigilators would only be able to see it if they looked directly into his ear. Another guy wrote maths equations on the inner lining of his water bottle wrapper. I also heard of people writing equations on a tissue, under the folded cuff of a shirt and on the inside of fingers (helpful until nerves sweat the ink away).

Though the amount of teachers assisting in cheating remains low (last year, just 620 were caught cheating, according to Ofqual data), many of those who were penalised came from elite schools. Eton has been in trouble after teachers leaked exam questions, as has Winchester college. And last year, teachers at various private schools were accused of gaming the GCSE system by providing their students with easier papers called International GCSEs.

"I have researched instances of schools getting rid of kids before exams, an action that flags up a kind of cheating culture," Laura McInerney, a former teacher and co-founder of research tool Teacher Tapp, told me. "And we saw that actually highest were the private schools. It’s possible that private schools are more likely to want to manipulate their exam results because they need good grades to sell to parents."

This information brings into question what sort of people get to cheat. Whose school teachers have access to exam questions ahead of time and who has no recourse for help other than a battered OCR textbook they share with the person sitting next to them because school cuts have led to limited resources. The admissions scandal in the US, where actors and other wealthy parents bribed Ivy League colleges to let their children in, suggests cheating remains the preserve of the elite.

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The Monorean earpiece, which promises to help students cheat on tests.

Perhaps the most interesting point about the choice to cheat is how little it actually helps. Looking at someone else's paper to see at what temperature certain substances liquify is helpful, but it's not enough to guarantee you pass a test. It won't make those bad at particular subjects good at them. So what does this tell us about the person who is inclined to cheat?

Kieran, 22, a student at Liverpool University, cheated on his last exam. "I wrote down all of the events and dates onto two A4 sheets of paper and shoved them down my pants before the exam," he told me. "I was quite uncomfortable, to be honest. I won’t lie. I left gaps in my paper for the information I couldn’t remember, and then asked to go to the toilet and spent five minutes memorising it."

Though Kieran estimates he got about three extra marks through cheating, there were disadvantages to his actions. He was so scared that the examiner outside his cubicle heard the paper crinkle as he flushed it down the toilet that he couldn't focus on his second paper: "My heart was in my throat. I watched the invigilator like a hawk, waiting for him to tell the big dog examiner at the front about my misdeeds, but he never did."

Kieran finished the exam with a low 2:1. It wasn't quite the result he was hoping for.

So if – in some cases, at least – it doesn't really work, what motivates students to cheat? Much of the blame lies with the commodification of education. With students taking out lifelong loans in order to study, is it any wonder a good degree starts to feel like another asset that can be bought?

"Some students have the attitude that they're investing in their education and so they deserve a degree at the end of their course," says Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London, and an expert on cheating. "It's just a means to an end for them. I always try to get the message across to students that employers are looking for more than just a certificate. They want to know: what else have you done, and how have you gone beyond the norm?"

With education firmly geared towards results rather than overall intellectual development, often the line between cheating and a teacher juicing high grades from their pupils is paper thin.

Lily, 21, a student at Leeds University, was the pupil I mentioned earlier who cheated by writing important historical dates under her tights. "I went to a private school in London, and we were bred like guinea pigs to churn out two to three practice papers a day, so we knew exactly what to write to get marks," she said. "We would do peer marking to help us understand what the examiner was looking for. It wasn’t about writing well, it was like playing Golden Balls or something."

Though teaching your pupils to write in this way isn't against the rules, the militaristic focus on point scoring makes one wonder how much worse it would be to just stand up in the exam hall and read out the answers.

With the introduction of tuition fees and the increased pressure around results in schools, education has begun to feel like a business transaction. You pay £9,000 a year, and we promise you a better paid job. Copy out of textbooks for a month, write three essays in three hours and you'll get a certificate that tells everyone how intelligent you are. Perhaps the problem is not students cheating in exams, but an entire system that judges your success by squeezing a year of learning into a few hours.

Aiden didn't get into Cambridge like his parents wanted him to, but he did get an A on his Physics A-Level. Whether the cheating helped push him over the grade boundary is unclear. Now he's at Durham University, he struggles even more than he did at school to revise, endlessly condensing lecture slides until his room is dotted with Post-it notes. "At university, it’s probably harder to concentrate. I usually have to dial up an ADHD friend when I’m really panicking, who supplies me with Ritalin," he says.

The modes of cheating might have changed – from smudged biro to study drugs, hidden notes to hidden earpieces – but the stress put on students to make them feel like they need to do it remains.

@annielord8