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A Case Study on Hungarian Universities in Regards To Exam Cheating

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Introduction

Cheating has seemingly become an everyday phenomenon in exam situations at most of Hungarian universities. Almost every student prepares for the examinations making handy little bits of paper, contemplating on where to sit and, during the exam itself, the most sophisticated even use their mobile phones to surmount the numerous gaps in their knowledge. Day after day in the exam period stories such as the following circulate in the corridors of the School of English and American Studies, as well as other faculties of ELTE and other universities in our country. It may seem surprising, but the story is not fiction, in fact, a student at ELTE told it to HVG last year.

I always elaborate on all the possible topics at home and write them down on A/4 sheets of paper. My special examination suit has an A/4 size pocket. I always put the sheets into it, and, at the examination I wait until the topic of the essay is given out, then pick the right sheet in my pocket, and hand that one in.

Research Questions

Is cheating really such an everyday phenomenon as it appears to be? Is cheating so easy to manage? What about morals?

Theoretical Background

Brown, Earlam and Race reported in their practical handbook for teachers that Sitting written exams is one of the most stressful parts of life for many pupils (p. 44). The book also suggests that if candidates get away with cheating, it is going to be regarded as the teachers fault. Most teachers feel uncomfortable when encountering cheating and they do not think it is their task to prevent pupils from doing it. At least, they try to minimise the possibilities by telling students to leave their bags someplace far from the desks, and before starting the exam they are reminded to double check that they have nothing on their person that could be interpreted as a crib (Brown, Earlam & Race, 1995, p. 44). But there are always a few who take the risk.

Better safe than sorry! – say students afraid of not knowing one single answer to the exam questions. This is why they invented their own means, the illicit aid, as termed by teachers: the cheat-sheet. Students know hundreds of methods to avoid spending long hours preparing for examinations and tests. Of these, everyone can choose the one which best suits his cheating skills and of course the aim.

Cheating, in general, begins at senior primary school. The most widespread methods at this age are hiding small bits of paper (which contain all relevant information) in their pockets, under the question sheet or into their pencil cases, and writing things on their palms. The creation of the small sheets is quite time (and patience-) consuming as kids do not use computers to design these pieces. Writing on ones hands is risky as there is no way to remove the text when the teacher approaches suspiciously. As you can see now, these methods are quite elementary, easy to discover and, in fact, mostly done to amaze classmates rather than instead of learning.

The next age group, 14-18 years old, uses more sophisticated methods. Modern technology is often of great help to the secondary school student: the computer edited A4 page can be reproduced on a much smaller scale. Experts on the topic say that the smallest font legible to the students eyes is the 3 pt size. The laziest do not bother with typing, they simply photocopy the book at about 8 pages / A4 rate and cut the pages apart.

University students prefer the previously-written-essay method, which is often much more dangerous than the others, that is why they use those as well. Everyone tries cheating once. After that, he decides whether it is worth it or not (Réka & Bunny, 1999).

In September 1996 a research was carried out at the University of Economics (BKE), Budapest for personal purposes under the co-ordination of G. Vass (personal consultation, March 3, 2000). A small group was interested in students opinion about honesty. Similar to us, the research group used a questionnaire as a measuring instrument, which had, beside 45 others, 5 questions about cheating at university examinations. They asked about 100 participants from different faculties to fill the questionnaire. However astonishing the results were, the research has not been published in any way.

The first two questions on the topic had four possible answers: Always, Often, Sometimes and Never. The first question concerning cheating was the most obvious one, Do you cheat in exam situations?. The results showed that the vast majority of the participants were regular cheaters, in fact, 12% said Always, 53.5% Often, 26% Sometimes and a strikingly low 6.5% proportion said Never. It must be noted, though, that cheating was defined as making use of any source of information apart from the students own mind.

The second question of their questionnaire was Do you get caught cheating?. The answers partly explain the results of the first question. Most of the students never get caught, the risks are minimal, So why not? said youths at the University of Economics Its much more convenient than learning..

The following three were Yes/No questions focused on the fact that cheating is something dishonest, something that should not be done, a fact which they ought to be aware of. They were, as it was clearly shown by the answers to the questions Can you be proud of a mark which is the result of cheating?, Do you feel uncomfortable when cheating? and Would you say that cheating is a normal way of passing exams? (The answers given to these questions are summarised in Table 1.b below.)

The overall conclusion of this survey was that students at the University of Economics are not as honest as one would expect educated people to be but they are at least aware of it.

Another fact may be of some significance concerning the topic of our research. It is the fact that Western European and U.S. Universities are not experiencing the problem of cheating as a problem at all. Of course, their students do cheat sometimes, but so few of them and so seldom that it cannot be considered general. A quick survey of only one simple question shows that, for example, at the Utrecht University only 3 out of 50 students would risk cheating at an exam (personal consultation with Tobias Kulka, March 6, 2000). Much the same is the situation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Of the 20 students asked only one person answered that he does cheat sometimes at examinations (personal consultation with Sarah Thomson, March 2, 2000). Unfortunately, the question How can you manage so well without cheating? was not asked either in Utrecht or in Massachusetts in fact, Hungarian students might have made good use of the answers for that.

Method

Participants

As our research group was interested in the opinions of students as well as teachers, so there were two target groups of the survey. On the on hand, the students at ELTE SEAS irrespective of what year they are or whether they are students at the Dept. of American Studies, the Centre for English Teacher Training or the Dept. of English Studies. On the other hand, there were the teachers at these departments. The only criterion was that every participant should have taken part in some examination at SEAS.

All in all, 40 people took part in the survey, 12 teachers and 28 students. It is a relatively low proportion of the total number of teachers and students; therefore it cannot be considered a representative research.

Measuring Instrument

As a measuring instrument our research group chose the questionnaire. Some features of this instrument are of great importance when dealing with a question of such great nicety as the one when a person has to provide information about his own uprightness. One of these features is anonymity, which obviously facilitates being sincere, and another one is the time factor. Using a questionnaire requires much less time than any other method in research. More people can answer the questions at a time, and participants can take their time answering the questions. If someone wants to, he can take the questionnaire home to fill it at a later time and then give it back. This also promotes honesty: it is always easier to be honest when nobody is paying attention. An interviewee asking the same questions in person would have resulted in completely different results, as participants would have answered affected by public opinion.

Two questionnaires were used for data collection; both are included in the Appendix section. The two variants, the Students Questionnaire and the Teachers Questionnaire share many features. In fact, the only difference between the two is that four questions that do not refer to teachers were left out and replaced by others.

Both versions consist of ten questions. Four of them are yes/no items including sometimes an I cannot decide option; there are some questions referring to frequency or proportion, and one multiple-choice question. The last item of both variants is an open-ended question where a short (five-line) answer was expected but, in fact, only 3 of the participants answered that one. Apart from this drawback, choosing the questionnaire as our measuring instrument was a good choice.

Procedures of data collection

We began data collection with the students. They were all very helpful and enthusiastic; no one refused filling in the questionnaire because, as one of them told us afterwards, it took only about five minutes and when I saw the topic I got curious. It took only two days to collect the 28 questionnaires.

The situation with teachers was quite different. It was rather difficult to find them and they were not as helpful as students. I cannot believe that they do not have five minutes to fill in such a questionnaire. Most of them were mannerly, though, they took one and promised to bring it back later. But this way out of the 20 questionnaires we distributed we got only two back. We managed to collect the other 10 by standing beside them while they filled it. It was rather surprising that generally about 15% of the teachers had the willingness to help us in this research.

Procedures of data analysis

Apart from summarising the collected data and reckoning the percentages, there were some interesting results that we further analysed. In some cases teachers and students general opinion was much the same, in others they were in contrast. These cases required further analysis, the results of which shall be discussed in the next chapter.

Results and discussion

What is cheating? Why do students do it?

One participant told us, I only cheat when the material is too detailed. Dates and other small details are rather hard to memorise and quite easy to confuse. Stress mixes me up. The aim of the first question was to find out whether the students think they have the argument material is too detailed as a bogus excuse for cheating. The teachers questionnaire included this question as well to check if there is a contrast between the two opinions. It occurs sometimes that teachers do not realise how much they overload students; this often abets cheating. But that does not seem to be the case at the SEAS. In fact, the responses of the two groups are quite parallel. Most of both students (68%) and teachers (59%) told us that what students have to learn is quite detailed, and only one teacher and three students think the material is very detailed indeed. The only significant difference between answers of the students that no student chose not detailed at all which was the opinion of only one teacher, and, the answer very detailed indeed was chosen by only 11% of the students and no teacher. (See Diagrams 1/ Student & 1/ Teacher below.)

What is cheating?

Everyone thinks about cheating differently, according to their values. Some consider every little thing illegal, even looking at the neighbours paper, which I cannot accept. It is a psychological fact that a person is not able to look in the same direction for hours. Looking at the neighbours paper not always serves cheating purposes. Some argue that it is just a compulsive movement of the eye because it is not used to situations when part of its field of sight is visible but should not be focused on. However, this activity is considered cheating by most participants (77%). The most controversial result was that more than 60% of the students said asking a neighbour a question is not cheating but taking a look at his sheet is. Using a pre-designed cheat-sheet is considered cheating by all participants. But it is also a good way of preparing. If one has written a cheat-sheet he has half learned the material. The rest of the results are represented in Diagrams 2/ Student and 2/ Teacher below.

Is cheating an everyday phenomenon?

The third question referred to the proportion of cheaters at an average written examination. Exactly it was Imagine a written examination where 100 students take part. How many of them would you expect to do any of the activities mentioned in the previous question? There were six possible choices: no one; 0-25; 26-50; 51-75, 75-99 and all of them. In this question the teachers were much more optimistic about the possible proportion of cheaters. The vast majority estimated the average number of them between 0 and 25. Nevertheless, the students opinion may be closer to reality as they are the ones who live it. Many of them (43%) said 26-50, but 76-99 was also estimated by 25%. The other three variations were less frequent. This difference between the teachers and the students estimation can be accounted for in two ways, One possible explanation is that teachers are naive or they just do not see people cheating; the other is a bit more complicated. A story about a lucky cheating goes round the corridors of the building, changes several times. When somebody was not cheating, that is not a story. Much is heard of cheaters; this might explain why students think more people are cheating at examinations. (See Diagrams 3/ Student & 3/ Teacher below.)

In this question we tried to check how realistic the estimations of students were about the proportions; this required some mathematics. A student has an average of three written examinations per semester. Lets say that people who never cheat (I do not believe such a person exists) cheat on no exam out of the three. The people who said seldom do it once, and those who told us quite often do it two times. Nobody said that he always cheats but that is also relative. If 11% cheats on one exam and 75% on two exams out of three, that means on an average exam one third of the 11% (which is 3.7%) and two thirds of the 75% (which is 50%) cheat. That makes a total of 53.7%, which means that the students were closer to reality when estimating the number, not the teachers. But this also suggests that the gap between the teachers estimations and reality, which is at least 28.5%, are those who cheat unnoticed. Further analysis reveals that more than half (53%) of the cheaters remain unnoticed.

Is it easy to cheat?

It seems, according to the teachers answers, that decades ago cheating was a much less common phenomenon than it is today. Only looking at a neighbours paper was something most students (83%) done. Using pre-designed cheat-sheets was not a possible method for the students at that time. There was only one teacher who admitted using one. For the results see Diagram 4.b/ Teacher.

Looking at the neighbours paper is the most common method which students use. 71% said they would do it when in need. Asking a neighbour a question is less common, but still many students (60%) risk it; the third most popular method, which is used by 46%, is the pre-designed cheat-sheet. This suggests that students consider looking at the neighbours papers the least risky. Question 5.b reveals that teachers see this differently.

Teachers estimated that 92% of students could use a pre-designed cheat-sheet; 83% could look at the neighbours paper and 67% ask a neighbour a question, which means that students consider some of the methods less risky. Teachers think that the situation today is best for the cheat-sheets instead of looking at the neighbours paper. Maybe youths should change their methods according to these results. See diagram 5.b/ Teacher.

There is a common opinion among students that there are some teachers who think cheating is the attribute of examinations. In fact, there are teachers in every school who pretend they have not noticed anything and students do whatever they want to. They do not do anything to prevent cheating. Question 6. in the Students Questionnaire refers to this problem, and the results are rather interesting. The answers show that students are still afraid of being caught. Only 43% said that there are some teachers who might accept looking at the neighbours paper. More-evidently-cheating methods have really low percentages such as 7% and 10%. Consequently, if the students still fear, the situation may not be so bad.

The aim of this question was finding out teachers opinion of their colleagues. Surprisingly, most teachers (59%) claimed that they face such situations quite often. But, as you will see in question 7. (See diagram 7.b/ Teacher.), only one third of these people admitted doing it quite often. It does not seem very likely that they lied about their experience; instead, they might not have been honest about their own behaviour. (See diagram 6.b/ Teacher.)

Every teacher faces situations when he knows ones reasons for cheating and understands them or he simply does not care and lets students do it. The easy way to account for this is obviously by saying they cannot cheat me, only themselves. Theoretically it is right but what about morals? This behaviour on the part of the teacher often results in students thinking cheating is the way. They will never learn it this is not the method to cope and will go out into real life in the belief that cheating is a normal and accepted way of solving problems.

It is interesting to note here that students are rather critical concerning this question. He, who has once been caught, will remember every other case when someone else is caught and thinks of the problem differently from others. Most students (68%) said that teachers are seldom so generous, generally they punish the cheater instead of not noticing him. (See Diagram 7.a/ Student.)

Strikingly, answering this question, all except for two students admitted that They are too lazy to learn everything for an examination, which was in fact the opinion of every teacher. Many students also chose They have to many examinations and They have too much to learn for one particular examination but the majority was honest enough to us and also to themselves that the case is simpler than anyone would expect it to be. Being lazy is not the teachers fault; it is something isolated from any other factors, and also maybe the only thing that depends entirely on the student himself.

What about morals?

It is not surprising that all teachers, except one, claimed cheating is sin. Students regard this question differently, which indeed causes some controversy. We argued in the previous questions that students are generally afraid of getting caught cheating, which is, psychologically speaking, an indication that they are aware of its being bad. But if they know it, why then do they say that it is not sin? Majority of the students say so, as Diagram 9.a/ Student below indicates.

Conclusion

The aim of this research was to find out how widespread cheating in the School of English and American Studies is, and what people think about it.

We agreed that the main reason for cheating are the numerous details in the material. Teachers and students both think that the material students have to learn for a SEAS examination is quite detailed, which suggests that quite many people use such illegal means as a cheat-sheet in exam situations.

Is cheating so common as it seems to be?

At an average written examination 53.7% of the participants use illicit sources such as the neighbours paper, which is almost the same number as the number of those who often cheated at the University of Economics in 1996. Of the cheaters about 28.5% remains unnoticed every time.

Do students find cheating difficult?

Looking at the neighbours paper or asking him a question are the methods, which the majority of the students would use in exam situations. According to the teachers, the methods which a student could actually do are using a pre-designed cheat-sheet and looking at the neighbours paper rather than the others.

There are students who think some teachers do not mind cheating at their exams. 42% of them consider looking at the neighbours paper is permitted by many teachers. What is more, 59% of the teachers even admitted that they sometimes do look over cheating.

What about morals?

In the light of the results discussed above we can say that most of the students do not think of cheating as sin, whereas teachers do. But neither group seems to behave according to their opinions. Teachers, 92% of whom believe that cheating is sin, sometimes pretend not having seen anything and let students do it. Students in general do not regard cheating as sin but when they say that there are teachers who allow it, they question teachers.

The psychology of the situation is obvious: Students do not want to admit that what they do is wrong, that is why they say it is not sin but they feel it inside. It is always more comfortable not to accept morals but form an opposition against the authorities. Students reinforce each other in the belief that cheating is really not that bad, inducing this way a false idea that makes them feel more comfortable while being aware of doing something they should not do.

This way, students and teachers complement each other; there is no clash of interests in this case. Students want to minimise their efforts and choose the easier way; teachers want to avoid conflicts and walk along as if everything were all right.

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