Cheating their way to the top
A university study found that cheating on exams is widespread and even accepted at all levels of education. Should we be taking cheating for granted?
Story by KARNJARIYA SUKRUNG
Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANI
When Montri (not his real name) was in high school, many teachers and friends recall that he was an inattentive student who often skipped classes and ignored his assignments.
But when the tough final exam arrived, he managed to pass it beautifully and landed himself in a prestigious university, much to everyone’s surprise.
Call it a fluke or call him a genius. But Montri himself would apologetically decline both labels. Rather, he would prefer to be called a master in dodging classes and an expert cheater on examinations.
Even though he has never been proud of this unscrupulous academic practise, "I am where I am because of it," he admitted. "And I desperately needed to do it to pass the class and get into college so that I could eventually get a good degree and a decent job with high earnings."
Call him a cheater and condemn him if you like. However, the truth is that he’s not alone. In schools and universities everywhere, many like him are cheating their way up the ladder to academic success by committing disgraceful deeds.
SOME VOCABULARY HELP
having a good reputation
a lucky event not because of planning or skill
to politely refuse
not honest or fair
to express very strong disapproval
shakes something to its core
challenges the most basic beliefs
the most common system
carefully prepared and organized
certain to happen
Montri’s revelation, along with many others, is revealed in a study entitled Rien Yang Sien (Mastering Deceitful Studying), which exposes the black marks on the Thai education system that shakes Thai academic standards to its core.
Conducted by students at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education, the study, which was presented to the Thailand Research Fund research programme, hopes to shed light on this social problem.
"Cheating is so common and widely practised that previously we didn’t even think it was worth researching," said Piyanand Jittikornyutthana, one of the six researchers in the team. "Ask any student — they all know about it. It’s not a new thing at all.
"But then it came to us that perhaps our perception of normalcy [about cheating] might be abnormal, and it might be a problem," she said.
According to Piyanand, the study’s title refers to those who manage to pass classes with little class attendance, little or no work on assignments and by cheating on exams in some way. After three months of in-depth interviews with more than 50 students who confessed to cheating at some point in their student lives, the researchers were amazed to learn that more students than they thought did not study, but rather cheated their way through college to graduation and careers.
Piyanand said that there are generally two types of cheaters — those who are just plain lazy, and those who feel pressured to cheat in order to get through the education system. Most students in Piyanand’s study fell into the latter category. They complained that the mainstream education system forced them to study subjects they were not interested in or good at.
"I wanted to have more options so that I could have studied courses I liked. If I had, I don’t think I would have cheated. I would have paid more attention in class," said Thanong (not his real name) who confessed that he cheated in two subjects so that he could graduate law school.
Like Thanong, many students said they cheated because they felt pressured to excel academically to meet social standards, get a job and satisfy their parents.
Many students started cheating by plagiarising assignments from different materials or copying friends’ finished work.
Of course, copying only works when students are assigned the same topic. So when they have different topics, students have friends write reports for them or pay someone to do so. "More often than not, [students] don’t know anything about the paper they turn in to teachers," said Piyanand.
Forget about being punished for plagiarism. Students interviewed said that most people can slip through with satisfactory marks on plagiarised work. "Some teachers don’t even read the contents. They only flip through the pages. We only have to do cosmetic work, to make it graphically appealing, neat and nice — that’s what we’re marked on," said one student interviewed.
Cheating has become more sophisticated. Copying answers from a friend’s paper in the exam room or sneaking notes is considered "for children". Now, cheating involves technology, elaborate planning and collaboration and — most importantly — money.
The research team was startled by reports of well thought out cheating schemes carried out by teams of students.
Although most cheaters did get away scott-free, some said they could not escape the effects of the cheating on their life.
"Although I got a degree, I know that I have little knowledge or skills since I got it through cheating. Now that my work requires me to use that knowledge, I had to study it all over again, and this time I couldn’t have somebody do it for me," said Phong.
"This time, I paid attention and found out that it was not as difficult as I thought it was before. I should have studied then," he lamented. Like Phong, a number of cheaters regretted their actions after it was too late.
But it’s not only the cheaters who should be blamed for this problem, said Dr Amornwich.
"Our society has become too competitive. We put constant pressure on students to excel in terms of education and profession," he said. "We value `smart kids’ based on their high grades rather than their morals or behaviour. When good marks are the ticket to a good college, a good job and good pay, it inevitably forces many students into cheating."
He said that although education reform may be on the horizon, the system still emphasises marks. "We don’t teach our students to value learning for the knowledge it gives us. We teach them to memorise well, rather than to think. We have to re-evaluate what we want our students to value," Amornwich said.
"If we can change the evaluation system from grading exams, which merely tests good memory, to emphasis on the work process, participation and teamwork, students will feel less pressure. Not only that, but they will learn a lot more," said Dr Amornwich. "Most importantly, there will be fewer cases of cheating."