Cheating is rampant, students are depressed – universities must end ‘distance learning’


How clear are your memories of the exam rooms? Mine are surprisingly sharp. I can still see the grim faces of the overseers, as if any expression brighter than that of an undertaker underplays the gravity of the occasion. I can still hear the scream of a hundred chair feet against the floor as we all sit down; that collective inspiration – “OK, you can do this” – as we opened our exam papers. And, of course, there was always this incredibly irritating student who sniffled around for three hours straight.

It was all hideous, but the exams are hideous, and over the millennia educators have come to realize that, both in terms of focus and fairness, this is the best environment in which to take them. Unlike, say, lying on your bed with a laptop on your chest, or slumped at a kitchen table still gooey with last night’s curry while your mother chatters away on the phone a few feet away – pausing only to help you cheat.

As soon as schools and universities went online at the start of the pandemic, we all knew cheating would be commonplace. Of course, every study has confirmed this, with the most recent – by Alpha Academic Appeals, a legal service that helps students challenge university decisions – revealing that one in six UK students have sought help to pass online exams. the past school year, either from parents, a friend or Google.

Now it’s only those who admit it. When the survey went on to say that 52% of students “reported knowing people who had cheated while taking an online test,” it’s pretty clear what these students meant. This is hardly surprising. Adults in our Covid-ravaged country were cheating on their bosses every time they took a nap during the workday, our Prime Minister was flouting the very rules he set for us, and even the man in charge of our response to the pandemic turned out to be cheating on his wife.

In times of war and pandemic, our moral compasses can be put to the test. But I’m more interested in why, even now, top universities apparently turn a blind eye to cheating, and why, despite this big increase in exam cheating, many are still holding online exams this summer and planning to continue with more distance education. and exams next year.

In 2021, despite acknowledgment of “a significant and worrying expansion” in cases of collusion and “contract cheating” (where students ordered essays online), University College London decided to persist with exams online this year, it was reported over the weekend. At Durham University, most exams were also online this summer and any department wishing to take in-person exams had to apply for permission. The math department requested an exemption after 46 students were caught cheating on online exams, according to the university’s student newspaper.

Holding in-person exams isn’t just a good way to prevent students from cheating. It’s about giving students a normal college experience – and showing that you care about each and every one of them.

Amid the pandemic, a crowd of 40,000 was allowed to fill Wembley Stadium for the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final in June 2021. And over half a million people attended at Wimbledon this year. But putting 100 students in an exam hall is still too dangerous?

One of the main reasons people cheat is because they can. The minister smooching his aide against the walls of the office is doing it because – they hope – no one will know. But for cheating students, the connotations are less cheerful: they can cheat because no one is watching. No one notices them, stuck in their Zoom boxes at home.

When I speak to undergraduates I know today, the same words come up over and over again – “lonely”, “isolated”, “lost” – and what makes these words all the more poignant is is that they couldn’t be further from describing my own college experience.

A study of 7,200 UK students, published last month, found almost half said mental health issues had negatively impacted their university experience. On the face of it, mental health initiatives are the most billed in these settings, but people don’t seem to realize that distance from reality isn’t a separate conversation.

Isn’t it obvious to all of us at this point that a virtual life is not a happy life?

According to the minutes of a committee meeting at UCL, in-person exams were rejected this year due to problems with organizing exam rooms in a short period of time, continued uncertainty about Covid restrictions and – here’s the important thing – there was concern that any change would cause “significant student dissatisfaction”.

I would say don’t be afraid of change and young people don’t always know what’s best for them, but I’m not in higher education.


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