Students, avoid the temptation to cheat
Dr Daniel Sokol
For thousands of university students, the January exams - once so distant - are imminent. A rising sense of panic fills the air. Even intensive revision may not plug a gaping hole of ignorance. A fail or a bad mark could lead to resits, more stress, and possibly withdrawal from the course.
Eager to avoid an academic disaster, hundreds of students will be considering cheating. For those students, cheating is a lesser evil than the humiliation and inconvenience of failure. Some will do it the old fashioned way, secreting crib sheets in tiny writing into the exam, or hiding notes in the lavatories. Text can also be hidden inside shoes, on nails, plasters, or water bottles. Others will use high tech methods, such as micro earbuds and other ingenious devices. Still others will simply bring in their smart phones and try to access material in the exam itself.
Putting aside the obvious immorality of cheating, cheating is a high risk strategy. There is a very real chance of getting caught. Universities are now more adept at detection, with closer scrutiny by invigilators and some institutions using IT security experts as part of their anti-cheating arsenal. The IT staff can discover whether a student is logging onto the internet during the exam.
A finding of academic misconduct can be life-changing, affecting both academic results and employment prospects. Many institutions adopt a harsh stance towards cheating, favouring outright expulsion for anything but the mildest of offences.
Most universities also use the civil burden of proof in determining whether a student has cheated, namely ‘on the balance of probabilities’. This means they simply need to show that it is more likely than not that a student has cheated. This stands in contrast to the criminal standard of proof, which is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. In practice, the use of the lower standard means that even if a student can show that there is an innocent and plausible explanation for the behaviour that the university is questioning, the student can still be found guilty if the disciplinary panel believes the culpable scenario is more likely.
If under great stress or in emotional turmoil, students should seek help from a counsellor or medical doctor, and complete an extenuating circumstances form before the exams. If mental health is affected, it may be preferable for students to interrupt their studies to allow time to get better.
Students who have no intention of cheating should take care to avoid all risk of a wrongful accusation. They should bring no unauthorised material into the exam hall, whether it’s a past exam paper, revision notes, phones or other electronic devices. Best to leave all those items at home. If caught with such material, it will be difficult to persuade the university that there was no intent to use it (“of course you would say that, wouldn’t you!”).
Giving your username and password to a fellow student is another mistake to avoid, lest they log on to the university’s network as you during one of your exams. Again, persuading a disciplinary panel that someone else logged on as you could be problematic, and even if you are believed the panel could impose a sanction for sharing your personal details with someone else.
If despite all advice, a student cheats and is caught, or is wrongly accused of cheating, he or she should seek immediate help from the Student Union or a specialist lawyer. They should not wait, or try to resolve the matter on their own. As astronauts say, there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse. An ill-considered response, made on the spur of the moment when confronted by university staff, can make a bad situation even worse.
Dr Daniel Sokol is a former lecturer and barrister specialising in university appeals (www.academicappeals.co.uk).