Catching the exam cheats

Exam invigilator Helen Soteriou reveals the elaborate schemes devised by students seeking to cheat on their tests

September 4, 2019
Spy in toilet
Source: Alamy

When I tell people I invigilate for extra income, the only response I get back is “Oh, you catch the cheats.” My answer is that we are there to support students but, yes, part of the job is to make sure they don’t cheat. To the best of our knowledge anyway.

This is the topic the media focus on, but maybe the shift should be to why some individuals feel the need to cheat or why cheating is so prevalent.

I have seen thousands of students sit exams at different universities over the past few years, from undergraduates and postgraduates to those taking professional exams.

They are all different. But when they enter the hall or classroom and sit in front of the same exam paper, they are all supposedly equal. All students must conform to the same rules. Whether they choose to or not is up to them.

Deterrents and checks start before candidates turn over their papers. Not only do we issue the stern warning about the consequences of cheating before the exam begins, and give the instruction that all phones must be turned off and left in bags, but as students file into the hall, we will often check hands and wrists for writing or oversee the removal of watches, and even labels from water bottles. Calculators will also be cleared of their memory, ID pictures checked against faces, and lavatories checked for notes stuffed behind sanitary bins and toilet bowls.

During the exams, invigilators have to be vigilant. Some institutions ask us to log toilet breaks, and all ask us to escort students to the cubicle door. Regular invigilators develop a sixth sense for when someone or a group of students may be a problem: looking around and playing with their pockets is a giveaway, as too can be multiple trips to the lavatory.

Despite all these safeguards, some students still choose to cheat. Their methods range from the simple to the creative, working individually or in prearranged pairs or groups. Pen clicking or pencil tapping, a kind of Morse code communication, within multiple-choice exams is an old routine: one click for A, two clicks for B will pass answers between students. Less subtle methods include swapping calculators with the answers on them, whispering the answers to a friend or simply lifting up answer booklets for others to see.

Scribbling notes on everything and anything is probably the most common method of cheating. I’ve seen words scrawled on hands, edges of fingers, arms and legs, writing hidden under baseball caps, inside shoes, skirts, socks and even underwear, with notes often unfurled while in the privacy of the toilet cubicle, where graffiti can become surprisingly academic in nature days before an exam.

Cheating using technology has become more prevalent. Bluetooth earpieces connected to an external device, smart watches and Google Glass have been detected, but many students just hide their phones on their person or simply sit on them. 

One of the most devious examples I witnessed was when someone took an exam for someone else, using a fake ID card. It was another student taking the exam who reported him anonymously during the exam, stating that he had graduated the year before and it wasn’t fair to the rest of the group.

There are also the students who submit spurious complaints about mitigating circumstances to bump up their marks. One student told me the distant sound of an ice cream van jingle had been an unbearable distraction.

But it is not only the students that stand to lose out by poor performance, it is the academics and departments too. On occasion, academics present during exams are clearly helping more than is allowed.

However, such cheating should be put in context, as there is so much pressure and stress around the exam period. Students’ evident distress is often sad to see, especially during the resit period when some are in the last-chance saloon. I have seen young adults in tears, shaking and wired after drinking energy drinks solidly for days. I have even had to call an ambulance for someone having non-epileptic seizures. When caught cheating, some students get angry or entitled, bringing up the cost of tuition fees. Nearly all of this is caused by stress and adrenaline and none of it is taken personally.

Cheating is a prevalent topic now more than ever. The four exam boards responsible for GCSEs and A levels in England have launched an independent review of exam cheating, led by Sir John Dunford, the former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Online testing has the potential to end much of this cat-and-mouse game, but many believe it will create new problems, not least making the system more vulnerable to hackers who have proved adept at cracking universities’ central servers.

It is unsurprising that an exam system that has changed little since the Victorian era is now creaking in our brave new online world. But maybe the solution isn’t a new one. If someone is going to cheat, they will probably give it a shot given all the resources available to them.

Strict invigilation will play its part in stopping this but maybe we need to communicate a simple message more clearly: are students on the make cheating the system or themselves?

Helen Soteriou is a freelance writer.

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Reader's comments (1)

In the first half of the article author describes the system of control, including humiliating and intrusive actions like checking the toilet cabins and body parts for writing. In the last sentence author asks, quite rhetorically, "are students on the make cheating the system or themselves?" Well, clearly, they cheat the system, which does not respect them and by extension does not deserve their respect. This punitive system is also completely unnecessary, if assessments are designed to include more creative tasks testing the actual skills, not the memory of students. For such assessments, students can be allowed to bring books and/or use internet. Of course, this means that the tasks have to be designed from scratch for each assessment, not reused or borrowed from internet sources. Of course, this requires better qualifications of the staff and more time to design and check the assessments. And of course, many universities would rather save £££s on staff, recruit more students and treat them like criminals. No surprise, students don't feel OK about such system, and rightly so.