Landing : Athabascau University

Students riot after teachers try to stop them from cheating on exams

If someone had made this up I might have thought they had gone a little too far down the satirical path to be entirely believable. And yet...

'Outside, more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent their rage, smashing cars and chanting: “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” The protesters claim cheating is endemic in China and that sitting the exams without help puts their children at a disadvantage.'

One parent assaulted an invigilator who had refused a bribe having confiscated a cellphone hidden in a student's underwear. The invigilators were holed up in the examination halls and had to send calls for help over the Internet. Radio transmitters and receivers were confiscated (some hidden inventively in erasers), and at least two groups trying to communicate with examinees were found in a nearby hotel. I don't know whether they found all of them. Probably not, if they were anything like those discussed at which reports on things like earpieces that had to be surgically removed when they got stuck or, most awe-inspiring of all, an 'interphone' that exploded inside a student's abdomen.

A study at suggests that 58% of Canadian students cheated in high school exams, though the numbers fall as level of study increases, with 'only' 9% of graduate students admitting to cheating in exams. The level of cheating in coursework is significantly higher across the board. These are sobering figures, given that the results are self-reported and may thus give an optimistic picture.

From ingenious uses of high tech cameras and transmitters, watches that display books' worth of notes, and hidden earpieces, to bottles of water with crib sheets printed on the inside of the label or engraved notes on fingernails, cheating technologies are big business.  There are some amazingly smart tools and methods available online such as those at, and (which, for any students thinking this might be a good idea, invigilators know about too Smile). However, with embeddable technologies, tattooed circuits, and increasingly tiny smart devices the possibilities are growing fast.

This is an arms race that no one can win. Cheats get smarter at least as fast as institutions get wiser but some will always be caught and all will live in fear of being caught. However, the value of a qualification is directly proportional to its validity so, if that is called into question, everyone loses - cheats, institutions, non-cheats and society as a whole. It is more than a bit worrying that there are medical professionals, safety inspectors and architects who cheated in their exams, especially as the evidence suggests this attitude persists throughout cheats' careers. Endemic cheating is a tragedy of the commons. If you cannot trust a qualification then there is no point in having one and all become valueless.

Can we do something about it? Yes, but it requires a concerted effort, and better detection technologies are only a small part of the answer. It is perfectly possible to design assignments that are engaging, personal, relevant and largely cheat-proof. I've yet to find a foolproof method that cannot be foiled by a determined cheat who employs someone else to impersonate them take a whole course on their behalf. However, we can stop or render harmless simpler contract cheating, plagiarism, collusion, bribes and other common methods of cheating through simple process design. Courses where no student ever does the same thing, where learning is linked to personal interests and aspirations, where each part is interconnected with every other and the output of one part is the input of the next are both more engaging and more cheat-proof. Amazingly, I have had students who attempt to cheat even then but, because of the built-in checks of the design, they fail anyway. Multiple examiners and public displays of work are a good idea too - non-cheating students can usually be relied upon to point out examples of cheating even if the examiners miss it. We can get rid of the traditional regurgitation format of exams, or make use of alternative and less spoofable variations like oral exams, especially those that require students to draw on unique coursework experience rather than uniform replication of process and content. We can help educate students how not to cheat and make a point of reminding them that it is a bad thing to do. And we can get to know our students better, both to reduce the likelihood of cheating and to discover it more easily should it occur. Most of these methods cost time, effort, and money when compared with the common industrial one-size-fits-all models they are up against. But they all lead to better learning, provide more reliable discrimination of competence, greater immunity to cheating, and are fairer to everyone. If we stack that up against the staggeringly high costs of endemic cheating, they begin to look like much more efficient alternatives.


  • I've heard of similar riots in other countries.

    Veronica Baig June 24, 2013 - 2:29pm

  • I was stunned when I read it! Think about the level of rudeness and the mental frame of those people.

    However, I think that there are some measures that can be applied easily, one of them being in this course: regular contributions and somewhat flexible paths and/or unique projects, in which I absolutely agree with you. The good-old-fashioned oral discussions would solidify this even further, enabling students to elaborate on their previous work a bit deeper (again agree with you), not necessarily being exams but more like collaborative overviews.The professor can collect some issues in reasoning and ask a student to elaborate on that, or commend a student for proper reasoning and ask for a path to such a conclusion, where brief explanations would suffice. In that case the large portion of markings would need to be attributed to the professor's opinion, thus introducing personal bias and the lack of hard evidence, which can be a problem in a case of student complaint.

    The previous courses at Athabasca are really bad when it comes to cheating prevention as I can easily rewrite my posts and assignments to fit any student and still be different enough. But I still wonder what is the point in cheating since the knowledge is not present, I know the I would decline any diploma that I haven't deserved just for a reason of not being ready for it, even if I had a chance of getting one (ah, those cheap laser printers Innocent). When I look back at my previous works I really feel the difference as I advance up the ladder and nothing can replace that, especially because the learning process happens gradually and never stops, at least for the smart people.  

    The question is whether the reuse of own work for other courses is really cheating, for example when topics almost completely overlap? Many students do exactly that and it is a slippery terrain, since re-inventing what's already said maybe makes it a senseless repetition through rephrasing, but on the other hand a successful student should be able to provide a versatile discourse, even on the same topic.


    Sasa Danilovic June 24, 2013 - 3:11pm

  • That's a very interesting point about self-plagiarism Sasa -

    As academics, at least in most disciplines, we tend to publish research on very heavily overlapping topics, each paper normally drawing from and (hopefully) extending ideas from the last, or revisiting them from different perspectives. It would be awfully challenging to have to publish something that didn't use some of the same thinking and a lot of the same foundations, references, and ideas as earlier ones, up to and including odd bits of similar phrasing. It would be counter-productive to insist upon making them very different because it would discourage or prevent us from improving on what we have already done, especially when we are researching ideas, theories and models rather than simply performing experiments. We build knowledge, adding to the foundations as we go but not removing the old ones. For us to insist on different standards for our students would be hypocritical and counter productive.

    Of course, we usually cite ourselves when we do things like that. I think it is therefore reasonable to ask for self-citation where appropriate. Because student work tends not to be published that would normally be hard to police (another reason for visible sharing!) but the solution in this case is easy. It is pedagogically very valuable to ask students to reflect on how their work relates to what they already know/what they already have done. By recognizing such reflection as a valuable thing in itself, and celebrating re-use for the value it brings, it becomes counter-productive for the student to try to conceal it. 

    At a deeper level, though, this gets back to one of the things that troubles me most in higher education: that we have a dual role as both teachers and judges of whether our teaching has been successful, which we don't apply to ourselves but to the learners we try to teach.  If 1) your work demonstrates the required competences to meet the outcomes of a course and 2) it is all your own work, then it seems very small-minded for an examiner to then say that you have failed a course just because you have already shown the same competence in the same way elsewhere. At least, if we assume that success is equal to and measured by learning outcomes, then, if the outcomes are palpably met, what possible grounds have we for not rewarding you with a passing grade? On the other hand, it may show a failure to learn on the course in question and, by that token, would therefore definitely be a failure of some sort. But whose failure and what kind of failure? My unease with things like that is a primary motivation for much of my thinking and research in education!


    Jon Dron June 24, 2013 - 5:16pm

  • @Veronica

    Your comment intrigued me, so I made a quick search. It is indeed not an uncommon occurrence! Amongst other things I discovered these fascinating bits of news... - reporting on an attempt to reduce cheating in Chinese university entrance exams by banning bras, the article includes this comment on a previous year's haul:

    "More than 60,000 electronic devices were seized during the operation, including clear-plastic earphones, wireless signal receivers, and modified pens, watches, glasses and leather belts, which are all forbidden from being sold in China" 

    Meanwhile, in India, 11,000 students went on the rampage after a crackdown on cheating -

    In Kenya, more than 600 boarding school students were sent home after trying to burn down two dormitories: "Education officials and teachers claim there are unscrupulous examination dealers who have infiltrated schools promising to sell students KCSE papers in third term discouraging them from taking internal tests."

    In Bangladesh, the expulsion of 9,000 students for cheating led to riots and protests, with over 100 people injured and property burnt -"The students became violent when they failed to get prepared answers for the English question paper," said one police officer.

    And, finally, in the Indian state of Orissa, 3000 law students protested as a result of being prevented from cheating:

    The students turned against teachers when they were stopped from copying inside examination halls this week. Authorities called in police for help."On frisking in the presence of the police, we found almost all students carrying books and photocopied notes hidden on their body," education official Radhanath Mishra, said from the state capital of Bhubaneswar." -

    It's a funny old world.


    Jon Dron June 24, 2013 - 6:38pm

  • To me I will blame the affected school authority, most of the time, the cheating happens as a result of people aiding these children. Parents have a greater role to play, the need to teach their children morals and honesty, it is important we stress to them the need to be honest and the gains that goes with it. Sometimes, society is to be blamed for this as well, because when we attach so much importance to those immoral act, it becomes a norms. I will say we all have responsibilities as individual to encourage honesty and faireness. Government can also step in by blacklisting some of those that encourages and involves themselves in this act.


    Ibrahim Adewole June 24, 2013 - 10:50pm

  • @Ibrahim - it is true that there is some collective as well as individual responsibility in cheating and that we do need to bring about a cultural shift. But it is not enough to simply say that people should be better and to punish those that are not. And it is not enough to blame society because society is not an agent that has responsibility to act - it is made up of complex interactions of individual people and the systems they devise. Assuming that people are not inherently bad, my preference is to look at the systems to see why they lead to these effects. In this case, that means to look at our own teaching and assessment practices and examine how they contribute to the problem, which is the point of my final paragraph. We may never entirely abolish cheating - after all, quite apart from cheating others, people regularly cheat themselves on dieting and exercise plans for example - but there are many ways we can take away incentives, improve motivation and remove systemic failings that make cheating likely.

    Jon Dron June 25, 2013 - 12:57pm

  • @Jon - I perfectly understand your point. However, not many professors think like you, and I still don't know where do you find that energy and time to devote to your students?  Your actions go beyond what I would call a "good teaching practice", to be quite honest. I would be terribly embarrassed to cheat in this course just because we have established some kind of relationship, which is rarely the case, whereas usually we need to conform to the clearly defined assignments and deadlines and the professors are there to make sure we do. I took a terrible course where the professor posted only 3-4 times to correct certain actions, and we had to wait for his replies like it is coming from USA by Canada Post Standard (5-12 business days). That course alone distracted me from the remaining two and funny enough I got A- in that one (barely), while A and A+ in the remaining two. The irony is that I would have two A+ if the professor was willing to provide some guidance and relieve the pressure stemming from a badly designed group work. And just to depict my point, there is no official difference between A and A+ but I still feel like I let down one of the professors in terms of my passion and contribution, not as a simple course workload, but at a human level. If I could go back in time I would have chosen two A+ and a B-.


    Sasa Danilovic June 25, 2013 - 3:17pm

  • When reading the articles @Jon and @Veronica mentioned, I was surprised to realize how many countries this has actually taken place, such as China, India, Kenya, and Bangladesh. This has affected the entire community: the large number of students, schools, parents and police. The riot seems to be a clear sign and loud cry for help and need for change in their educational system.

    In light of this, I was trying to figure out why this could be occurring and it stroked me that it is caused by the rigid educational practices. Tom Phillips in the Telegraph article Chinese education chiefs ban bras during exams, writes that “The future-defining exam is so tough that emotional breakdowns and suicides are common in the weeks leading up to exam day. The make-or-break nature of the “gaokao” has helped spawn an army of unscrupulous and inventible cheats.” Maybe these exams should be changed from “make-or-break” status into gradual learning exams that can be retaken as many times as necessary depending on the student learning capability and readiness. If I would be a parent whose child killed themselves due to not passing the exam, I could only imagine how devastating this would be for the entire family. It definitely makes you think how these types of situations could be avoided and be able to improve the educational system at the same time. 

    Eve Jomm June 25, 2013 - 6:53pm

  • @Eve - not everything can be explained by educational system, those are the countries with high population number in contrast to relatively low standard, hence the competition is quite logically high. The problems with education stem from that fact: if China awarded 4,000,000 high education degrees a year (assuming that less than half makes it), then they would have a high unemployment rate for educated people. It is one way of controlling the population, and although I do not approve of it, that it is no different from anywhere in the world. In Canada the educational system is significantly easier compared to the rest of the world (US excluded), but one has to pay the price when looking for a job as the work experience is the measurement unit, not the degree. Think of it this way - the same way the employers in Canada will not waste time looking into your true intellect, the educational system in China (and the other countries you mentioned) does the same with their students. The logic behind it is the same, "if you can't make it, there is are many more who can". The "system" always has a catch.


    Sasa Danilovic June 25, 2013 - 7:54pm

  • I was amused and amazed when I read this news. It seems like cheating is a norm (unwritten) in that town or school if students and parents are willing to call it “fairness”. This, in my opinion may be due to the toughness of the questions or the strictness of the markers.  Unless the student are not learning or are not being taught well, no parent will be willing to bribe or beat up an invigilator for not allowing the child to cheat if the examination questions are manageable.  Most students cheat because the questions may be beyond their capabilities or understanding. There may be students who will cheat no matter what. Those are exceptions but if students are willing to have radio transmitters in erasers or put cell phone in their underwear  or have “interphone” in their abdomen or do whatever it takes to pass that examination  not bothering about the consequences then schools have to look again at their syllabus, teaching methods, questions and marking.

    Before a student will use his/her resources to put a transmitter in an eraser then he/she might have seen past questions of that particular examination and knows he might not be able to solve those questions on his own if even he/she put in much effort. One thing I have noticed or observed, I don’t know about the Western world, is that in Africa we don’t get feedback on how questions should have been answered when we take examinations that will jump us from one level of education to another such as going from primary school to high school or from high school to the university. After such examination you only get your result to show you whether you’ve passed or failed but you never get the marking scheme to see how you should have answered the questions so you can be better prepared if you need to take the examination again.

    The question is, why is examination cheating so rampant, matter of fact now in the world than before? Is it because students are now lazy and wouldn’t like to exercise their brains or examination questions are becoming tougher to answer or should we do away with examination in our education system?


    Oral discussions may help curb cheating in examination but it may not help some students. For some of us that were not born here and English is not our mother tongue, using oral discussion to assess us may fail us. Even some of those who were born and bred here, Western world, may not be able to express themselves well when under pressure but these same people could express themselves well on paper. Also there’re those who can express themselves well orally but wouldn’t be able to write anything meaningful on paper.

    I don’t see anything wrong with re-writing your post to suit a particular course. After all you did the first research. Posting it without re-writing it to suit the second or third course may not be acceptable but if you can tweak it to suit the topic at hand then I’m all for it. I’m happy when my courses inter-twin  and not courses that are abstract because they have no relationship with each other.


    I don’t know whether to agree with you that the educational system in Canada is easier.  You would find it easy if you’re from Africa where we don’t have much resource to help in our studies and we have to learn the hard way to pass our exams. In Canada there’re so many resources available to easily help one to pass an exam without cheating but even then people cheat and fail. I recently took a classroom exam with a group of students. Before the papers were distributed by the invigilator, we went through possible questions and their answers, something I have never experienced in my home country, with our teacher. When the papers were distributed, I realised 50% or even more of the questions where exactly the ones we went through with our teacher and yet people failed and some even cheated. That made me concluded that although there’re opportunities to pass exams here, in Canada, it tough to pass if you don’t study for it.

    Rose Simons June 26, 2013 - 11:32am

  • Hi Rose,

    Some interesting points, minus the "amusing" part, as I personally did not find anything amusing about the whole situation, it is in fact everybody's loss. Do you think that the elimination of any type of oral discussion would help students? I am asking this in the light of the possibility that those students may have to defend their thesis one day, or present a paper at some conference? What about the students who perform better verbally? Not contradicting you, just looking from all aspects.




    Sasa Danilovic June 26, 2013 - 1:02pm

  • What a busy topic.

    Economies of anti-cheating

    A few comments related to the "tension between structure and flexibility" Jon mentioned in our Week 7 discussion on Social Learning and it's relationship to the current discussion. In the current discussion Jon said "Most of these methods cost time, effort, and money when compared with the common industrial one-size-fits-all models they are up against" and also that "If we stack that up against the staggeringly high costs of endemic cheating, they begin to look like much more efficient alternatives." My comment is that many times the focus is much too short to recognize this. I don't expect the situation to change much. To illustrate I'm going to draw from my own employment. To keep the bias clear I want to state that I am a professor at a community college in Ontario. Our collective agreement [1] includes recognition of time required for assessment. The time is calculated based on the number of students in a course, the number of contact hours for the course, and to what level of marking the course requires. It is the last factor I want to use to illustrate the economies. There are three defined ratios. In theory a weighted combination of values is allowed, but in practice there are very few (in 15 years I've only ever seen one weighted ratio - it uses 50/50 of the top and middle factors). The employer is faced with very real financial pressures to have courses evaluated at the lowest possible level simply to save money. Sometimes this is mandated - i.e. the professor is told what type of evaluation a course will use. At my school the most common marking factor is described as "'Routine  or  assisted  evaluation  and  feedback'  is  grading  by  the  teacher outside teaching contact hours of short answer tests or other evaluative tools where mechanical marking assistance or marking assistants are provided." [1] This is exactly the wrong type of assessment to use to prevent cheating. Teachers are free to evaluate at a higher level, but will find it hard to find the time to do so because with a lower workload calculation they are likely teaching more courses (and larger section sizes).

    [1] Section 11.01 E 1. Ontario College Faculty (CAAT-A) Collective Agreement (2012-2014)

    James Ronholm June 26, 2013 - 1:04pm

  • Culture of cheating?

    Separately I wanted to highlight a point of Rose's: that "cheating is an [unwritten] norm." I want to play a little devil's advocate and say that the student's may have a point about being prevented from taking part. Some of you will probably want to point out that the satisfaction level for the students is bound to be lower - but perhaps we are misinterpreting their goals. Jon's comments about systemic influences (if we look beyond the educational system into the larger system) and Sasa's comments about the country's use of the results to exert control might be more important in this context. If we frame this outside of it's educational background into a larger culture where cheating of some sort is endemic then the student's may see themselves using exactly the skills and practices they expect to be using after school. How well they succeed may not only influence, but outright decree, what they will or will not be doing in the next phase of their life. I have to take a moment to point out that I am uncomfortable implying (or stating) that cheating in China is the norm - however the already linked articles have all backed that up. I further extend that with the results of this Google search about piracy in China. Again, these are not peer reviewed, nor empirical, studies. It may not matter whether cheating (in whatever context) is actually endemic, or just believed by many to be so - if one group of students are prevented from using a technique/advantage that they believe ALL other students have then they should be excused for believing themselves victims. As observers from a different culture (as varied as our backgrounds are) it isn't necessarily easy to see this (which also applies recursively to this very point). Just to be clear, I'm not advocating cheating - I'm saying that in a community of cheaters then preventing one group from cheating is unfair (I'm reminded of various sports events where the same arguments crop up). If this comment is valid, then the fix is much larger than anti-cheating actions at the individual student level. It probably extends to government and certainly extends to commerce.

    James Ronholm June 26, 2013 - 1:07pm

  • @Jim - re comment 1, this illustrates wonderfully how the deeply integrated technologies (including processes and regulations) help to keep common sense at bay. Very similar agreements and standards operate at most institutions because there has to be some way of calculating workloads even though we all know they are damned lies for the most part that seldom translate into actual hours. It is made worse by another tragedy of the commons, that no one wants to use more expensive methods because competitors get away with cheaper ones. But such decisions have a deep and harmful effect on pedagogy and, in this case, the credibility of accreditation that affects everyone. What's worse is that it means greater investment in incremental measures like stricter invigilation or plagiarism detection software that doesn't seem to add too much in isolation but eventually adds up to costs that are astronomical for all concerned once you factor in the learning costs. So much good learning time is squandered on doing things that reduce learning and motivation to learn, leading to further layers of inefficiency as we try to pile on rewards and punishments to keep unmotivated learners in their place, and spend our time struggling to find inventive ways to reinject the joy back into it. If people want or need to learn you have to stand in their way or punish them to stop them from doing so, so this is crazily inefficient. This constant drive to mediocrity and sub-standard learning is powered by layer upon layer of patches that are needed because of one bad idea in the first place. That's how path dependencies work to prevent adaptation to the highest peak of fitness. They distort the landscape so we expend all of our energies on climbing low hills while ignoring the mountains. I'm in favour of accreditation, but there are better ways to go about it than to use it to drive all of education. It's like driving with the brakes on.

    Re comment 2, these things do seem to happen, or at least get better reported, in collectivist cultures and yes, it is self-reinforcing. But that doesn't mean that very high levels of cheating do not exist in individualist cultures too, even if they don't normally result in protests demanding more corruption. Some studies suggest over 90% of school students have cheated in some way at some point in their careers in the US, and the figures are not much lower in Canada. The report I refer to in my post reckons around three quarters of students admit to having done so here while in school. It may be a little better hidden, it may often involve smaller misdemeanours (some of which I see as potentially good things, like some forms of collusion), and it may be seen more as a guilty secret than a right, but the problem is huge and cannot be wholely blamed on a broader culture.


    Jon Dron June 26, 2013 - 6:48pm

  • #1 I don't think you would disagree that shortsightedness extends well beyond the educational sphere. For example, similar issues can be found in the world of healthcare and preventative medicine. In education this is why project courses can be so rewarding, as long as choice is involved.

    "Driving with the brakes on" - I'm going to try and remember that expression. It will be so apt in so many places.

    #2 although it does blame the culture in a backhanded way, I was trying to say "don't blame the students" as they felt they were operating within the norm. I wasn't intentionally blaming the culture.

    Certainly to some extent cheating is everywhere. I daresay you've "caught" students yourself - as have I. I suppose when it happens I should take it as an opportunity to re-examine the assessment.


    James Ronholm June 27, 2013 - 9:25am

  • Cheating is a very complex issue because there are varing issues that precipitates the act. By no means am I justifying cheating but is the competitive nature of society causing an increase in its incidence? We all want to be sucessful, and the perception of success is good grades, good GPAs and recognition as we transition from educational institutions into the world of work. Maybe the delivery and assessment of students need to be redefined as our societies evolve.

    Kim Daniel Cordner July 1, 2013 - 9:32pm

  • @Kim - absolutely: delivery and assessment need to be reconsidered.

    Society is a complex and emergent thing that results from the interactions of people, their history, their geography, their written and unwritten rules, their methods, processes and technologies. I think it is wrong to call society competitive: people within it can be competitive, and the processes we design or that emerge as a result of our design can affect the extent to which that occurs and the effects that result. If we design processes that enable and reward cheating and we don't like the results, then it is imperative that we change those processes. As @Jim says, re-examining the assessment is one way we inside the educational system can make a small difference and, if enough of us do that, we might help to bring about big change. But it is just part of the process. If we can change the norms, then we can prepare more fertile ground for disruptive innovations that will (I hope) sweep through the broader social system. I see some positive signs: things like the systemic disruption that MOOCs are bringing about (not MOOCs themselves, for the most part), the increasingly widespread use of social media to measure reputation, the growth of alternative learning organizations like free universities and the massive disruption caused by simple but large-scale learning tools like Google Search and Wikipedia appear to be coming together to at least stir things up a little. In its own small way, AU has helped to contribute to that change, by showing that distance education can work, by using methods that are outside the mainstream, and by piloting techniques and approaches that, while fitting into traditional structures, slightly undermine them.


    Jon Dron July 2, 2013 - 11:13am

  • Just a confirmation of what Jim and I mentioned:

    We can disapprove of cheating, but to them completing the education almost means the difference between life and death, and even then the prospects are not good. Therefore it is necessary, and I would probably be tempted to do the same, considering these factors. It is not an education, instead it is nothing more than a competition for your existence.


    Sasa Danilovic July 10, 2013 - 8:51am

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