Invisible ink and UV lights, tiny cameras and earpieces, smartwatches and hollow pens for storing notes — you might be forgiven for thinking this is James Bond’s equipment for his next mission. However, this is in fact how an ever increasing number of students tries to get through exams.

The Guardian recently uncovered an increase of 42% in cases of students cheating using technology at UK universities since 2012. Around 25% of all cheating attempts involved technology. Of course, many cases remain undiscovered and the true figure is likely higher.

How students cheat

The days of copying a neighbour and smuggling notes into an exam on paper, various parts of the body, water bottles, or clothing are not over yet; but using technology for cheating is becoming more and more popular. Electronic devices of various kinds are easily available to students over the internet. Constant innovation makes cameras and earpieces smaller and almost undetectable for invigilators. Even if smartphones and smartwatches are banned in exam halls students will probably find a way to use them undiscovered (in most cases).

Even though many universities threaten to penalise cheating harshly — depending on the scale even with legal consequences — the number of students cheating on exams is increasing. This leads to the assumption that there are significant reasons for their risky behaviour.

Why take the risk?

Students seemingly perceive the stakes in exams as high enough to warrant the risk of being discovered in active academic dishonesty.

A study by the Institute of Education Sciences identified “fear of failure, desire for a better grade, pressure from others to succeed in school, low self-efficacy, and competition” as reasons for cheating on exams. The Berkeley Graduate Division lists ineffective study habits, ineffective time management skills, and psychological factors.

The main motives for cheating are therefore passing an exam or getting a good grade. This practice is usually connected to a course based on covering a textbook and an exam that tests the memorisation of facts. Students lack the time or motivation to memorise the subject matter and resort to the easy solution of cheating on the exam. This goes hand in hand with insufficient time management and study skills which keeps students from adequately preparing for exams and makes them resort to cheating.

Some students feel pressured by parents and peers to ensure their performance through cheating. Being successful in exams to keep up GPAs and with the competition is also a motive behind cheating to get a better grade.

The system makes it possible

Students are only incentivised to cheat on exams if the design of the exams allows for it. When academic assessment is based on the memorisation of facts studying becomes a dreaded task. This is when procrastination takes over, eventually leading to students leaving exam preparation for the very last minute. Many students will resort to cramming and trying to get a few weeks worth of work done in merely a few days. And some black sheep will invest the time they have left before the exam in devising a more or less elaborate cheating method. They record notes on their cheating device of choice, go into their exam, hopefully remain undiscovered, and get a good grade in return — without investing much time into studying.

When successful, cheating is an easy and (seemingly) rewarding way of passing exams. However, this approach to exam taking and education in general does not only reinforce a high-risk high-reward attitude towards education but is also detrimental to long term learning and the retention of knowledge.

One way of preventing academic dishonesty could be stricter checks of equipment, more invigilators, and harsher punishments. Another countermeasure could be to discourage cheating by designing exams and even courses in a way that makes cheating not worthwhile. As soon as exams test students’ understanding of concepts or skills the incentive to cheat is minimised as it simply won’t be enough to repeat a predefined set of facts on an exam sheet anymore. In addition, this kind of testing would require students to change their studying habits and facilitate long term learning.

Not just the students

Many school systems are designed around preparing students for standardised testing; and it’s not only the students who try to manipulate the results. In 2015, eleven US public school teachers were convicted of racketeering under laws used against organised crime families for falsifying results on standardised tests. 180 educators in 44 schools were involved in the scheme. The incident is suspected not to be a singular case but just the tip of the iceberg of test result manipulation in the US school system.

Public school teachers are directly affected by test results. Stakes are high as promotion, pay, and even job retention is tied to how well their students perform on exams. Teachers have been found to influence test results in a multitude of ways. Some go as far as going on night-and-dagger operations — equipped with razor blades and lighters — to obtain blister-pack-sealed exams, copy them, re-seal them in their packaging, and then go on to prepare their students for specific exam questions. Others help students during exams in more or less obvious ways — some by indicating right and wrong answers, others even by blatantly shouting out the correct answers.

There is also strong evidence suggesting that teachers show leniency when grading, especially when a student would fall short of passing just by a few points. This practice has been found to actually benefit students in the US education system. If a student drops out of high school or graduates can come down to a few points on a test. However, it is critical for future success. A study conducted in New York found that manipulating black students’ test results to have them pass a test if they would otherwise fall just below a cutoff increased their probability of graduating by 22%. Additionally, the manipulation also decreased the gap in the graduation rate between black and white students by 5%.

The most creative schemes

Cheating is a concept burdened with negative connotations, can get you into jail, and benefits people in one or another way; but we can still appreciate some of the intricate ways of cheating students have come up with.

(Disclaimer: This list should not be used as a source of inspiration.png)

  • Invisible ink and UV lights

  • Mobile phones disguised as calculators

  • Morse code tapped out on desks/with a foot/coughed

  • Pens containing a scroll of notes, visible through a small window

  • Cameras, microphones, earpieces connected to outside contacts

  • Swallowing notes to regurgitate back up

  • Notes written on various parts of the body

  • Placing notes in view on walls or outside the window of the exam hall

  • Hidden phones in the bathroom

  • Writing or printing notes on the label of a bottle

  • Calculators with memory functions

  • And the most creative and efficient ones that haven’t been uncovered yet

In any case, cheating is not worth the consequences when discovered, and certainly not worth the skills and knowledge you miss out on by not studying for the long term. It’s out of the question that cheating in exams has to be curbed in regards to fairness and comparability. We have highlighted some ways to stop cheating which focus on catching cheats. However, as long as the design of the education system and its assessment provides an opportunity to cheat, students will find a way. We don’t want to suggest that cheating can be eradicated altogether, but we can certainly do a better job of making it as infrequent and undesirable as possible!