March 23, 2004
This is why you have exams

Frank Furedi in the Telegraph, on cheating at university:

Last week, I received a letter from a young colleague working in a university in the North East. She had recently examined 48 third-year undergraduate essays and found that at least 15 of them were plagiarised.

When she raised the matter with her senior colleagues, she was instructed to treat the essays as "poor work" and mark them down. But she was also warned not to take any steps that would lead to disciplinary action against the cheating students because that would be a "messy business".

Plagiarism is indeed "messy". Among undergraduates, the practice usually involves copying someone else's work and presenting it as one's own.

Acknowledging a source, even of just a paragraph, is part of an ethos of intellectual honesty that academia must take for granted. That is why in previous times, immediate expulsion or, at the minimum, failure in a course were seen as an appropriate response to plagiarism.

At the root of this tendency is surely the practice of asking people how well they are doing, and believing their answer no matter what. (This is one of the things I here mean by the word "Sovietisation".) In this case, "continuous assessment", by the teacher who is doing the teaching, amounts to self-assessment, and is an invitation to the teacher to help his pupils cheat, instead of to stamp it out.

This is one of the big reasons why you have exams. It's a lot harder to cheat during an exam. If exams are the key measurement of success for each student, then they will also be the key measurement of the success of a teacher, and then the teacher won't want to cheat. Cheating would merely be self-deception on his part, the postponement of the bad news and the failure to correct it, as well as deception of the pupil of course.

I think exams are well worth taking. (Employers certainly seem to think so.) In addition to being semi-objective, they also measure the ability of the exam victim to handle information under conditions of high stress, a most important ability in the modern world. Do you forget it all a month later? So what? That's what happens to most information you handle when you are a working adult. Life would be unliveable if we remembered everything we ever "learned". (I have said this before here. But this is not a problem, because this is true enough to be worth repeating.)

A friend recently complained to me that when she was at school she learned lots of stuff, but now can't remember any of it at all (in fact she forgot it all immediately), and this now angered her. Why didn't I learn something worth learning, she now asks, that I wanted to learn? Good point, and she is now busy learning things she really does want to learn. Meanwhile, I think she almost certainly did learn more than she now realises.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:27 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSovietisation