“They’ll say: ‘Nobody really minded cheating at school’. But we only award degrees that are spotless.”
The university is clamping down harder on cheating by introducing black lists, anti-smartphone equipment and perhaps even CCTV. "We’ve noticed that students are panicking now, with all the strict rules for studying."
"I was in the loos after a business-studies exam, washing my hands", recalls invigilator Theo Duivenvoorden (76). "I was just about to throw away my paper towel when I saw a textbook in the bin." After twelve years of invigilating, he has seen it all, the exam supervisor says. "Some students sit on their textbooks and as soon as their fellow students start handing in their work and the invigilators are busy sorting it out, they sneak a peek. We’ve seen that trick once or twice already."
Some students go even further, reports Arthur Elias, a senior Law lecturer. "Ten days after an exam, a member of staff found a civil-law exam on the copier. The text, written in pencil, had been rubbed out, replaced with the correct and already to Blackboard uploaded answers. It means that the student, or an accomplice, must have crept into the department and put the altered exam on the copier in an attempt to make it look as if a member of staff had left it there."
"We asked to the Executive Board to expel that person from the programme and when the Board didn’t dare, we suspended the offender from attending all lectures and exams for twelve months – the most severe punishment we could impose."
Elias is the chair of the Board of Examiners for the propaedeutic year and the master’s programmes; he estimates that there are between twenty and thirty cases a year at the Law department. "If a student is caught, he gets a ‘1’ for his work and is excluded from the exam hall. The examiner decides whether the case should be brought before the Board of Examiners. We decide whether a student should be suspended from the subject in question . Sometimes students are surprised they’re punished as well as receiving a ‘1’. ‘Nobody really minded cheating at school" they’ll say. But the university only awards degrees that are spotless."
Duivenvoorden spots cases of cheating "every other exam". "Especially in Law exams, although the lecturers are getting tougher. We report anyone we catch red-handed straight away. Some lecturers get very angry and immediately send the student out while others give them a dressing-down, take away the notes or volume of legislation but allow the student to finish the exam." The volumes of legislation may not have any notes in them, he explains. "But some crafty numbers mark the letters with dots. You would think they’d know the secret message by heart after all that effort."
Elias remarks that only two weeks ago, during a property-law exam, two "code-makers" were caught. "They were suspended from that subject for six months. They explained their behaviour by saying: ‘If we fail, we won’t finish the four-year term on time and then that’s it for us. Please understand.’ But to that, I say: ‘How can you not uphold the rules if you want to be a lawyer?’"
A Greek exchange student even invoked national interests as a defence: after being caught passing notes, she was suspended for three months, which meant she would not get her Master’s degree. Elias says: "In the following academic year, she sent an email from Greece to ask whether she could sit the exam by email. ‘You know the situation in my country. They need my legal expertise.’"
Is the number of cheaters on the rise because of the stricter measures intended to improve performance rates? "We’ve noticed that students are panicking now, with all the strict rules for studying."
As it is, the faculties want to tackle fraud more efficiently. The Humanities department is working on a "Cheating Protocol", says Karin van der Zeeuw, head of Educational Affairs.
"We’re busy laying down rules that are already common practice, such as leaving some chairs empty in halls with pitched floors."
"It would be ideal if there were two empty chairs between candidates, and the rows in front and behind were empty too. If there’s not enough room, perhaps we should hire the Holiday Inn or the sports centre. It’s expensive, but we don’t want to give people the chance to cheat. We want two invigilators for each exam, too, preferably from the departments because hiring invigilators is expensive."
Besides, not all invigilators pay close attention, according to Elias. "Some nod off a bit or forget to tick the exams that are handed in. If it gets too bad, the faculty tells Jobmotion that we really don’t want to use those people again. Does he know Duivenvoorden? "Of course, our sergeant-major, he’s really good."
"We know what we’re dealing with", responds the sergeant-major, who keeps a firm eye on students he’s caught once before.
"We also watch groups of students: if five of them arrive at the exam hall together and immediately go to the same spot, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But if they’re talking, we’ll assign them to new seats. For some exams, students are seated in alphabetical order which prevents them grouping together."
More efficient seating is one of the many options the Law Department has suggested for a list of new measures, says Elias. The list includes multiple-choice exams in different colours per row so that secretly exchanging papers with a neighbouring candidate is more difficult, limiting visits to the loo and only handing out the papers once everyone is seated.
"The Board still has to discuss the memorandum but feels that the measures should be implemented throughout the university."
The Humanities department introduced a register of plagiarists and fraudsters this year. "It’s a confidential document containing the names of students who have crossed the line", explains Sander Bos, the executive secretary. "The document may be accessed to check for repeat offenders. The document is no more than an examination of the charge." The faculty took the initiative for the register. "We asked the legal department what we could do with that kind of document."
The Law department does not keep a "black list", Elias reports. "But a ‘1’ due to cheating will be recorded in Usis and repeat offences are punished more severely. Only the Onderwijs Informatie Centrum and the chair of the Board of Examiners are allowed to see that information. Sometimes an examiner will ask to see it, but I refuse."
According to Elias, the unlawful use of smartphones and other electronic gadgets is a "huge worry", particularly as the Law department’s list of measures has revealed that countermeasures would be costly.
"For instance, rigging the loos at the sports centre with equipment that can detect the use of smartphones would cost about 11,000 Euros. Another option would be to jam the signal, but the question is whether that is legal, as it might impair safety requirements."
Erasmus University and Maastricht University use detection equipment. "The Law department is experimenting with it here at Leiden", says Caroline van Overbeeke, the university spokesperson. "Sometimes they use a device that can tell whether a mobile phone is on or not." If it is, the student does not need to leave the hall, but will receive a warning. "The student will still have to switch off his phone." What happens if the student ignores the warning? "I’m not sure. We haven’t drawn up the protocol for that yet."
Van Overbeeke won’t say precisely which device is used or which company supplies it. "If we report that information, clever students can use it to outwit the system." Nor will she tell Mare the price of the scanner. "It’s not too bad, at least, it’s under a thousand Euros."
The experiment will be concluded in the course of this year. "Then we’ll see whether it’s effective for reducing fraud. Another option is CCTV, but installing cameras everywhere is very expensive." Other faculties are experimenting too. "The Faculty of Social Sciences asks students to hand in their coats and phones."
Duivenvoorden doubts the effectiveness of electronic devices. "My daughter-in-law teaches at the Maastricht University and she uses a gadget that buzzes if a phone in the vicinity is on. It works if you walk around between the rows but it’s not infallible, especially not in a large room like a sports hall."
Elias adds: "No phones are allowed on the tables, they should be in bags. But it’s impossible to demand that students hand them in during large exams. We’d have a pile of six hundred phones. They have to be handed in for a trip to the loo, but even that’s not foolproof. A student could always have another."
By Vincent Bongers and Marleen van Wesel
A 2014 broadcast of the television programme EenVandaag revealed that 43 per cent of students are guilty of old-fashioned copying or writing notes; the source was a survey by the 1V-Youth Panel among 485 students at different Dutch universities. Only seven per cent admitted to using a phone, but there are other classic cheats:
"There was a very large pile of forms on the table. I picked it up and found a summary of my lectures under the exam form", recalls Law lecturer Arthur Elias.
Another infamous case of cheating was revealed when a loo close to an exam hall wouldn’t flush. Invigilators discovered a textbook hidden in the cistern.
Invigilator Theo Duivenvoorden remembers: "During a large multiple-choice exam, there was a student outside using sign language to say ‘The answer to question 5 is B.’"
And some inventive ones, according Elias: "A student glued some empty pages together at the back of a volume of legislation. He had made notes on them and wanted to read them after pulling the pages apart again. He hoped the invigilator wouldn’t notice the glued pages when the volume was checked, but the trick was discovered."
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