Just like charity begins at home, corruption begins at school.
While we bemoan the numerous scams that the politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen indulge in, we forget where it all started – in the humble classroom in our schools. At that time, it is apparently innocuous – passing a chit, going to the toilet to talk to a friend, sneak a quick glance at your friend’s answer paper during the exam.
Of course, since the advent of technology, things have got a bit more sophisticated. In my school, which follows the CIE (IGCSE and A-levels), the pre-board exam is often conducted using past question papers of those board exams. Now, the students, instead of treating the pre-boards as an opportunity to evaluate their own preparedness, prefer to cheat by downloading question papers and marking schemes.
Well, it is time to make it clear that I am not some holier-than-thou saint. I have a long history of cheating. In fact, the internet-download method that I talked about the pre-boards, I myself employed that last year before my own pre-boards. I was duly caught by my teachers, who proved to be smarter than I was.
However, having this background makes me uniquely qualified to write this article – as I understand from personal experience why students cheat, and now, on reflection, I also understand why they should not.
Cheating on the exams is somehow thought to be a harmless activity. It has the micro-cultural support – in the sense that your immediate community, your friends, classmates – do not look down upon it. The reason behind that is probably most exams are thought to be a sham, rather than a true benchmark of our performance. Just like people subconsciously justify not paying income tax because government waste our money anyway, some people justify cheating thinking that exams are worthless anyway.
However, most students do not think so deeply. For them, there is a short-term, opportunist outlook that’s at work. When I did it, I felt that I did not study enough for the Biology exam, and there was not much time left to do so. Scoring poor marks meant some dire consequences – scolding from teachers and parents, lack of respect from friends, and may be even not being allowed to sit for the final exam. So the decision was simple – I chose to take what I thought to be a small risk over certain failure.
But now I understand that this line of thinking makes little sense. The pre-boards were an opportunity for the school to know where I stand. If the school felt I was doing very poorly, it could have taken remedial measures – improving my scores in the final exam. In the final board exams, there would not be any scope to cheat anyway by downloading the question paper – and my real levels will be known to everyone, so why postpone the inevitable? Thinking this way, I understood that cheating was just a myopic decision which causes long-term damage.
I have seen others cheating who were not at risk of failure, but wanted to get better marks than their preparation would have given them. The driver here was probably some additional praise from teachers and look of respect from classmates. But this too makes little sense – because this is temporary. You cannot always cheat, and the only way to consistently do well is to prepare well.
Cheating is not a friendly act. When I did well by cheating in the biology exam, a few of my friends, who normally score more than me, got lower marks than me in that exam. They were demotivated as a result. This is one of the normal outcomes of cheating – that it demotivates your close friends and disincentives honest work. It breeds an arms race, where others may start cheating to remain competitive. If cheating is undetected, it might give honest ones a false sense of inferiority which may dent their long-term confidence.
There is a long-term consequence as well for the person who cheats. If not caught, he may be emboldened to continue cheating. At some point, his actions may catch up with him. The consequences are far worse if the comeuppance comes in the adult life, where you may have copied someone’s work in the office, or stole a code, or revealed a trade secret.
If caught, then the cheat remains under a shadow. Once a criminal always a suspect. In recent times, once I scored very well in a math test, but my teachers looked at me suspiciously. It is because of my history that’s not yet erased. Your genuine achievements may come under a cloud due to your past wrongdoings. Reputation is what counts in life, why give it up for minor gains?
Cheating (or any act of dishonesty) imposes a lot of costs in society.
I remember my teacher explaining that they have to conduct repeat tests, have special seating arrangement, many invigilators – all of these are costly affairs which can be avoided only if the students follow an honour code. But instead, if we want to game the system every time there is an opportunity to game it, it just makes life harder for everyone.