Cheaters and Copycats: Text Messages and Talking Dicks
This article looks at the various ways that I have caught my students cheating on tests. It also explores how modern tools such as mobile phones and talking dictionaries are making it more tempting for them to take the easy way out.
The student’s hand suggestively slid towards her lap. But, instead of resting peaceful and proper-like next to her school regulation mini-skirt, her small hand started to rapidly flutter and poke around. This action took place in the middle of a university final exam. As usual during these tests, my mind was preoccupied with more pressing topics such as lunch, grade deadlines, and sordid events from the night before. However, this time something seemed out of place. It looked like she was strumming a guitar, and tucked deep in the vortex of my mind is the reptilian idea that nobody plays instruments during a test.
And I couldn’t hear any Thai music coming out. I casually stood up as if to erase a few notes off the whiteboard, but it was only a decoy. I was really just trying to get a better view. A seven-inch object protruded from its hiding place in her lap; slightly secluded by the spread of her skirt. On closer look I could see a mobile phone peeking out. She was a cheater. She was caught with her SIM card down.
To be honest, I didn’t realize exactly how she was cheating at the time (2002). I had yet to own or operate a cell phone. They were dead objects like the leftover bones on chicken legs. I had no use for them. However, when the vibrating tone came wafting up from her lap it suggested that she wasn’t exactly in the process of a phone call. I leaped toward this student like a cat. “Ah ha! I caught you cheating,” I pronounced victoriously. To my surprise, she confessed without a trace of shame. “But ahh-jannn…”, she explained, “I didn’t study for your test because I was busy drinking last night at the Cowboy Club”. I was befuddled by her candid response. ‘Well, excuse me for interrupting your cheating session,’ I thought to myself, ‘just call the office when you’re ready to turn in your exam’. Actually, the role of responsible teacher kicked in and I snapped her mobile phone away. She probably then tried to conjure up whatever karma she had gathered from the previous night to randomly guess for the rest of her test. Meanwhile, I picked and prodded at her cell phone trying to figure out how these gadgets worked.
It is a problem when students are more technologically advanced than you. They can figure out ways to outsmart teachers on tests. In this incident, one of the smarter students text messaged the answers to her from the hallway. However, I often switch the order of questions on my exams so, unfortunately for them, the answers didn’t match. The student failed the exam anyway. I have since halted the use of multiple choice tests altogether. They might be easier to grade, but they make it too tempting for students to cheat. An even more primitive deception method is to write the answers on the back of an eraser, which is passed from one student to another. Students can quickly smear the answers if the teacher asks to see it. I used to wonder why so many Thai students forgot to bring their rubbers (British English) to class. I have managed to snatch dozens of these answer-laden erasers during my time. There are also an endless variety of cheat sheets and secretively scribbled answers (on desks, dress ties, thumbnails, and the sides of fingers). The odd thing is that Thai students are so flippant about cheating that they feel no loss of face when blatantly caught. Sometimes students even ask for their erasers back. The invention of new technology only allows more efficient ways for cheating; rather than just learning English by the slower form of trial and error.
The more recent trend is to use electronic dictionaries for deception. Thai students usually call this new tool, much to my amusement, a “Talking Dick” (as pronounced in local Thai-glish). Thai students claim that they need this device to define words in test questions or to help them write examination essays. Again I fell for this trick for a while. The tip off was when students kept making the same grammatical mistakes on particular essay sentences. Entire transitional phrases were identical in some cosmic coincidence. I should have known. Any time that something is passed among Thai students during a test cheating is possibly involved. It didn’t take long before I realized that a Talking Dick could be programmed. Some could even spit out saved files if politely coaxed. Before long I banned Talking Dicks in my classroom. They are a distraction to proper learning. Students rebelled in outrage. “How can we get good grades if you don’t let us exercise our Talking Dicks?” they inquired. We soon reached a compromise: They could feed data to their Talking Dicks during lectures, but other students were not allowed to touch them. They had to keep their Talking Dicks to themselves and leave them in their pockets during test time. But cheating still persisted using other types of technology. Students next turned to the granddaddy tool of them all: the Internet.
The Internet is applauded as one of the great advances in modern education. Hogwash! Check out the book marks on university computers sometime. Click on the history icon to see the websites that students have been actually visiting. Most likely you will see links to chat rooms, gossip columns, porn sites, pirated software, and computer games. However, student taste in websites is not my concern. What matters to me is how students have adopted this high technology for their educational needs. How does the Internet help them to write essays? How does this tool contribute to the exchange of information? What is the end result of the much hyped Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) in terms of writing? I can sum it up in three words: Cut and Paste. It is so obvious when Thai students cheat with this method. All of a sudden essay paragraphs show up with advanced vocabulary and highly complex sentences. The correct use of dashes, brackets, and semicolons is a dead giveaway. Maybe the student tries to disguise this plagiarism with sharp photographs – copied from random, non-cited, websites. It is all about downloaded presentation rather than uploaded research. Copying via Internet has become such a standard practice among Thai students that there is absolutely zero loss of face when doing it. It is easy to catch a student who is guilty of a cut and paste job. Simply, ask them to discuss the paper verbally after class. If they are capable of handing in a flawless article, they should certainly be able to speak about it in person. Sadly, few students even bother to read what they have plagiarized. Copying gets pretty bad at times. Students have given my own classroom handouts to other teachers; claiming to have produced them by themselves. Copying from a teacher is very pathetic, but it gets even worse. I have seen one perfectly flawless essay turned in without a single mistake – the only problem was that it was written entirely in the German language (hey, the alphabet looks almost the same as the English one).
In result of this rampant cheating, I have had to adjust my teaching methods concerning English writing. I now require all assignments to be done exclusively in class. I don’t want to waste my time grading false essays or copied homework assignments. I prefer to avoid piddling away precious time tracking down the original sources of plagiarized papers. Students must now write only in my presence, like a protective babysitter, so that they at least ask questions during the writing process. This way I can trust that they are practicing real English. I can also provide them with direct feedback. Furthermore, all writing topics now emphasize self-exploration. Essays focus on active local issues and hands-on community projects. Students write about factors that have direct impact on their lives. If they plagiarize, it will at least involve translations of Thai literature. Students copy less, however, when the information comes from within. Of course, the concept of outside research is thrown out the window, but at least I know that their essays come from the heart. And, to be honest, this compromise has led to some of their best papers yet. On one level copying bothers me because it insults my integrity as a teacher. I also feel that cheating on tests dishonors our profession. However, this dishonesty mostly disturbs me because students are selling themselves short. Studying should be about wisdom, personal growth, and self-respect. By cheating, students diminish their own education rather than lift themselves to a higher level of knowledge. They reinforce their weaknesses instead of becoming stronger persons. Instead of creating something fresh and original, they recycle old material and sign their names. They are selling out and not getting their money’s worth of tuition fees. Think about it: would students buy a movie ticket and leave immediately after the previews? Would they pay for an expensive dinner only to watch television without eating? Would they spend hard-earned cash on nice clothing only to exchange it for counterfeit knock offs? Therefore, I wonder, why do students squander tuition fees by not seizing every opportunity to learn in class? Students cheat out of laziness or the desire for better grades, but so much energy is invested in cheating that they might as well just do the work. They use all these helpful tools (mobile phones, electronic dictionaries, and the Internet) for the wrong purpose. It is like digging a hole with a pitchfork. At the end of the day they are only shortchanging themselves and going home empty handed.
There is much debate about how to punish Thai students for cheating. Students are almost never suspended for plagiarism, and many government schools advocate policies that forbid failing students. The idea is that punishment and bad grades cause a loss of face. Why ruin a student’s chance of graduating when they are not likely find anything above a low-wage factory job afterward? Why saddle a student with a bad grade when karma will punish them instead? In result, students are often bumped forward regardless of how poorly they behave or attend class. Dishonesty and bad ethics are not taken as seriously as the damage caused by being reprimanded in public for their actions. Foreign teachers often argue that the tolerance of cheating is not beneficial in the long run. Personally speaking, I am not hell-bent on failing students, so I tend to adapt to whatever policy a school advocates. Thailand’s Department of Education will make policy decisions without my input as a foreign teacher, and I will get paid the same government salary regardless. Nevertheless, the bureaucratic response to cheating leads to an even more serious question: What ethical standard does Thailand want for its future citizens? These students might one day find jobs as police officers, politicians, bus drivers, business administrators, teachers, and tax officials. The future is in their lap.