MED Magazine - Issue 20 - June 2004
Crib notes, copying
and dictionary use
Cheating or self-teaching?
When a student argues that copying school work off the Internet isn't cheating, but 'self-teaching', one is tempted to dismiss this as another example in the time-honoured tradition of lame excuses. When the head of a group in charge of British qualifications says the same thing, it makes one sit up and take notice.
'People are open to download essays from the Internet. They can then change the language and grammar and put in their own words, but if people are going to that effort they are essentially taking part in self-teaching; they are learning the subject anyway,' said Dr. Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, the body that represents the main exam boards in the United Kingdom. The comments were made during a BBC radio interview. You could already hear legions of teachers recoiling in shock and horror, spilling their tea onto the staff room floor.
What is cheating?
The above begs the question: what exactly is cheating? When I asked a series of teachers and students to give me examples of cheating, the four most popular were:
Cheating and exams
Most teachers and students immediately associated cheating with an exam situation.
This is because, of course, exam situations are the bane of most students' lives. Exam anxiety is not something that people grow out of either. On a LTCL Diploma course in TESOL that I tutor for in Barcelona, the majority of teachers who have spent at least two years teaching and administrating exams become incredibly stressed as the final exam approaches. In response to stressful situations, people develop coping strategies. Cheating is one of the more negative coping strategies people resort to in assessment situations.
The whole issue of examining and cheating is an important one for language teachers. This is because so much of our work is involved in helping students develop tools to communicate and learn language that would be thought of as cheating in an exam situation. Working in pairs, asking a colleague for help, and asking for feedback on errors from the teacher are all regular features of the modern communicative classroom. Then there is the whole area of 'learner training' in ELT: making useful notes, consulting a dictionary, recording language in different ways to refer back to. Couldn't all these also be what Dr. Johnson Searle would call 'self-teaching'? And yet all the above would be considered cheating in most traditional exams.
How to eliminate cheating
What are language teachers to do to reconcile this difference between what the teacher lauds as good practice inside and outside the classroom, but pounces on during a testing situation (arguably more important in the minds of many students)? There are different options open to the language teacher:
I believe that being proactive about cheating, and allowing it to occur under controlled circumstances, will ultimately help learners in exam situations. Here are a couple of practical examples of the kind of cheating I am speaking about.
I have found that, in my classes, when I incorporate one or both of the above options into the exam, there are no noticeable differences in results (meaning that those who would fail before still fail). There are, however, noticeable differences in attitudes and stress levels before the exam (i.e. they are lower). The interesting thing about the crib note is that, in the heat of the exam, many do not use it. They had spent so long preparing it laboriously that they knew it all off by heart. As for the dictionary use, I have never seen my students use their dictionaries so well and so fast. As Dr. Searle said, 'they are learning it anyway'. And that's the whole point of teaching, isn't it?
For a BBC article about copying and self-teaching, see
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