Joshua philip levens, ph.d. » blog archive » cheating


Tanzania is not the first place I’ve ever had to deal with the issue of students cheating. As a university professor, I have received research papers that were copied in full from articles available on the internet. The thinking must be that historians don’t know how to use search engines. As an adjunct professor, however, my protocol in such matters was rather straight-forward. I assembled the evidence, turned it in to the department chair, and recorded my grade sheet accordingly. At that point, everything was out of my hands; case closed.

The situation is a bit different in a Tanzanian secondary school. For one thing, there seems to be no standardized policy on cheating. With 60+ students crammed into a room that would accommodate 20-30 in the United States, stopping students from stealing glances at other’s test papers is difficult to enforce. Moreover the combined lack of adequate teachers along with lax invigilation of examinations only exacerbates the problem. I have for some time taken an austere view of the problem and stalked the classroom aisles, telling students to cover their papers and occasionally taking away tests from obvious cheaters. However, this only stops one classroom from cheating (or else simply makes it more difficult).

While grading weekly tests from my Form II students (about 180 in total spread out over three streams: A, B and C) I found 16 that seemed to have obviously copied from their neighbor. Wrong answers that used the same awkward phrasing and bad spelling were a fairly obvious tip. The only guideline I had observed before involved students that were caught in the act. They generally received 3 strokes with the fimbo (thin stick) and a zero on the test. Not a fan of beating (nor a believer in its effectiveness), I took an alternative approach. After writing all the correct answers on the offending students’ tests, I wrote which student/s I believed they cheated with. I then brought the test papers to morning assembly.

This period of the day before the first classes is usually reserved for cleaning up the environment, receiving announcements, short English-language speeches by the students and punishments. I decided to start with a speech of my own on honesty and the problems associated with cheating. I made a particular point about cheating on the national exams, which could cancel out a year’s worth of hard work and which are invigilated by local police and are more difficult to cheat in as well. I then explained my methodology for catching the cheaters. “Kumbe! Wamekosa kwa kamili na jirani!” (How about that? They made exactly the same mistakes as their neighbors!) I then called the students to the front and handed them their examinations. Explaining that we would have to meet together as a group to discuss this problem, I said that to remind them to show up after school, I would need to take one shoe from each student.

The students balked. Some immediately started trying to talk me out of it. Others made a break for it. I realized that this type of unorthodox punishment required some back-up from the teacher-on-duty (the teacher-of-the-week in charge of all discipline and general rule enforcement). The teacher was feeling more generous than I and he asked me to instead take a sweater or belt to ensure they would meet with me later. Getting trumped on this made me question both my choice of punishment and the seriousness with which other teachers viewed this problem. I told them they needed to come to the teacher’s lounge during tea time to apologize (or defend their case) and to retrieve their belongings.

I took my case to all the teachers. They agreed that an inquest needed to be conducted and demanded the students to remove one shoe and return to class while individuals were questioned one-by-one. Interrogations elicited confessions from everyone, though some initially denied it, until the logic behind the similarity in their answers was shown to them. All apologized and spent the remainder of the day cutting grass and cleaning up the environment. I tried to also talk to each one-by-one to stress the danger of falling into this habit.

So, instead of using corporal punishment, I tried shame. Even as I write this, I feel ambiguous about the appropriateness or effectiveness of my method. I was especially concerned that the new Form I students see what fate could await them if they didn’t stop this behavior right away. Have I dissuaded anyone from cheating? Have I simply encouraged others to use more effective cheating methods? Is shame any less distasteful in education than corporal punishment? I’m still mulling over all this. I feel like something (other than talk) was needed to address the cheating culture. We never got any good suggestions from our Peace Corps trainers on this issue. I’m playing it by ear. Any ideas? I could use the help. By the way, I don’t mind if you copy your suggestions from someone else.

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