Testing times: Arab News explores why Saudi students cheat

Testing times: Arab News explores why Saudi students cheat

Jeddah: A pupil in the exam hall breaks into a sweat as he stares at multi-colored prayer beads during a science exam. He frowns at a blue bead and scratches his head, before breaking into a smile and quickly writing an answer on his exam script.
The teacher supervising the exam, who had been watching the boy intently, looks away, no longer anxious about the boy who had looked in danger of fainting from sheer exam stress.
The boy is Yussef Al-Otaibi but all is not as it seems. For, far from needing the teacher’s sympathy, Yussef is actually cheating, and using a cunning scheme he devised for himself to do so.
He explains to Arab News: “I was able to snap photos of our final (exam), which was all multiple-choice.
“Once I got home, I studied the questions and made color-coded prayer beads that represented the right answers. Red beads represented A (answer A), blue beads B, yellow beads C’, and green beads D. 
“It looked like I was praying during the exam as I had to count to whatever question I was on. When we got our grades back the week after, my teacher said, ‘Your prayers worked Yussef, good job!’ I felt pretty guilty, but I desperately needed an A to pass.”    
Yussef is by no means unusual in choosing the risky route of cheating rather than the sensible, studious option of swotting. Nor is he alone in displaying such ingenuity.
Art instructor Robert Simmons recalls a particularly gifted student. 
“I was teaching a landscaping class, and for our final exam, students were instructed to bring a standard blank canvas, along with painting supplies, and were told to paint a landscape art piece of their choice. 
“In our classroom, we display student art pieces on the wall — a sort of decorative wallpaper. One student had patiently faux painted for two hours. After waiting for a queue of students to form and submit their work, the student then had the audacity to strip a beautiful landscape portrait off of our classroom wall and submit it as his final.”
But this was no spur-of-the-moment folly on the part of the student. A week before the boy had taped a similar landscape painting over the one displayed in the classroom so there would be no space on the wall to give away the missing painting.
Simmons adds: “He was actually one of my top students and was very artistically gifted. He admitted his crime to me on graduation day the following year. Professionally, I was slightly insulted. Personally, I was kind of impressed. 
“He was a witty and gifted student looking for a challenging thrill I suppose. His stealthy painting switch reminded me of the film, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’,” he adds.
While a good percentage of cheaters are struggling with their studies and choose cheating as a means to get them the grades they need, Arab News has discovered that many cheaters are actually able students.  
Is cheating on school exams always wrong? Not according to Sultan Hashim, who explains his justification for cheating during a high school exam to Arab News. “I’m well aware that it’s bad ethics to cheat, and under regular circumstances it’s never an option. For me, it only becomes an option if the teacher is the first one to deceive,” he says.
He adds that his maths teacher tricked the class by announcing a pop quiz for the following week, but setting it later that same week. “We were all unprepared. To me, that is a form of cheating. Teachers should be held to the same ethical conduct. If the teacher is cheating their students, now we are playing with different rules. I started to look at it as a challenge to see who can outsmart the other. I guess for me it becomes justifiable only under certain circumstances.” he concludes.
Sultan described his method of cheating in his maths class by writing algebraic formula functions in pencil on the cover of his scientific calculator. “I position the cover at an angle according to the lighting in the classroom so that it is only visible to me. Since the cover was dark gray, the pencil markings were camouflaged nicely.” 
Sultan also recalls how, during his senior year, a classmate deconstructed a scientific calculator and inserted his iPhone so that he could have Internet access during exams. 
Sabah Al-Asmari, a senior student at a business university in Jeddah, says: “The tests are unbelievably overwhelming, with finals exceeding 100 questions. I used to sneak in miniature papers with answers, and later distribute them to my friends. 
“There was another method we used for true and false questions by foot swinging. Right to left foot swinging meant true, front to back meant false.
“I do not regret cheating, especially during my first two years at university.”
Even so, the risks are high. In Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Education regulations state that where students are caught cheating from a direct source such as hidden notes, the instructor invigilating the exam should intervene, confiscate the cheating materials, but may allow the student to finish taking the exam. 
If a student has cheated throughout the exam, they are automatically failed. If it is found after an exam that the student has cheated, the incident is noted on their file, says retired guidance inspector, Amal Turkistani.
She explains: “A guidance inspector has the authority to monitor the school’s progress, teacher’s lessons, lesson plans, and look into examination committees to ensure the school’s not trying to get a high grade on the ministry’s scale by passing a lot of students.” 
She has zero tolerance for cheats. “How is it fair to forgo someone cheating and give them high grades wherein other students have studied and worked really hard to maintain high grades? It’s just wrong,” she says.
Turkistani used to teach home economics before her promotion to work for the ministry.
During her several years as a teacher, she said that she had her share of creative cheats, students who believed they were too smart to get caught.
“The girls in my class did everything: They scribbled on their bodies and skirts. Some would rip one side of their skirts to write on their skin and cheat off that, while others had the audacity to write on their school uniforms and footwear. They’d scribble notes and answers and conceal them among cartoonish doodles and colorful geometric shapes.
“It isn’t because they are lazy, some of these methods prove to you how creative and thoughtful they can be.”
Turkistani believes that students cheat for several reasons. “Some are uncertain that they will be able to recall all the material that they studied and they feel overwhelmed the night before the exam, so they prepare a backup plan. They fear low grades and disappointing their families. There are also those who can’t be bothered, who don’t take school seriously. Some think they can get away with the knowledge they’ve gathered through attending the class.
“Then you have students who by the time they get to finals have become fed up with school, (wearied by) heavy loads of homework and assignments. They just can’t be bothered to exert themselves further with exam preparations, so they cheat. Then lastly, you have the rebels who like the thrill of doing something immoral and wrong, who like a challenge and wish to see if they can outsmart a teacher.”

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