Cheating - Ancient and Modern with Joe Kyle

Of course, we don't refer to cheating these days - at my institution, we talk of "academic malpractice" but, generally, we're referring to cheating. My real concern is not with the current tendency to prefer jargon over plain language, but lies in some claims that this has only become a problem in recent times; that it is another defect of modern times and modern youth, in particular. But, like the poor, cheating has always been with us.

For over 1000 years, entrance to the imperial Chinese civil service was much sought after and was governed by how candidates performed in an entrance examination that tested knowledge of classic texts. Recently (2017, and before that in 2009) we have seen miniature 'cheat books' containing key texts. So small were these, they could be incorporated into shoes or other items of clothing. Given that such behaviour carried the risk of a death penalty, it has to be seen as a rather risky form of malpractice.

For further evidence that cheating is far from being a recent affliction associated with the more general ills of modern society, consider this account of a genteel attempt at bribery in 1910. (Discovered browsing the excellent materials at the Cambridge Assessment website [1].)

Despite the modern day media cliché of happy teenagers jumping joyfully in celebration of their grades, we all know that exam results can also be profoundly disappointing for some. One such was a certain Mr A Kershaw of Morecambe. Mr Kershaw’s daughter Ethel had failed the School Leaving Examination and he was devastated. But Lancashire folk are resourceful and Mr Kershaw decided to act. He wrote directly to the Secretary of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, John Neville Keynes (father of the famous economist), suggesting that there might have been an error, as Ethel “thought she had managed everything so well.” So far, so good; there is surely no harm in asking. However to ease the process of discovering a said error, Kershaw offers an inducement: “Yes, I would pay for you & Mrs Keynes a trip to Paris and would be highly pleased to do so if you could discover a mistake.” For the avoidance of doubt, Mr Kershaw closes by including the unfortunate Ethel’s candidate number. There is no record of any reply from Keynes.

Of course, these School Leaving Examinations were the forerunners of the modern A-level examinations. Here is a question from an early paper: What causes the puffing noise of a locomotive engine? If 4 puffs be heard in a second, and the circumference of the driving wheel be 22 feet, how many miles an hour is a train going? Perhaps an example of where contextualising problems carries unforeseen dangers? But that’s a topic for another time.

I am tempted to point to the growth of lazy forms of assessment as one of the reasons for the growing awareness of "academic malpractice". I say this partly because, at a recent IMA meeting in Manchester on these matters it was claimed (and I paraphrase) that it is possible to design cheat-proof assessments in mathematics, but it is time-consuming and hard to assess.

I want to end with a final, more positive, reflection on the student view on cheating. This rather moral view of the study of mathematics came as a surprise to me. It arose out of an informal tutorial discussion we were having after an experiment with some online assessment tools. Students were asked to give the formula for the n'th term of a sequence that converged to e. In a discussion, I asked why no one had chosen the perfectly correct constant sequence e, e, e, e, ...

The reply? "Yes, it's correct I suppose - but that would be cheating!"

Reference [1]