Exam time: We need to talk!


It is exam time! Students, parents and teachers are back to the battlefield! I am both father and educator, so you can imagine the load! What makes it harder is the fact that we have to deal with a different generation than our own. Our high expectations might not always be realized. Whose fault is it? Ours? Theirs? Is it the flaws in modern society, culture and education? Or could it be more of the same in a different package? We weren’t perfect in the good old days!

Abdullah was overwhelmed with apprehension as he approached me after submitting his exam in the lab. “My neighbor was looking over my shoulder, and I expect that he copied my answers,” he whispered.

Since I have a well-known policy of failing students whose answers are identical, Abdullah was worried. I told him that I had no way of finding out who copied from whom. He should have notified us, then and there.

How could I know if it was the other way around, an agreement or cooperation? It was particularly hard to copy, because of the online E-Learning system. Questions appear in a different order for every student. So as he types in his answer, his neighbors are answering different questions. That is unless the cheater had looked up the same question and is a fast-typist and copier - a rare quality.

I went back to my office distressed. What if Abdullah was afraid of the other student? After all, he was a peaceful boy and may have sought to avoid trouble at any cost. At the same time, how could I know for sure what happened?

I started correcting the answers online. Sure enough, the young man was doing great, as usual. Another student seemed to have copied him word by word, but missed a few lines. Since I knew the latter as a below-average student, I concluded that he was the cheater. I gave Abdullah full marks and failed the cheater.

Next day, I met with my department head, Dr. Omar Almarshadi, to discuss the matter. The problem, as I saw it, was that many students have an apathy towards education. They come late, with no books, notebooks or even pens.

Assignments are not submitted, or not on time, and performance in tests, research and participation is poor. When they achieve bad grades, they come to protest: “You failed me, even though I did great! Please revise. Please help me! I need better marks to pass this term!”

When you show them how badly they performed, their excuses are plenty and predictable: “I was busy with my old dad; I am sick most of the time; I have a psychological problem!” Some will just say: “The truth is that I have a sleeping disorder! That is why I missed most classes and exams!”

My boss wasn’t surprised. A veteran of both public and private universities, he gave me more examples and ended with: “If it is any consolation, you are not alone! Ask any colleague! We all suffer, all the same!”

We discussed options, and reached a conclusion that we should report the matter to the College Board, call for a full study of the problem, and work on practical solutions. I suggested an orientation program for all students, especially juniors, where we explained to them our “golden rules” - code of ethics, behavior, discipline, attitude, etc.

More importantly, we should respect our own codes. It does not help to have professors with different rules, for example, about attendance. Some are more understanding and forgiving than others. As a result, students are not getting a consistent message.

Will that work? I hope it does, but there is no guarantee of full success. The problem is deeper and wider than we may think. Students are reared since early schooling to strive for marks, not education; schools and society have a tolerance for cheating and indiscipline; families are not instilling in their children basic Islamic values and ethics. It is a bit late for us at this stage to change all that, but that is not an excuse for not doing our part.

At the same time, we must have a full examination of the flaws in our education system. Starting with early schooling - from kindergarten to high school - where the generation is formed. If children are adequately raised and trained, it would be much easier once they reach higher education.

We need a thorough academic study to examine the common issues and to properly orient our students toward higher ethics and attitudes. And we must start yesterday! Our future depends on it!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kbatarfi