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A problem with no way out

February 25, 2010

I am in my final year of an undergraduate degree. Under the system in place at this university, the class of the degree I eventually get (First, cross fingers) will be determined by averaging out my second- and third-year results in some fashion and rounding up. There are additional provisions, but that’s basically how it’s done.

Six of the twelve modules I’ve done in those two years are assessed entirely by examination – trying frantically to summarise eleven weeks of work whilst sat in a sports hall for three hours, with all the attendant nerves, headache, sleep deprivation and general immune-system BSOD that last-minute cramming inevitably brings. And that’s not even counting the friends for whom exam season triggers panic attacks or other forms of anxiety disorder. And it’s always freezing in the hall for the January ones and baking in May, regardless of what the weather’s been doing up to that point.

Exams are vile, tortuous procedures and the most positive attitude anyone has towards them is that of going to the dentist, i.e. fairly sure you’ll be okay but wishing it were over nonetheless. I have yet to meet a student who wakes up chipper on the Thursday morning and goes “Exam today, hell yeah!” A lot of academics don’t like them either; personally, I can’t say that the prospect of marking 200 increasingly illegible papers that all say much the same thing appeals very much, and tutors do understand that people aren’t putting out their best work when stressed to hell and with no time to polish. And with the emphasis, in arts subjects at least, now firmly off rote-learning and verbatim regurgitation, the exam system just isn’t as well suited as it used to be.

We have to keep them, though. We don’t have a choice. Because in this day and age, physically isolating students and watching them like a hawk is pretty much the only way to ensure they can’t cheat. People still try, of course: there’s been a steady rise the last few years of people with earpieces, iPhones, and other technologically advanced ways of doing the same age-old thing. But in theory there are still measures to take: electronically isolating the hall (like some theatres have done for mobile-phone signals), airport-style metal detectors, something.

I can’t say I like the security theatre aspect of all this, but it could potentially happen. And maybe it will. Cheating has real-world consequences (though obviously nobody has the best possible grasp of the scale of things when they’re 21.) In my subject, English, or the other arts, it’s not so much of a problem: plagiarism causes bruised reputations and chilly disapproval, because ultimately who came up with a particular interpretation of Titus Andronicus affects neither the play nor the world. But in the sciences, where life-changing research quite often comes out of (mostly postgrad) students’ work, there can be money riding on stolen results, or even lives, in the cases where cheating means that the exam-passer doesn’t actually know everything they should. Would you want a doctor who’d cheated in their finals? Me neither.

What caught my eye today was this article in the Guardian, talking about the rise of performance-enhancing drugs in academic settings. It mentions Ritalin, Modafinil and a couple of others – various (prescription) drugs that boost your concentration, attention span or general thinking speed. Apparently the number of people taking these things before exams is on the up, and the article-writer is concerned about what’s going to happen.

I’ve never taken Ritalin or Modafinil; I know at least two people who’ve used the latter for essays on a couple of occasions, who report that it does significantly boost one’s concentration on difficult and/or repetitive tasks (in this case, translation). Neither of them has used it in an exam, so far as I know. But going on its purported effects, it’d definitely help.

Like I said, I’ve never taken either. But on the other hand the list of chemicals I have taken before or during exams is pretty substantial – paracetamol, ibuprofen, Strepsils (an entire tab of them during my A-Level Maths paper when I had a racking cough), Lucozade, and pints and pints of water. Because, well, I find I cope a lot better when I am headache-, cramp- and cough-free, well-hydrated and with plenty of blood sugar.

More interesting Ritalin and Modafinil certainly are, but they lie on the same continuum as the various substances I’ve taken before going into the hall: you take them to put yourself in the best possible physical condition for the exam. Physical condition has a knock-on effect on mental condition, in this case – altering the composition of the chemical stew in your brain has a direct impact on how fast, easily, and well you can think, no matter whether you do that alteration with a drug you can get for 32p at Sainsbury’s or £90 off the Internet.

The problem with phones, notes, earpieces, and so on is that they give the user access to information that the other candidates lack. Amongst a group of candidates, some of whom are cheating, there are now effectively two exams going on, one of which is easier than the other; the reason it’s unfair is not that there are two versions, but that they’ll be marked together.

The chemical route, however, does absolutely nothing to the level of information the candidate has access to. All it ensures is that each candidate takes the exam in the best condition they can – which cannot possibly be called cheating, not least because we do it already: students in pain are allowed medication, students with dyslexia or similar conditions are allowed more time, students for whom the exam language is not their first language are allowed a translation dictionary, and so on.

Every able-bodied student will have had a day where they got through a lecture/seminar/exam on chemicals and sheer bloody-mindedness, and that’s true even before you factor in disabled students for whom That One Day might well be every day.

What this seems to come down to is fairness vs. necessity. Modafinil’s expensive. University is already badly wealth-segregated and likely to get more so as fees rise; if everyone in the class is taking memory-enhancers, the one person who can’t afford them is screwed. It’d become one more front on which poorer students can’t compete.

That’s obviously unfair. But then what do you do? How do you crack down on people using Ritalin etc. to get an ‘unfair’ advantage without also penalising people who need drugs (in some cases the same drugs) to avoid functioning at a disadvantage? Along the same lines as the above note about wealth, university is a pretty majority-abled place, and it’s all too easy to envision disabled students getting thrown under the bus in the name of academic integrity.

Even in the event that specific provision were made for ‘officially’ disabled students (without even getting into the difficulties of getting an official diagnosis for certain conditions, especially less-well-understood ones), the problem wouldn’t go away: where do you draw the line marked ‘unfair advantage’? If taking Modafinil is unfair, is taking ProPlus unfair? If ProPlus is out, is Red Bull? Is Lucozade, coffee, eating a ton of sweets? You risk turning the exam into a lottery where the people who happened to have felt healthiest that particular morning win out.

Then: in the unlikely event that a satisfactory line can be found, what about testing? My core-module exams have two to three hundred people in them: even without considering the difficulties of testing everyone politely and respectfully, the practicalities of testing that many people at all remain staggeringly difficult and expensive. Multiply that by several hundred and you might cover an entire uni-wide exam season, instead of one day in one department. Here, we’re currently in the midst of UCU protests against cutbacks – we’ve been told to lose £35m or else and where’s that going to come from, exactly? The English department is in danger of losing so many lecturers that essays won’t be able to be double-marked, and if such a basic academic safeguard is under threat, drug testing is right out.

On the more general side, there’s the option of trying to stigmatise cheating even further. Might work in some cases – there will be a few people whose ego is sufficiently bruised by ‘only losers cheat’ to not do it, but they won’t be everyone. And then all that happens is even more pain and shame for the people who feel they have no choice.

Most university undergrads are kids, kids who in some cases are facing horrible pressure from the very people who should be supporting them. When I worked in the departmental office we got three or four people – in one year – transferring from Law to English because that was what they actually wanted to do, whereas their parents had insisted they start on something ‘better’ – more profitable, more prestigious. I have a friend who started (and failed) an Engineering degree he wasn’t really into for the same reason. And then there’s the friend who posted a high 2:1 overall last year – First-class essays, not so good at exams – who got called a disgrace and a failure by her mother for not getting a First.

The responses in the above cases varied from course-switching to nervous breakdown; as far as I know, no cheating. But it’s easy to see how it might happen, if someone were under that sort of pressure and didn’t have another way out. The disgrace of cheating is only potential – you have to get caught first – and rather abstract; the horror of failing one’s parents is a lot more immediate and a lot more severe. I get the jitters about disappointing mine, and they’ve never pressured me at all.

‘Smart drugs’ in this case are the tip of an enormous iceberg of unpleasantnesses; merely one head of the hydra. And like the hydra, it seems that every way of dealing with it involves bringing a host of new, baby problems hissing into life. It’s not a problem to which I can see a solution that doesn’t involve utterly shafting some subset of the student population, be it students under pressure from home, poor students, officially disabled students, unofficially disabled students, or just a random selection who happened to feel rough on a particular day.

So for the moment I’m going to fall back on the basic principle that I’ve come to realise underpins a lot of my views: if it has to be one or the other, protecting the innocent is more important than punishing the guilty. (AKA the Sam Vimes Principle, for those of you who know the Discworld.)

I’ll be keeping an eye out for reports of this phenomenon, and what universities are doing about it. The whole thing bothers me – needless to say I don’t like the idea of someone doing better than me because they happen to have more money/fewer morals/less paranoia/more at stake/less ego* than I have, especially in a setting that’s supposed to be strictly meritocratic – but I can’t see a way out. As it stands there’s nothing to do that doesn’t make things worse, and so I guess that nothing is all we can safely do.

* For what it’s worth – and a personal perspective probably would help contextualise my attitude here – my not cheating, ever since primary school, has been informed by, in ascending order: moral qualms; terror of being found out; difficulty of execution; and affronted ego of the “I need no help to defeat this puny exam!” variety. It took me till late high school to grasp how lucky I was.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    February 25, 2010 4:54 pm

    I’ll raise my hand as one of the Modafinil users referred to above, and confess that I have used it not only for a translation task (which was, technically speaking, an exam), but also for essays, research, and writing a novel. You’ve admirably covered all the points, so I will restrict myself mostly to adding some extra information from my own personal experience.

    I have never taken Modafinil before one of the three-hour, supervised exams we sit, although it has been available to me if ever I wanted it. I would feel no moral qualms about doing so; the reason I haven’t done it is because in my experience, it wouldn’t help. Modafinil only increases concentration, not cognitive ability, and the importance of the exam setting is more than enough to make me concentrate, so there’s no advantage there. In addition, I believe it would cause a disadvantage, as I have usually found that it makes me feel a little ill and disorientated, as well as losing track of time. I don’t mind if I look up dizzily and discover that I’ve been taking notes on G. B. Shaw for six hours, and now need a sandwich and a piss and a beer. But losing track of time is fatal if you have to finish Section A in time to do Section B. And Modafinil can be a hindrance when one has to think quickly and be creative, because the depth of one’s concentration can prevent intuitive creative leaps. (This ought to render it ineffective as an aid to novel-writing, but I tend to come up with my plots away from the keyboard and spend my actual writing time simply hammering out prose that is already sketched in my mind. Thus the Modafinil haze is not the problem for me that it might be for a more spontaneous writer.)

    There’s nothing Modafinil can do that hard work and commitment can’t. And if it could? When you and I were born, the fastest hundred metres ever had been run by Ben Johnson. The official record belonged to Carl Lewis, because Ben Johnson was taking Stanozolol. But Johnson was still the fastest man in the world, and I admired him for that. Our legs have been superseded by cars, our arms by lifting devices hundreds of times stronger than we are, but our brains are still the best thinking devices for most tasks (mathematics and certain other things excluded, of course). I am prepared to see fairness sacrificed on the altar of anything that can make those brains better.

    One final note: financial scale-tipping in the use of these drugs is a serious negative point. But the 200mg tablets that Drybones buys and sells on to me are currently costing him less than a pound each, and one is quite enough for a long session of study.

  2. Uncle Eddy permalink
    February 25, 2010 11:22 pm

    I can see this is an issue, but I wonder the extent to which it really makes a difference, given the lumpiness of exam classifications? At the borderline between two grades (1st and 2:1, say) a marginal improvement in one exam could tip things. But most of the time I wouldn’t have thought a small boost to an exam score would make an actual difference in the end. I know that people on the cusp of a grade are given extra attention to see where they should be placed on the grounds that a few percentage points are more important at this point than in the middle of a grade.

    Given that final grades are assessed over several years and in a variety of ways I imagine the theory is that minor variations due to random illnesses etc are smoothed out and the ‘true’ grade arrived at. The people this is the biggest problem for are those who are rubbish at exams fullstop, and thus do less well all the time than their true ability should imply. There is a problem with an assessment system which tends to reward those who are good at doing exams even if this bears only a tangential relationship to what they will be doing as a result. Like you I was always good at doing exams so the system worked for me!

    Even if you end up in academia, which probably has the closest fit, you won’t be doing anything like taking exams in your working life! And of course you are entirely free – indeed encouraged – to look things up, check with colleagues and indeed drink red bull and coffee till your eyes pop if that gets the job done, in real life situations.

    The other thing to think about is the long term. 20 years later, or even 10 or 5, it really makes no difference what degree classification you got. For most graduates, who are being judged on their day to day work, the quality (and often even the subject) of their degree is of no significance at all. Which is probably a good thing. Obviously there is potentially a problem for those who need a particular degree to get over a hurdle (eg a 1st to go on to research) but for most people this doesn’t apply. I realise that it’s easy for me to say this from the hindsight of having done my first degree 25 years ago, but it may be worth putting into your mental melting pot.

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