Taking the easy way

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 October, 2008, 12:00am

A recent survey asked students if they had ever cheated by copying from classmates in examinations or tests, and 20 per cent said they had.

The survey, by the Hong Kong Women's Teachers Association, asked 3,081 students a range of questions on their moral outlook, and on the question of cheating. About 17.8 per cent said they thought it was wrong but had done it, and 2.5 per cent said they thought it was acceptable and had done it.

The response has prompted concerns about the prevalence of cheating, and has made people wonder what the response would have been if the students were asked about other kinds of cheating, apart from copying from classmates.

The answer would have likely been yes, in whatever way possible.

Cheating has been around as long as examinations have. China is home to the world's oldest examination system, and the earliest known cheaters date back to the Tang dynasty.

Rich students bribed examination officers and hired others to sit examinations for them, while those who could not afford it prepared cheat sheets - thin sheets of paper either rolled up and inserted into a hollowed out bamboo writing brush or hidden in an inkstone. Some desperate students wrote notes on their belts, covered the notes in mud and then cleaned the belt when they needed help.

Imperial examinations in ancient China required students to memorise the classics, such as the Confucian Four Books and Five Classics, but getting so much information onto a cheat sheet was impossible, forcing cheaters to be extremely inventive.

An example of just how inventive classical cheaters became was revealed three years ago, when a collection of nine tiny cheat books - each half a millimetre thick and containing more than 100,000 characters - were discovered in Tianjin . The matchbox-sized books were hidden in secret compartments in a pair of shoes.

Modern-day students may not go to such lengths to shine in examinations, but they are no less inventive when it comes to finding ways to get a few extra marks.

According to Mrs Pang, a secondary school geography teacher, schools are aware that cheating goes on - that examinees write notes on their arms and then cover them with their sleeves, sneak notes into examinations, and will even go so far as to write on the back of their ties.

Schools are also aware of other more devious ways of cheating, such as writing notes on sticky tape and then sticking it to the desk so that the words are not obvious to anybody passing by.

But today, hi-tech cheating is becoming more common, and schools are increasingly banning mobile phones after rumours that students were in the toilets browsing the internet for information during the HKCEE English examination.

And it's not only mobile phones with access to the internet that can be a cheater's tool - camera phones allow the exchange of images and MP3s can store digitalised notes.

But as schools become increasingly aware of the problem, it's hard for students to use gadgets without attracting attention. Students get around the problem by Photoshopping the ingredient label of a beverage bottle with valuable information and leaving the bottle on the examination desk and - the ultimate geek solution - upgrading a calculator chip to allow it to store notes, which can also be applied to digital watches.

It might look odd to use a calculator in a history exam though, and why would anyone who is clever enough to do this be stupid enough to cheat?