Learning Not Cheating

Peace Corps / Thursday, September 20th, 2012

There are a lot of things about the Ukrainian school system that I just don’t understand because I grew up in the American school system. Things are done quite differently and it makes me wonder why. For example, the Ukrainian system of grading is on a 12 point scale where the American system is letter grades which are really simplified percentages. These systems do not translate. A failing grade in America, typically below a 60% is not a failing grade in Ukraine (a 7). A 7 is considered average as far as I can tell.

Another thing I won’t ever understand is the amount of cheating that takes place here. A friend of mine mentioned that even though Ukrainians complain about their government having its share of corruption, they do nothing to squelch this by stopping cheating early on. If they learned that cheating was wrong, she argued, from a young age then maybe there wouldn’t be as much corruption and Ukrainians could complain about lesser things. Another friend of mine shared an article from the Kyiv Post, written by a former FLEX (high school student exchange program) from Ukraine who studied for a year in America. The article is called Ukraine leads way in student cheating. The author talks about her struggles to learn how to learn and succeed by herself. She also offers her own opinions on why students in Ukraine cheat.

But, as an American teacher who grew up in the American system, I loathe cheating. Not once did I cheat. Not once did I help a classmate cheat. It’s not the way to learn, if you want my opinion.

I’ve come to realize that no matter how many rules you try to impose to prevent cheating, Ukrainian students will attempt to do it anyway. Last year, when I taught United States Country Studies, I was required to give grades and thus did so by have review quizzes. I would tell the students that they’re not allowed to talk. They’d talk anyway. I’d place them in separate desks, they’d turn around and ask each other for answers even with me standing in front of them. It’s frustrating and insulting.

This year, I decided to lay down the law and I hope that the Ukrainian teacher who sits in on my lessons understood what I was doing. This year, I’m not teaching United States Country Studies, but Canadian Country Studies (I’m regarded as an expert even though I only visited there once fifteen years ago). The first two weeks, I taught and reviewed basic facts about Canada. Each class, I reminded students that we will be having a quiz and encouraged them to write things down (the important things were written on the board for them). As far as I could tell, I was pretty transparent in what was going to happen. I even went as far as saying, “We might be having a quiz next week,” while nodding the affirmative.

The question, however, is how can I lay down the law if I’ve already tried and it was ignored. Could I ask the Ukrainian teacher for support in policing the room? I could, but then it wouldn’t have the same force. She would watch and help, but she might end up being less strict than I required. I needed something severe. And then it hit me.

I wrote up a test, eight questions quizzing them on the basic facts we’d covered already, and printed off copies for each student. They were surprised that they were allowed to write on their copies (standard practice is to write test answers in a notebook). I did it this way because I wanted nothing on the desks except for the test and a pen/pencil. We had just enough desks so each student sat by themselves.

And then I dropped the bomb. I said, “There will be no talking during the test. If I hear talking from anyone, the class will lose a point on their final score.” There was looks of confusion, so I repeated. “Any questions?” I asked. There were none, and I could tell they understood. I passed out the tests, and told them to begin.

I stood at the front of the classroom, watching students work. Often, when students in Ukraine take tests, teachers use this time to work on other work which makes sense (my American teachers did it too) but Ukrainians use this lack of attention to cheat. I don’t allow cheating. I watched like a hawk. I heard barely audible voices coming form a group of girls on the left. I watched them; I glared at them. They knew my eyes were on them. The rest of the class worked diligently, understanding the concept quite well.

Then the moment I was expecting came. A girl in the back raised her hand to ask me a question (another request I had made before the test started because if students are shouting questions to me from across the room, it creates noise that will cover cheaters’ whispers). She sat behind the girls who were on the verge of causing problems. I walked past them, and the moment I stepped beyond being able to see their mouths, the whispers began. They weren’t subtle either and I was closer than ever. I stopped, turned, and announced that the class had lost a point. “No talking,” I said directly at them. The rest of the class groaned, but quietly.

Oddly enough, that didn’t stop those same girls. One girl in the front row, sat with her body turned sideways. She lifted up her paper and pretended to inspect her answers but the angle the paper was at was actually better for the girls behind her to see her answers than it was for her to see. What’s more, she continued to speak while doing this. I wasn’t born yesterday so I took a page out of the book of teachers past. Something I feared more than most other things. I walked up to the girl, took her paper, and said nothing. She was done, as far as I was concerned.

The class had received the message. I was serious this year about not cheating.

I collected the rest of the tests as they finished. Today I graded them, making sure everyone lost a point in the final score. Here are the results, on the Ukrainian system:

12 – 0 (impossible due to the loss of point)
11 – 1 (a perfect score and it’s a shame she couldn’t receive a 12 due to her classmates)
10 – 0
9 – 2
8 – 1
7 – 5 (keep in mind, this is the start of failing in American classrooms)
6 – 3
5 – 4
4 – 0
3 – 0
2 – 0
1 – 1 (this is the girl who paper I confiscated, the grade was earned)

In an American school, only four of the students passed out of seventeen (23%). It’s a sad showing if you ask me. The good scores are proof that the test wasn’t impossible. Even the mid-range scores show some knowledge of the subject and I can appreciate that.

Depending on the rest of my service here, I should have one or two more tests in Canadian Country studies. You can bet that they’ll understand the drill next time and if not next time, the third time will be the charm.

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