The loser, the cripple and the cheater

(music Ennio Moriccone)

Note: the names in the text are not the real ones

During my first exam period as Ombudsman for about 1200 students of the Teacher Training Department, I had to deal with several problems. One of the most popular reasons (excuses?) were sickness and the question to do the examinations at another moment because of a court case, a funeral or lack of courage. Those cases were easy to handle but cost me time and (mostly administrative) work. I think everybody could have done that job. More interesting were some ‘incidents’ that triggered my attention as a linguist.

The loser(s)

I had to fill in for a teacher during a written examination. There were about 30 students and I was the only supervisor. I had done this job before, so I knew what to expect: students writing fanatically, staring at their paper and waiting for the Holy Spirit that would help them (and did not come). It was in the afternoon and they had already been working for 2 hours.

I saw their hands shaking and their fingers hurting. Some of them started waving their hands in the air and for some moments I thought they were giving signals … Because as a guard and supervisor I had to look them in the eyes and be aware of cheating. So I looked severely and hoped that this would prevent them from ‘helping’ each other. In fact, it was very boring, standing there upright and being forbidden to read or write: this was one of my own rules that I, as ombudsman, had send to all my colleagues.

At 03.00 pm, they handed in the first part of the maths’ examination. After the break, my colleague took over and I was happy to go back to my office.

Two days later, one of this class’ students, Carolina, phoned me and she was clearly in a panic. When turning in her exam paper (the second part) she had signed the attendance list, but forgot to hand in the paper and now, she had found it in her satchel. So she did all the writing and 4 hours’ work for nothing. The decision of examination committee was: not handed in. When I saw her at school, she tried to convince me that she had changed nothing during the 2 days …

Some relief (?) for her was that the teacher that had corrected her exam, said afterwards that his mark for the test would have been 5/20

The cripple

Three days before Christmas Holiday, the students had a Christmas Party in the Fitlink, the usual place to do so near the University Campus Diepenbeek. At 2 o’clock, on the way to his car, Peter suddenly saw a car driving too quickly in his direction. As a kind of reflex, he straightened his arms towards the car, it hit him and he was thrown in a ditch.

He immediately had a lot of pain in his hands and arms and was brought to the hospital. After examining him, the doctors told him that he had 10 fractures in his fingers and his arms. The next day, his parents phoned me from the hospital and asked to see me to talk about his exams just after the Christmas holiday (4 January 2016). Peter really wanted to do them, one way or another. So, we had to look for different solutions so that he could do them orally. This was not possible for maths but we managed to let him take 4 out of 6 exams. Multiple choice was no problem, because with three of his fingers he could manipulate the mouse. The most difficult exam was Language-writing and this was the course he was best at. But how could he do the test? I asked a colleague of the administration (Marleen) to write down everything he dictated at the computer. This was done for half of the exam and the rest he did orally. Marleen switched off the spelling control, because this was one of the criteria. Some words he had to spell and while I was following, he heard him make spelling mistakes. That was a strange experience …

During the exams, he often complained about how difficult it was for him to think and collect/express his ideas without being able to write. However, his Language–writing test was one of the two exams he passed: 12/20.

The cheater

For the course of Religion, Meaningfulness and Life Issues the students had to do different tasks on their personal blog during the semester. Usually, teachers correct the blogs at the end of term and then they sometimes discover that one or two students (of a group of 25) students haven’t posted anything on their blog. That results in a score of 0/20.

Els, the teacher of one of those groups, had a strange feeling while reading the blog of Patricia. She had written a lot on the blog, but during the semester she changed from a heretic and God-hater into a fanatic believer. This was too strange to be true. The doubts increased when in one post she read: ‘When I see my children Tom and Alice, I am so happy that they are alive and healthy’. When Els checked Patricia’s biography she found that she was not married and didn’t have any children. Another surprise: she described a scene in her classroom and wrote down what the children had said to her: ‘Sir, could you help us write this down?’ Els mailed pieces of the blog to her colleagues who were also correcting the same blogs from other students. And yes … Patricia had copy-pasted whole chapters from other blogs and apparently she didn’t even bother to read and correct them. When I read her blog, I was able to identify the ‘borrowed’ pieces. The register was different (and recognizable) but also the grammar and vocabulary. The same verb errors (conjugation) appeared in different places.

I sent her a message by mail and phoned her for a meeting at school, but did not say exactly why I wanted to see her. I only mentioned the word ’copy-paste’. When I met her, I told what we had found out and she went very pale. She immediately admitted that she had ignored the blog and at the end of the semester there was no time left for her to write her own texts. She googled and found other students’ blogs which she could access without entering a password. So those students were not aware of the fact that Patricia had copied their texts. She was very sorry and was afraid to tell her parents what she had done. As a broken women she left my office: I felt sorry for her.

At first, Els and her colleagues were very angry and said that she should get a zero for all her exams. In the exam commission, I mentioned precedents and consulted the exam rules: the best option was to give her a zero for that particular exam as well as a warning. When I saw her results, this was the only one she failed.

Just today, I received an email from a student complaining about a maths’ teacher that she doesn’t like her. She had already had some problems with the teacher during the semester. When she compared her exam with that of her friend, she saw that she had lost many points and her friend hadn’t (with the same answers). I shall invite her for a meeting on Monday …

Guido Cajot

Storyteller: Guido Cajot, senior lecturer, Ombudsman @ UC Leuven-Limburg, project partner of GuLL project

More info about GuLL: www.pleasemakemistakes.eu

Guerilla Literacy Learning is a project co-funded from Erasmus+ (Agreement no. 2014–1-BE02-KA200–000472)