Psst, Got the Answer? Many Say 'Yes'

Poland sees lax supervision and light penalties for school cheating

Cheating on an oral exam - even in Poland, where cheating is as much a part of education as textbooks and blackboards - is pretty tough.

So when a student at Warsaw's private Higher School of Management found himself unprepared for an oral accounting exam in front of the dean of the school and two other professors, he got creative.

Wearing his long hair loose, he hooked a bud earphone up to his cellular phone and hid a small microphone in his tie. A friend well-versed in the subject called him right before the exam, ready to read him the answers he needed.

But his cell phone ran out of batteries halfway through the test and started beeping. He failed the exam, but not the class, and can take the exam again at least twice.

In Poland, cheating and half-hearted enforcement efforts from teachers are a sort of national sport, and cheating is seen as a natural phenomenon. "There is student solidarity, and faculty solidarity working in the opposite direction," says Kazik Friske, dean of the University of Warsaw's Sociology department.

"I and the majority of my colleagues consider cheating natural behavior - only when it gets too obvious or arrogant do I cut it off. It's a sort of fight - a student's right is to cheat, and my right is to make all possible attempts to catch them," he adds.

Cheating begins in elementary school. The average Polish student takes 10 or more subjects, from history and geography to biology, physics, and two foreign languages, at once. Teachers emphasize specific knowledge over general understanding and critical thinking. In high school and college, cumulative final exams are the only grades students get.

Most students see cheating as the only possible response to an educational system that values rote memorization more than personal creativity.

Students copy one another's work during exams and get together in marathon minimizing sessions at copy machines to prepare cheat sheets - sometimes shrinking entire books to palm size. Not helping classmates on an exam is socially unacceptable.

"If the person really knows [the answer], has the time, and just doesn't want to tell you, that's definitely not cool," says Mateusz Kowalyk, a student at the Higher School of Management.

Mr. Kowalyk, who spent several years in American high schools, was shocked at the lack of consequences for cheating in Poland. "Nothing happens except [the student] might fail the test. If you don't know anything, you can't lose anything by going in and cheating."

"I passed a math exam by handing it out the window to a guy who solved the whole thing and passed it back. The same guy went to take tests for four other people," he adds. "There are situations where people pay someone to take a test, but usually it's just a friend that wants to help."

"Every teacher knows students cheat - it's a part of school," explains Katarzyna Skupinska, a law student at the University of Warsaw. "Some people are just lazy, but most people do it because the system expects you to have encyclopedic knowledge [in all subjects], and sometimes it's just too much."

In fact, the largest disagreement between teachers and students is not over whether cheating is right but over the educational system itself. Teachers say memorizing facts provides a basis for more general understanding, and students argue that there is too much to learn. All scoff at the idea of an honor code.

"This isn't a question of moral principles, but of utilitarian rules," says Dr. Friske.

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