An ill-considered and impulsive act by a student on the morning of Tuesday 19 April just before the start of the exam of the basic course Data Analytics for Engineers. When the invigilator momentarily leaves the exam room seventeen minutes before the start of the exam, at nine o’clock in the morning, to get some extra paper to makes notes on, a student quickly grabs a copy from the unattended stack of exams. He takes it to the back of the room, takes pictures of the 35 multiple choice questions, throws the copy he took in a trashcan and shares the pictures in his WhatsApp group, which has 112 participants.
Six minutes later, someone else shares those pictures in another group, so that 257 more people have access to the questions. Since students have until 9.15 to enter the exam room, there’s quite enough time left to look at and/or discuss the questions. The second group of students, who will take the exam between eleven and half past one, have even more time to look at the questions. Even though their questions will be different, the first group’s questions will give them a pretty good idea of what to expect.
The next day, a whistle-blower exposes the leak. “That was the moment when we decided to have a committee investigate what happened, and to look into the possible consequences,” says professor Mark de Berg, who chaired the committee that looked into the matter over the past week. Since Data Analytics for Engineers is a cross-departmental course, the committee includes chairs from several different exam committees.
De Berg: “We immediately called for an emergency meeting to discuss this incident and to come up with a way to approach it. Our committee eventually had to recommend that the exam should be declared invalid, no matter how unfortunate that is to everyone. That recommendation was adopted by the exam committee from Computer Science and Engineering, the program responsible for this course. We also involved an external lawyer who’s an expert in education law.”
De Berg says that it quickly became clear that it was impossible to identify one specific group of students who were guilty of taking advantage of the leaked questions. “We did manage to identify the WhatsApp groups that were used for that first large-scale dissemination, but we obviously can’t say what else happened next. Did students who weren’t in that group discuss the questions before the exam with students who were part of that WhatsApp group, and who else sent those questions to others? This has become uncontrollable with all of today’s social media channels, and there’s no way of tracing it back. That is why we recommended that all students need to retake the exam.”
Dean Ines Lopez Arteaga says that she was shocked at first when she learned about the leak. “You don’t want this to happen, but when it turned out that it had in fact happened, I was happy to see that we as a university dealt with it adequately and that we responded in the right way. We also successfully communicated about this issue. There was some miscomprehension about why it took three weeks before we were able to make a decision. That has everything to do with the fact that we had to deal with this issue carefully. You need to find out what happened and how many people were involved, and you need to meet with several people and with the exam committees. I can assure you that it took a lot of overtime hours.”
Lopez Arteaga says that the university will definitely scrutinize the current procedures for taking exams. “These procedures seem to have worked just fine until April 19, because this is the first time our university has had to declare an exam invalid. But it’s good to go over all the procedures again and to look at how we train our invigilators. Is there anything we can improve? Preparations for this will start as soon as next week. Because we obviously never want the incident from April to happen again.”
In order to bring all the facts to light, extensive talks have been held with the two students who were identified as the culprits, De Berg says. “Their impulsive act obviously had a huge impact, also on the students themselves. We’ve told the students that they’re always welcome to talk to an academic advisor or student counsellor if they want to.” De Berg doesn’t know what sanctions the university will impose on both students. That is up to the exam committee of their department.
Both De Berg and Lopez Arteaga are glad that the Executive Board allowed the committee to carry out its investigation independently and that it agreed to adopt the committee’s recommendation concerning the BSA requirement (the binding recommendation on the continuation of your study). “This is something we also need to take into account, naturally,” De Berg says. “First-year students shouldn’t be prevented from moving on to the second year because they failed to acquire five credits due to this incident. Students who acquired 35 credits but fail to achieve a passing grade after the new exam will still be allowed to continue.”