In my opinion | A man commits murder


In the 1980s there was a riddle that went, 'A man commits a murder, but doesn't have to go to jail. How is that possible?’ I was reminded of that when in the middle of May the news came out that the Data Analytics for Engineers exam was invalidated. One student had illegally accessed the paper exam and distributed it en masse via scalable media fifteen minutes before the exam. Another student spread it even more.

Part of the punishment also affected the other 2057 students who had taken this exam in the early or late morning of April 19. With that, the 2059 students formed a Siamese two-thousands. The Siamese twins in the forementioned riddle, one of whom had committed murder, did not have to go to prison. The two-thousands did receive an unjustified punishment and was forced to retake the exam. That retake took place last weekend on Saturday, July 2.

Let's face it, not all 2057 students were innocent. Analyses showed that the number of students who got a 9 was about twenty more than normal. But which twenty is impossible to figure out. Some students must have set up a very ingenious system to share the right answers amongst each other. By the way, I do not rule out the possibility that this set-up could be applied to other exams, even without the exam questions being known in advance. Other students have been working hard to practice well before the 11:00 exam. Useless effort?

Of course, having prior knowledge is unfair to other students who really struggle with this subject. Incidentally, I think this is a fringe argument. Chance inequality must be fought, but there are more important things that play a role in the decision to declare this exam invalid. Especially given the very short time frame in which the prior knowledge was disclosed.

The exam committee had to make this decision. Experts were called in. And they indicated that there was no other way. It must have been hell. How can you undo and then justify the effort, the excitement for those two hours of exam, the days of study of such a large group of students? Not to mention the preparation time of the teachers for this exam, the grading of it, the support of the teachers, staff and invigilators involved. Those efforts are equivalent to an interesting European project. We have thrown that away. And I'm sure that was done very conscientiously.

After all, exams are considered sacred. They are the mainstays of the university degree. Useful, according to some, only because of the signal function it has. Companies hire people because of their degree. What it's worth, how you got it, is irrelevant. You are hired because of that signal: you have a diploma.

But of course, that has only come about because of a centuries-long reputation that universities have built up. And continue to monitor that as well. And that's exactly what exam committees do. They are the independent watchdog for the exams and diplomas. And they send out a backlash signal to students: don't even think about doing this again. This is our exam, part of the diploma of this important university: hands off! The question remains, what are students actually going to learn from it? Be obedient or cheat smarter?

In the end, that's what it's all about: learning. Perhaps that offers the silver lining. Exams invite students to gain knowledge in a short period of time, but also to forget it again. In this context watch the lecture of Eric Mazur on the value and function of exams. (at first his mic isn’t turned on, but that is fixed quickly). The 'spacing effect' helps to counteract that: by re-examining material after a longer period of time you remember things better and for a longer period of time. An entire cohort is going to learn and take this exam for the second time. These students are going to be the Data Analytics experts.

That's great, too. Data is everywhere. Data is the new oil. And just like oil, things can go badly wrong in the processing. So then it's good to make our students critical, to teach them how to handle data properly. To give them a good basis. And I hope that they also deal with it ethically, because a few students still had some trouble with that.

I hope this does not happen again. But should this be the case, could the following be considered? We don't have to punish all the Siamese two-thousands for one student's youthful fit of recklessness. An exam committee could show moral leadership and, against the advice of national lawyers, will not invalidate the exam. Or at least make that consideration public.

Martijn Klabbers wrote this in his capacity of educational innovator, not on behalf of the University Council

Main photo | Bart van Overbeeke

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