The Dutch Education System: A Licence To Cheat?

Sometimes the Dutch live up to their stereotypes and perhaps they are far too relaxed when it comes to examinations. It is currently mid-way through midterms and thankfully I had my two midterms this morning, but my workload is still hell. I may come back to this later. However, ever since a discussion at the beginning of the week about high school exams, I feel that I have to make this fact about the Dutch system more publicly known.

UCU, and it’s mother university Universiteit Utrecht, is ranked in the top 50 universities in the world. But perhaps they are not in the top 50 in the way they carry out their exam procedures. Here I will list a few points that may give the students of UCU an unfair advantage when it comes to what grades they obtain.

1. Anonymity. You’d think that this was an obvious thing to have when handling exams wouldn’t you? I mean that is the only real use for our student numbers at Exeter and we have those here too so it makes sense to use that rather than your name. It doesn’t take a genius to see (and there are many experiments that show) that markers can easily be biased when they know who’s writing a paper (even when they think they are not). They don’t even have to know you personally to be biased – and at UCU (with maximum class size of 28) it’s pretty likely they will know everyone’s name in the class. Just knowledge of gender can influence marking. When it has even been shown that such superficial things as your handwriting can sway the mark awarded for a piece of work, openly telling an examiner who you are makes bias (intentional or unintentional) almost impossible to avoid.

2. Examination layout. When you sit your GCSEs, A levels or most exams in the UK you generally get taken to a new room that isn’t your classroom and are sat on a single desk. Yet UCU does not believe in this simple way to prevent cheating. Most of the time your exam is in the same room as your class with the seats in the same layout i.e. a horseshoe shape facing the board. This means even quite an unsubtle person can look at their neighbour to copy their notes and I’m sure most people actually do. If you are stuck on a question and the person next to you is scribbling away happily then most people will be tempted to at least try to see what they have written. I don’t see how you couldn’t.

3. Examination procedure. Now some of the things in the UK I think are a bit over the top in the examination world, such as taking the labels off of your water bottle in case there are notes on it, and the absurd (even I don’t understand why) rule about having to take you hat off while at Exeter. But being allowed to have your bag by your desk, being allowed to leave the exam room and come back, and what’s more having the teacher leave the room during the exam – making the room unsupervised – is just a little too lax. I am quite unsure why people get to leave and come back so if someone could enlighten me on this fact it would be appreciated.

My view on this point had been strengthened when people came back from their stats exam which was held in the educatorium (what a silly name for a building) off-campus at the Uithof. Here the procedure was much more like the exams at Exeter and to hear people complain about it was odd. The main complaint was on the subject of ID cards. The examiners at the Uithof expected everyone to have their ID cards on the desk when they were writing their exam – a standard procedure at Exeter. But being UCU (where most people don’t even have a picture of themselves on their student card – though strangely mine does have a picture) people hadn’t brought them. In my eyes it makes sense to do this, to make sure the person who claims to be Sarah is actually Sarah. Perhaps UCU is okay as the class room size is so small it would be much harder for someone to write your exam for you, but it is something I had forgotten happened at home.

The deception went deeper as for the stats exam they were obviously allowed calculators. However they were allowed to use graphical calculators – something that every Dutch student has – rather than in the UK, where I’m sure most people haven’t even seen one. Basically they are big chunky things which have many functions, including being able to draw graphs – which is handy. However they also have a huge memory in which you can input all your notes for an exam. For maths at Exeter we are not allowed these – full stop. Our scientific ones have to be on a list of approved calculators and before we sit the exam we have to go to the exams office and get a little gold sticker put on it to show it is approved. However no approval of calculators was needed for this exam and even though the examiners said they would check all calculators I’m sure most can still sneak them through. Plus the graphical calculators even have a statistics mode which I’m sure people could have made great use of.

As the confessions came out over the lunch table I learned that this graphical calculator business had been going on for years with everyone confessing to having notes in there for their secondary school exams. I further learned that teachers at their schools even knew this was the case and did nothing about it. I continued learning that they all had their own elaborate schemes for telling each other the answers by hand gestures and leg placements. Shame on you Dutchies!

4. Assignments. The main problems here, not including lack of anonymity which I have already mentioned, is word count and hand-in time. The first is not true of all classes here, as in social psychology I was explicitly told that you had to put your word count on the piece of paper and were not allowed to be over it. However in most classes students do not adhere to this rule.

In psychology at Exeter I am told at least once every year the word limit, is the limit. Many students have the idea of the “10% rule”, which means you can go over the word count by 10% – but I am also being repeatedly told this is not the case. Yet here they don’t seem to mind even that much and people hand in work that is over by much greater then 10%.

For instance, my group evolution paper was meant to be 1000 words…

“By the way guys, it’s quite over the word count”
“10% rule”
“It’s more than 10%”
“It’s fine – they’re lenient on word count here”.

And how lenient! My friend, who had an essay of 500 words, said one student handed in the same assignment with over 700 words. “It’s just an extra paragraph”, they said, “without that end paragraph it wouldn’t make sense”. But the task is to do it in so many words, then the challenge is to do it in so many words. It is definitely an unfair advantage to go over the word count by 40%!

Concerning hand-in time, the rule at Exeter is very precise – you have to give your work in electronically and if your work is late by one second then you get a zero for that assignment. It’s clear cut. It seems crazily unfair, but everyone knows the rule and that’s how it works. However I am astonished to hear that people are able to hand in work hours, days and sometimes weeks after the hand-in date and still have it accepted. Another part of the challenge of an essay is time management, so why should other people in your class be allowed to spend extra time on their work than you? People are even proud when they have done this “I managed to hand my work in only an hour past the deadline this time”. To my ears there should be some king of a penalty for this or the rules should be made more explicit.

So what do I think about this? Personally I am unaware that I have suffered from poorer grades because of this system, but then again I wouldn’t really know as favouritism by teachers is not likely to come out (especially as they’d be adamant they were not biased – but, as I said above, unconscious bias is possible, even probable) and when people get extensions on their work the class is not made aware of that fact, so I would not be able to compare given grades. I also haven’t received my evolution paper back to know if  it has been penalised or not for being over the word count.

However I would suggest that some people do fall foul of this system and furthermore are probably unaware of it. Maybe UCU is too trusting of it students not too cheat (I am very tempted to do this given that it appears to be so easy and the teacher doesn’t pay that much attention to the class!) and perhaps they are too trusting of their staff not to be biased?  Perhaps UCU should consider changing their ways of being laid-back and tighten up their act.

Maybe it’s the case that the Dutch are more trusting of people and the UK we are more distrusting? It might be similar to the fact that the Dutch (even a big institution like UU and UCU) seem much less aware of credit card fraud and do not take the precautions we routinely do in the UK.

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14 thoughts on “The Dutch Education System: A Licence To Cheat?

  1. I may be wrong, but I think there may be a reason behind this that is due to a difference between the UK (and most English speaking and ex-Empire countries) and NL (and most of Europe).

    In the UK we are a “Common Law” country. This means that,in theory, our law is based at least partly on precedent – so whether or not a public official (or university examiner) is behaving legally is decided by a court, based in precedent and concepts such as “reasonableness”. This is then backed up by statute (ie. written) law, like Acts of Parliament, which may give precise rules.

    The effect of this is that bodies like universities have to ensure they are always safe from legal challenge so have to ensure they are acting “reasonably” at all times – and the basic thing this requires them to do is that they keep to the letter of any written rules (either rules they make, or rules made by parliament). If they allowed a 700 word essay when there was a 400 word limit, or allowed submissions after a given date, there would be a real risk of being sued… and if they were sued and they had not followed the rules they would lose.

    NL, and everywhere else in Europe, is based on Roman Law. This is different. I am not a legal expert on it, but basically as I understand it there is no precedent, not concept of “judicial review”, not “Wednesbury Unreasonableness”. The law is based on what is written. However, what really seems to matter is less the actual precise wording of a rule or law but more the purpose or reason for it.

    If you look at EU law, for instance (which is also “Roman Law”) there is always a long – sometimes maddeningly long – preamble saying why the law exists, what it is trying to do, etc. and this seems more important than what the law actually says.

    IMHO this seems to result in a society where the actual wording of laws and rules are less important than in the UK – it is the principle that matters. As a result a few extra words, or a few minutes or hours past the deadline, matter less. The principle is that the assignment should be ABOUT that long and should be submitted by THAT time(ish).

    As I say, I may be very wrong – but I do know (from 20+ years in government) that European attitudes to rules and law are very different to the UK… which is partly why the UK seems to spend so much time arguing with European courts and institutions!!

    • This is what I was sort of thinking of when I talked about our teachers being more “free” and that might not be the case in England – but I didn’t know the back ground story. Which you have told now perfectly!

      This totally fits with how I talk in my post about how our teachers are. Me saying in England they are more ‘to the book’ than they are here. Here teachers are mot their own person, doing their own thing in their own classes. This might actually be the reason why.. xD Cool.

      • Although we keep more to the letter of a law (often ignoring why the law is there!) traditionally we have had fewer laws and rules, because a Common Law system means you do not need them. You just have to act “reasonably”. So if the heating in a school failed in winter there was no minimum temperature that meant the school had to close – the teachers just had to behave “reasonably” by, maybe, getting the children to wear their coats (this is a real example from my school days!).

        However, the more we have become tangled with European law and the EU, the more this has changed.

        The result is that we are getting the worst of all worlds. Because we have none of the European tradition of flexibility we enforce rules to the letter, and now there are far, far more rules than there used to be.

        For example, health and safety used to be covered by Common Law (like the cold school above) – but now we have more and more written rules (often thanks to EU law)… there now IS a minimum temperature for a classroom!. Our traditions then say we must keep to these rules, to the very letter. People do this, but find it all very annoying – and this gets even worse when they look across the Channel and see the same rules being imposed in a far more flexible way!

  2. So here my answer comes! 🙂

    First off, the anonymity thing – at UU it is apparently also a standard, but why people found this strange is because not one student would ever even dream of making another person’s test or letting someone do it for them. That is just – an absurd concept. I have never, ever heard of someone doing so – and everyone you’ll talk to will say the same. I don’t know if this does happen in England, but I guess because it is not done here they don’t make extra rules to prevent it. Also because in High School, and here at UCU the teacher does know every student personally – like you said. The reason that the do use this method at UU is probably because they don’t, like you said. I really think though that is it not necessary, no one in their right mind would try that stunt.

    Then the Examination layout. This really depends on the teacher. In high school it was would be the same room – but the layout of the tables would be different – all facing the front all with so much space in between tables. This has also been the case in all my classes so far at UCU (except for little in between check ups). But, in the Netherlands it is quite common to have a teacher that isn’t a big admirer of the rules. I think this might be the reason too why here it all seems more lenient – teachers themselves do not always keep to the book presicely because they don’t agree with some athorities, giving the impression some things are just ‘okay’. And yes, students do take advantage of that – if they can. But they never go too far. Coming with this freedom comes clearer view of morals. Some things are just not done – like the ‘letting someone else make a test for you’. The making cheating notes – that barely happens I think. Maybe in High School, but High School is all taken less seriously. I do not say this is right, I personally think making cheating notes is ridiculous. Though cheating by looking over someone’s shoulders I have even done myself. But yeah.. here somehow I think a cheating note would be a too big of a rule breaker. In High School is seems like ‘less of a big deal’ – but here it is a big deal. It feels more real? So yeah.. Thats what I think. Maybe someone from a different friend group would call me totally crazy? But .. not knowing that and assuming people are quite like me (can I? 😛 ) I think I can safely claim that like 95 % has never done so at UCU.

    I also think that cheating has been done in High School more than at UCU. All those signals and methods you heard were all examples of high school, used in normal tests, not even the big final exams in your last year. Here it is almost impossible at ‘real’ tests ; at small in between tests its very do-able yes, IF you have one of those ‘I dont care for the rules teachers’.. Like Maiolo, who just leaves class.

    But let me tell you a story about his class. One day a student dropped a piece of paper, and it was an old test from last semester, of which he had copied quite a view multiple choice answers (yes,this guy is part of the 5% that does use notes.. xD ) . Maiolo was so disappointed that he made the entire class retake the test – which everyone found reasonable. He told us he was disappointed, because we are all grown ups here. We are responsible for our own education and we managed to get into university and we all want to make a goocareer after this. He expected mutual respect, mutual trust. He didn’t want to be seen as a police officer, and if we really wanted to be here – he kinda shouldn’t have to. I believe all Dutch students would agree with this, even if they from time to time do cheat, but never in like a huge scandalous way. in High School teachers are still like ‘police officers’ – at university they seem more like your equal.

    Then assignments; word count etc.. Also depends on the teacher. 40% over the word count is indeed ridiculous! I will not disagree with that, no one in all honesty would if they weree objective. But yes, this depends on the teacher. Just yesterday a guy in my psychology class got deduction from his grade because he went over the 800 word limit. Ands no, there was no debat following that decision.

    I don’t know if this is a difference in our country thing or a it all depends on your teacher thing. Maybe in more conceptual way the Netherlands is more lenient, do cheat more. But where you study, how you study and who teaches you really comes into play. But I doubt that there is a real big difference though. 😛

    • Yes, Maiolo’s story is exactly what I’m talking about below in my comment (by cudesensvet). It illustrates my hypothesis about teachers placing full trust in students’ maturity, and en example that some students do abuse it. But generally I think, students don’t wanna disappoint their trusting professors.

      I guess the core of the issue at UCU is that there is no uniformity among teachers with any rule (same as with grading).

  3. Unfortunately, Sofie, I know of many cases where people have taken exams – or even driving tests* – for someone else. They sometimes get into the press, but most of the time they are given as reasons for tightening rules. There are even cases of people getting married for someone else – normally to get a passport! Voting in elections under the name of someone else happens as well (especially in Northern Ireland where they say “vote early, vote often”!).

    It is a crime – called “personation”. Curiously, though, in the UK this may all be easier do because we have no identity card system – we do not like having to prove who we are to anyone in authority!

    When Nichola (or others) talk about how different a lot of things in the UK are, I think the different our legal systems work are at the bottom of it all. People do not realise it, but the national attitudes to law and rules and authority are set by these fundamentally different systems.

    I could mention things like Habeus Corpus and Magna Carta and so on, but I do not wish to bore people to death!

    (*Last year nearly 1,000 people were found to have taken a driving test for someone else. You may also find this article about cheating in UK universities interesting!)

  4. 1. I think you’ll find it was my dad in the end keeping you from studying and at least the article is on topic 😛

    2. I see this whole law thing that you are chatting about has come up in my Discovering the Dutch class. There is a difference in law (it was in the context of cannabis) between policy and practice. So in the law it says smoking weed is illegal but in practice they won’t prosecute as it’s a victimless crime and then they can spend their police time on bigger issues.
    However I did not assume that this was the attitude for every kind of rule in NL, just the ones for laws but I can see how this might be so. Yet this whole standardization thing is very annoying as say one teacher is lenient and one is not is fine but you want to know what you are dealing with. They very rarely make their lenient intentions specific so when someone breaks a rule the teacher has said I feel a little hard done by.
    This is the same non-standardization they have at UCU across the grade system which we talk about. How you can work 10x harder for a class 1 than class 2 and end up with a B for class 1 and an A for class 2. Then in the end when your overall grade is given class 1 and 2 count for the same. You can’t have a system like that it seems counter-productive. To make clear my point more person A could have taken all classes of they type 2 kind and you of the class 1 then his grade is higher than yours even though you know you did much better work than them!

    3. Sofie you start one reply about anonymity but then you actually go on to talk about the ID card thing. I feel like this is the biggest problem (but my dad disagrees) as with all the other cases you can say that they rely on trust for people to do the right thing and they work. However the point for anonymity is that hundreds of scientific studies have shown that even if you try to be objective, if you know information about the person who wrote the essay then you mark them differently. This can be especially big when the thing you are marking is subjective anyway, as in an essay. Hence all methods should be put in place to try and prevent this as it cannot be countered on trust alone. Don’t you think?

    • Soooo, interesting discussion in which I’m not gonna join right now, or I’m going to be writing for the next couple of hours.(A)
      But I do want to say something about the weed thing: this is not generally how all laws are treated. In fact, it is not as much leniency, as it is a loophole in the law (which they maintained on purpose).
      By law, coffeeshops are aloud to sell weed, customers are aloud to buy it and carry like 5 grams of it, but the coffeshops are not allowed to grow weed or buy it from someone so they can sell it.

      (And with the cheating thins, I agree with Maiolo. I think I have cheated twice during my whole high school period and never since. My pride withholds me from doing so. Oh yeah, and we always learnt that with cheating, the only one you’re hurting in the end is yourself!)

      (And about the calculator stuff; this allowed by the general examination board that makes our final math high school tests CSE (Central School Exam; which are the same for all high schools in the Netherlands, depending on your level of course. They decide what you’re supposed the know/understand/comprehend/be able to apply: and they also allow you to do with your graphic calculator what you want. This might seem weird, but it’s not like you’re gonna get a good grade just because you can make notes in your calculator. The exam board knows (and expects!) this and can therefore modify the difficulty of the test.(Note that this is not the case for our school exams; our calculators got checked then (at least in my school.))

    • Oy, are you saying I am going off topic!?

      a) Taking a discussion off topic can be fun!
      b) It’s not off topic anyway – you were saying the Dutch appear more laid back about rules, I was saying why this might be. Its dull, historical and legalistic, but then explanations often are.

  5. John Birch (The Elder)
    Very interesting, can I put in my tupenuth? I had to deal, before retirment, with the law in every day situations for many years. As John says the English law is based on Common Law and what we call ‘Reasonableness’. What is reasonableness you may ask. It was defined as that that would be considered reasonable by a passenger on the top deck of an omnibus on Putney Bridge. The law in Europe is based on Napolionic law, one simple difference, in the UK the prosecution must find you guilty with no reasonable (that word again) doubt, On theContinent it seems you must prove your inocence. The subject of ID cards is interesting, I had one during WW11 but never carried it, however a few months ago I had dealings with my Bank and was asked by the teller, who I had known for may years, for some identification. Problem, I was not carrying any. It seems there is some new EC law about money laundering.. Problem solved when another member of staff, who I also knew long term, identified me to the first memeber who already knew me, b**y ridiculace. With regard to cheating, I recall my teacher, so many years ago, telling the class just what Veele says, and it’s true, the only person you harm by cheating is yourself.

  6. I’ll first write my own commentary and then read through the extensive discussion.

    In general, I think most of the points are specific to UCU only. I’m pretty sure at UU and the other non-LA&S, big public universities, the whole system is much more similar to Exeter.

    As we discussed, I totally agree on the anonymity issue. It is completely baffling to me why don’t they use student numbers and the OSIRIS system for reporting grades when it’s so simple. I bring this up in every course evaluation I fill in. I was long on the idea to go to someone about it (ASC for example should do sth about this)!

    I don’t think your can generalize about leaving the classroom during exams though. Many of my teachers so far had explicitly forbid this. Also, many exams have at least two versions, so peeking in your neighbor’s paper won’t help you much. Yet, it’s true that often times this is not the case, and indeed we have the identical exam with our papers being on a distance of 30cm from each other.

    But then, for all other issues, I really do think that the trust in students is justified. I mean let’s see: how many students does Exeter have? How many students go to UU/Groningen University etc? We are here only 600 students and you must agree that the overwhelming majority of these are indeed the top of the top, excellent and very ambitious students. Ypu don’t have that many of the regular slackers against which the strict rules at Exeter are created. I do think that the majority of students here are very independent and academically mature; have realized the responsibility and the importance of learning and upgrading yourself, and that you don’t get anything with cheating.
    In some way, with this lax attitude they create a certain standard: by not being so anxious about cheating and stuff, they signal you that that’s the norm here. By giving you trust they pressurize you to actually act responsibly. You know what I mean?

    And of course, I can see that there must be students who want to take advantage of this all. Surely. But than again, too bad for them. They’re a mistake of the admissions interviewer who admitted them at UCU.

    As for your experience with the UK before uni, it might also be that you saw all of it from your perspective of a student who never cheated. I have hard time believing that students in the UK don’t cheat, or cheat significantly less than in Holland or anywhere else.

    I think ultimtelly it’s all up to the student. I better not start telling you about the situation down there, in them Balkans 🙂 where the main label on people’s mindset is :”How to get around the rules?” 😀 I’m sure my classmates from there would win any “best-cheater” contest in the world. Even though none of them had seen a graphic calculator in their lives. 🙂 Yet, I never mastered that cheating technique and have not really cheated during my schooling. It’s all about how you see it.

  7. I’ll first write my own commentary and then read through the extensive discussion.

    In general, I think most of the points are specific to UCU only. I’m pretty sure at UU and the other non-LA&S, big public universities, the whole system is much more similar to Exeter.

    As we discussed, I totally agree on the anonymity issue. It is completely baffling to me why don’t they use student numbers and the OSIRIS system for reporting grades when it’s so simple. I bring this up in every course evaluation I fill in. I was long on the idea to go to someone about it (ASC for example should do sth about this)!

    I don’t think your can generalize about leaving the classroom during exams though. Many of my teachers so far had explicitly forbid this. Also, many exams have at least two versions, so peeking in your neighbor’s paper won’t help you much. Yet, it’s true that often times this is not the case, and indeed we have the identical exam with our papers being on a distance of 30cm from each other.

    But then, for all other issues, I really do think that the trust in students is justified. I mean let’s see: how many students does Exeter have? How many students go to UU/Groningen University etc? We are here only 600 students and you must agree that the overwhelming majority of these are indeed the top of the top, excellent and very ambitious students. Ypu don’t have that many of the regular slackers against which the strict rules at Exeter are created. I do think that the majority of students here are very independent and academically mature; have realized the responsibility and the importance of learning and upgrading yourself, and that you don’t get anything with cheating.
    In some way, with this lax attitude they create a certain standard: by not being so anxious about cheating and stuff, they signal you that that’s the norm here. By giving you trust they pressurize you to actually act responsibly. You know what I mean?

    And of course, I can see that there must be students who want to take advantage of this all. Surely. But than again, too bad for them. They’re a mistake of the admissions interviewer who admitted them at UCU.

    As for your experience with the UK before uni, it might also be that you saw all of it from your perspective of a student who never cheated. I have hard time believing that students in the UK don’t cheat, or cheat significantly less than in Holland or anywhere else.

    I think ultimtelly it’s all up to the student. I better not start telling you about the situation down there, in them Balkans where the main label on people’s mindset is :”How to get around the rules?” I’m sure my classmates from there would win any “best-cheater” contest in the world. Even though none of them had seen a graphic calculator in their lives. Yet, I never mastered that cheating technique and have not really cheated during my schooling. It’s all about how you see it.

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