Mark Brown

Cheating or helping?

Is it better to simply observe students and not try to fix things?

Thai students routinely cheat but they think of it very differently than we do.

My background is in corporate training, not K-12. Most of my jobs had the words "course developer" somewhere in the title but in that capacity I also did classroom training, or as we called it, instructor-led training. My students were all adults. They all had professional jobs and their employers had paid big bucks for them to have the privilege of sitting in one of my classes.

They were highly motivated to learn whatever I was teaching. The classrooms were clean, the class sizes were small, and the students were well-behaved. We had support resources an EFL teacher could only dream of after a late night drinking Hong Thong and soda.

In Silicon Valley a well-designed training program culminates in an assessment activity followed by remediation. Adult students in technical training courses take these assessment activities very seriously.

When I worked for Rational Software (now a division of IBM) I briefly managed their Certification Program. That was an eye-opening experience. People who took those certification exams were extremely serious, almost fanatical, about their scores. If they passed they would proudly advertise that fact on their resume. If they failed, in some cases by only a few points, they would send us angry email and contest every word in the questions they answered incorrectly.

Iterative development

Training assessment is about collecting data and gathering feedback which is used to improve the next version of the course. This is called iterative development, and it's a cornerstone of course development in the IT industry. As a course developer I want to know if the course I'm developing is effective. I want to know where my students are having difficulty so I can improve the course. I want everyone to succeed.

In the classic paradigm students are given a pre-exam before the course starts then a similar post-exam after they've completed the course. (In reality this is rarely done but that's what they teach you in instructional design classes.)

By looking at the average pre/post delta we can gauge a course's effectiveness, and by implication, the dollar value of the course. My yearly performance evaluation (translate: pay raise) also came in part from my manager's sense of how effective my courses were. My success depended on my students' feedback. I was passionate about developing good courses so I wanted good data and useful feedback about any new course I was working on.

And now I'm here

Fast forward 20 years to a different universe. I'm working in an un-airconditioned office where the temperature is 35°C and the humidity is 80%. Dust balls roll across the floor. Birds and mosquitos fly through open windows with no screens. The bathrooms have squat toilets. The ancient copy machine only works on Tuesdays. Sometimes I would stare out the window and think WTF did I do to end up here?? Is this some sort of hell for teachers who committed heinous crimes against humanity, or is this the embodiment of the phrase ‘no good deed goes unpunished'?

I learned a long time ago to not expect Thai people to think or behave the way we do in California. Their culture is enormously different and their history is much longer - that's part of the attraction for me. When I first came here I marveled at those differences. Seventeen years later I'm still marveling at those differences.

Over the years I've come to realize the futility of trying to impose Western values on this ancient culture. My survival strategy is to adopt the role of a cultural observer, not a cultural fixer. This is the mental shield I use to get through the hot, humid days of frustration at the local high school where I teach. Observe, don't fix.

"Observe, not fix"

This last semester I was asked to proctor some exams. If you work in a public school here you've probably been asked to do the same thing: sit in the back of a classroom all day while Thai students take exams which determine their grades for that semester. If you've been here for a while you know they're going to cheat. My wife told me she cheated on her exams when she attended the same school where I was teaching. She even told me some of the creative ways in which Thai students exchange information surreptitiously, so I was curious to see this in action.

California Accent offers free training materials (courseware) which can be used to teach English to Thai students. These training materials are free for parents and teachers to use as long as they are not resold or used for commerical purposes. New materials are being added to this site every week as they are developed and tested by the author.

I knew this was the reality of education in Thailand so from my vantage point in the back of the room I decided to observe, not fix. It was fascinating. I saw scraps of paper being handed off. I saw nodding heads and silent hand gestures. By the end of the day the communication grew more overt as the Thai teacher in the front of the room kept her head down, her gaze focused on the papers of her desk, apparently oblivious to the behavior of the students who by now were whispering to each other.

Sometimes they would glance at me, the tall farrang in the back of the class, but as it's been said before on teaching forums, farrang teachers aren't taken seriously by Thai students. They see us as entertainers, not educators. My presence didn't deter them from exchanging notes or leaning back to expose their exam to the person sitting next to them. I observed without interfering. I was an anthropologist, not a policeman.

Cultural stigma

I'm not overly concerned about rampant cheating during exam week. The worst part was the sad realization that this is how poor students who should have failed were going to get passing grades and advance to the next level, thereby making the job of the next teacher more difficult. There's a great deal of stigma about failing in this culture and it's viewed as the fault of the teacher, not the student, so I understand why the teacher who kept her head down during the exam was not motivated to stop students from helping each other.

If I had the authority to make drastic changes to the Thai educational system, in other words to fix it, I would absolutely put a stop to the practice of letting poorly performing students sit in the same classroom as the high-performing students. I firmly believe we're doing a huge disservice to both populations when this happens.

I also gave my own exams to my students in Mattayom 3 and 6. Like most EFL teachers, I was asked to teach "conversation", not basic English skills. My academic background from the late Pleistocene era was behavioral psychology where there was a big emphasis on quantifying behaviors. Consequently, my oral exams consisted of asking each student a simple question like "What did you do this weekend?" and counting the number of words in their response.

Could I stamp out cheating?

Overall this strategy worked fairly well but the ubiquitous cheating was contaminating my data. As soon as the first few students learned how to get high scores by putting long strings of words together, I realized they were coaching each other and saying the same things.

Now I was not so sanguine. Now I was emotionally invested because I had spent a lot of time and effort to develop the course and administer these exams. This is MY course, this is MY exam, and you kids are contaminating MY data! How can I improve my course if I don't get good data? I need to fix this! Stop cheating!

While testing individual students I noticed the poorly-performing ones would laugh nervously and look at their classmates for help when I asked them my standard question. Often other students would stand nearby and supply additional vocabulary for the student who was unable to speak more than a few words of English. I told one overly helpful student to stop it but the disappointed look on his face surprised me. Didn't he understand that he was helping the other student get an undeserved score?

I made all the students leave the classroom and only let one at a time come in for the exam. That didn't help. I could hear them outside yelling at each other and frantically trying to memorize a response that had proved successful. As soon as one student answered my question and got their score, he or she would run outside and share their results with the other kids. They adopted a hive mind, a collective intelligence. They were like the Borg, assimilating and adapting.

Successful or not?

That's when I had a realization: I think they're cheating but they think they're helping. I noticed they were trying to memorize successful responses as fast as they could. I saw the smart students teaching the slow students. My so-called assessment activity had turned into a learning activity. In that sense it was successful.

In terms of collecting good data it was less successful, but in the long run it doesn't really matter. I got a qualitative sense of how well my course worked even if I didn't get reliable quantitative results. Hey, I'm not writing a graduate thesis - I'm just trying to teach English conversation to a bunch of bored teenagers.

My lightbulb moment was to stop thinking of this as an assessment and appreciate the fact that for a few minutes they were actually practicing simple conversation. They were learning. I was learning. Observe, don't fix.

If you want to see some of my exams you can download them from a website I'm building: The ones I mentioned above are in the CON 202 and 203 courses.


@Robby For me, I correct them so that they remember but Thais in general are not open to correction or learning or changes at all.
Just look at the Thai English Teachers. How do you expect students to learn when the those teachers can't even converse in English.
The head knows the problem but prefers to do nothing about it. I teach in an English program and it's all about the numbers.
As i told my smart and younger students go and challenge yourself, transfer.

By Cha, Trang (26th October 2017)

Thai students in my observation don't learn English well, they cheat on tests, I never saw Thai students do homework, or study outside the class. To learn a new language, one has to actually put an effort into learning it. Teachers have already been tested throughout their academic career if they hold a bachelor's degree, then try to blame the foreign teacher for not teaching them correctly. The student should hold the burden of his/her on education, but this is Thailand so, what else can I say?

By Robby Kiefer, Cambodia (25th October 2017)

That is a sad state but at least Chinese students can't seem to game the system unlike the SAT. However, I do believe that UK universities are unforgiving when it comes to cheating. As a former grad student, even citing sources, one needed to be careful.
@Markus yes, the Chinese parents encourage education. Not just money, but education. Also, having them sit-in in classes really helps in terms of seeing how their child behaves.

By Cha, Trang (25th October 2017)

Well-written blog by an experienced teacher. Since Thai students cannot fail no matter what, then what difference does it make if they chat on an exam or not? In fact, if a student fails an exam, why punish the teacher by having the student re-take the exam until he/she finally passes it and earns the requisite passing grade. It's fun being a culture 'observer' at Thai schools, until the day that the teacher realizes his own standards have slipped, as well.

By Guy, California (23rd October 2017)

Very well written article and comments. You described a big part of why I decided to leave Thailand to teach in China. Here I can invite parents to sit in my class to observe how their child is performing. It's very rewarding to get that level of support.

By Markus , China (23rd October 2017)

In the UK there's no need to cheat because the exam board lowers the pass mark, so it would seem that the level of learning doesn't matter there either.
"A "pass" or a grade 4 in GCSE maths this year would have been achieved with 18 per cent of the overall marks in the higher tier paper, exams regulator Ofqual has said."

By Steve, Thailand (21st October 2017)

Yes, I have really lowered my standards, which has extended my patience to the hilt. Should I say that this is idiocracy is the name of the game in this country? At first, I thought it was only the students, but soon found out that the Thai teachers are as well. You know, the blind leading the blind.
Anyway, the best remedy is to go along and do my thing. That is to search for better quality schools most likely outside of this country.
If there is no goal, then people are just aimless, headless chickens running around.
Yes, int'l schools are not necessarily stricter, but their students exam results can't be rigged anyways. So, if the students don't do well, then their chances are hurt.

By Cha, Trang (20th October 2017)

I think Cha has hit on an important point- the "everybody passes, cheating is acceptable, it's cultural" viewpoint does go to serve an agenda that keeps the majority of the populace in a state of mai pen rai, so they don't complain or start getting any ideas. The richer schools, or the international schools, while not being necessarily educational giants, are usually stricter, and they do tend to care a lot more about cheating (with the odd exception, depending on how rich the cheater or their family is).

Call it paranoia if you want, but it seems fairly obvious that the culture here has been, at least for the last 80 years or so, carefully designed to foster certain traits and to reduce others. Thinking that academic, or intellectual, advancement is not really important, and that it's all a laugh, is certainly a way to keep people in the rice fields; or, in a more modern context, in offices, where you spend a long time each day, know your place, and never question anything the boss does.

David is also, sadly, correct; most teachers I have met had to reduce their (sometimes not all that high) standards after teaching for anything more than a little while (as did I, until I got out of government schools). The only ones that didn't were those who shouldn't have been teaching in the first place (for a variety of reasons).

By John, bkk (20th October 2017)

I read your article with great interest only to find out that like all farang teachers who actually care about learning, you have done nothing. Nothing because this is the Thai way, but you can just make their grades passing and of course the high performing students will get better grades.
I think that it is their respect for the social hierarchy is one of the main reasons that officials have chosen to keep these students dumb. Stay there and be stupid about the world because those really moneyed have sent their children to international schools and abroad. I'm on my 2nd term this November and more of my teaching load will be with the M1-M3 classes, at least they are more mature and motivated than the upper classes part. Sure, I can't do anything about the system, yet, for those who just cheat, I can keep them just at the passing mark.

By Cha, Trang (19th October 2017)

I read this blog with interest, curious to learn how this former professional trainer from the west would process his thoughts about the very different conditions here. I have re-read it & am far from convinced by his account of his 'lightbulb moment' and its consequences. I don't question his sincerity, & it's possible that I've missed something from the blog. But it reads to me that those teenagers have inflicted their wills on the teacher &, eventually, he has ceased resisting. I would like to know more as to the process of reflection that led him to the conclusion 'observe, not fix'; the reasoning displayed doesn't cut it, for me. From my own experience those thai teens who take shortcuts in their 'learning' (such as copying etc) are, mostly, not learning english in any reasonable sense of the word: they have little or no goal, motivation, intention to retain that which may go into their heads by subsequent practice & reinforcement. I'm not suggesting that we should impose our values and agendas into them, but that we be honest- with ourselves, first- about where we stand. It may be a coincidence, but the one thing I've noticed that veteran foreign teachers of english I've met here have in common is a marked lowering of the standards & expectations that they worked with initially. Whether this is to be framed as a reasonable process of adjustment, or an unhealthy 'learned helplessness' in a closed system, is for the individual to decide.

By David Burrows, Chiang Mai (19th October 2017)

Just to give a sense of proportion ...

By Steve Emmott, Jomtien, Chonburi, Thailand (18th October 2017)

Tests and assessments are part and parcel of teaching. These should be FAIR tests, under every meaning of the word. Many the better students I ever spoke to about this actually resented their (usually lazier) peers getting the same grades as them, and didn't think it was "teamwork"- they wanted the school to stop it. Or do their voices not count? Are they less culturally Thai for thinking that?

Other Asian countries (including neighbouring ones) don't treat cheating as a trivial thing that is an expected part of the culture- they attempt to stamp it out. Why would it be only Thai culture who thinks like this? I realise Thailand is not interchangeable with Asia, but various aspects of the culture are borrowed from others- how is it they can see the negatives and Thailand can't?

It is because Thailand does see the negatives. This cheating might (or might not) be "cultural", but it sure isn't written down in any curricula, educational act or lesson plan; perhaps because everyone- from student to teacher to government- in fact does realise it is actually wrong. Nothing is really done about cheating, to save face, but Thai education won't formalise it- why? Because they know it is wrong!

The "teamwork" one might witness (and I have seen this myself) is nothing more than an extension of rote learning, forgotten as quickly as it is learned. This is not education in action!

Lastly, thinking that high school tests aren't important is betraying a lack of knowledge of how one gets into a university here (and from there into a career etc) and what the summative assessment process is worth, especially towards GPA. I would rather not have a doctor treat me who cheated to get to where he is, particularly if this cheating continued into his later qualifications (as no doubt can happen in Thailand). Likewise, architects, lawyers, etc...

By John, bkk (18th October 2017)

Cheating? Kids helping each other... teamwork... perhaps a more valuable lesson to them than poncy English conversation!

Who cares if the kids cheat in tests at the high school level?

The test results don't change what they know or what they've learned and what you've taught them. Well, actually, perhaps they DO learn something while they are cheating and getting the correct answers from their classmates!

"Observe - don't change!"

A very good position to adopt and I've been saying this for years! Don't interfere and DO do your job. It's a simple concept where everyone wins.

By Mark, Ratchaburi (18th October 2017)

The no-fail policy in Thailand is really hindering it's progress.

By Douglas, Thailand (18th October 2017)

Students aren't allowed to fail, so why worry if they are cheating or not...
Inexperienced teachers think exams mean something in Thailand...

By Chris, Thailand (18th October 2017)

I've totally been in your position.. I actually got a disciplinary warning for kicking a kid out of my class for cheating on one of MY exams.. and was told that it was Thai culture and I should accept it.. that's when I stopped giving a s*** and eventually moved to Myanmar where I get a lot more money and work with kids who actually care about their education.

By Samuel, Thailand (18th October 2017)

If your school does not allow you to fail anyone, give them a D and leave it at that. It's futile trying to fight the system. Just make sure you can defend your grade with written proof from your grade book.

By Jim, Thailand (18th October 2017)

For one essay assignment I gave about 20 kids (of 225) zero marks for direct plagiarism from the internet. There were some interesting conversations. M4 & M6 level.

By Tim, Thailand (18th October 2017)

I can say I see the opposite here in Florida, we sit students for exams they have NO chance of passing. Over, and over, and over. I'm talking migrant kids who barely know a lick of English and are expected to take grade-level exams. I've learned that while there was some nonsense in Thailand regarding tests, it certainly isn't the only place!

By Aaron, Florida (18th October 2017)

Post your comment

Comments are moderated and will not appear instantly.

Featured Jobs

NES or European Teachers

฿34,000+ / month


Fun Native English Teachers

฿44,000+ / month


NES English, Science and Math Teachers

฿42,300+ / month


Kindergarten and Primary Teachers

฿42,000+ / month


Principal and Curriculum Developer

฿60,000+ / month


Short-term English Teachers

฿40,000+ / month


Featured Teachers

  • Ma.

    Filipino, 55 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Crisha

    Filipino, 22 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Renaud

    French, 53 years old. Currently living in France

  • Louisse

    Filipino, 28 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Thomas

    British, 33 years old. Currently living in United Kingdom

  • Kathleen

    Filipino, 24 years old. Currently living in Thailand

The Hot Spot

The dreaded demo

The dreaded demo

Many schools ask for demo lessons before they hire. What should you the teacher be aware of?

Teacher mistakes

Teacher mistakes

What are the most common mistakes that teachers make when they are about to embark on a teaching career in Thailand? We've got them all covered.

The cost of living

The cost of living

How much money does a teacher need to earn in order to survive in Thailand? We analyze the facts.

Need Thailand insurance?

Need Thailand insurance?

Have a question about health or travel insurance in Thailand? Ricky Batten from Pacific Prime is Ajarn's resident expert.

The Region Guides

The Region Guides

Fancy working in Thailand but not in Bangkok? Our region guides are written by teachers who actually live and work in the provinces.

Will I find work in Thailand?

Will I find work in Thailand?

It's one of the most common questions we get e-mailed to us. So find out exactly where you stand.

Air your views

Air your views

Got something to say on the topic of teaching, working or living in Thailand? The Ajarn Postbox is the place. Send us your letters!

Contributions welcome

Contributions welcome

If you like visiting and reading the content, why not get involved yourself and keep us up to date?