Shpargalka (Russia)

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Shpargalka
Location: Russia
Russia map.png
Author: Elena Denisova-Schmidt
Affiliation: University of St Gallen

Original text: Elena Denisova-Schmidt, University of St Gallen

Shpargalka (shpora) (English: crib sheet or pony, German: Spickzettel) are unauthorized materials used by students during tests and exams at school, university and other educational institutions. They may be divided into traditional and innovative (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Traditional and innovative ponies.

A traditional shpargalka is a handwritten or typed sheet of paper that is small enough to be hidden in the palm of the hand, up a sleeve or in a pocket, and that can be used surreptitiously during exams. This is not easy to do, however: one needs snorovka (dexterity) – a particular kind of social skill in itself.

Students do not even need to produce their own shpargalki: paper shpargalki can be purchased in almost every bookshop and online. Many books or booklets can be cut up and used during exams (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Figure 2: Paper shpargalki for Russian History, Marketing and Higher Mathematics (www.ozon.ru)

The spread of mobile phones, smartphones and other devices has created new opportunities. Answers to likely exam questions, complex formulas and even entire essays can be uploaded onto a mobile device prior to the examination. Students only have to find a way of using their device without being detected. Then, they can send a text message to an ‘assistant,’ who will in turn dictate the correct answer via an earpiece hidden in the student’s hair.

Some students may adapt their bodies for cheating: their nails, hands or legs might be inscribed with formulas, data and other important information. Female students may have an advantage here. This kind of body art is exotic, however. In spite of technical progress, paper shpargalki remain the most popular form of cheating among Russian students.

Figure 3: Pony from Germany (1969). Schulgeschichtliche Sammlung der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Foto: Pöhlein, Erlangen. Reproduced with permission.

As with other academic cheating techniques, the reaction of the professors is crucial. Do they notice it or not? Or do they pretend not to notice? As often as not, professors see all the traditional as well as the innovative and exotic cheating tools used during exams. Their reactions may differ, however: they may or may not act on what they have seen. If a professor picks up on a case of cheating, they might lower the student’s mark and/or set additional questions. The reasons for ignoring cheating vary: if a student worked very hard during a semester and attended all the lectures, this small ‘sin’ may be forgiven. Some professors may even judge ‘self-made’ shpargalki positively, arguing that, by summarising the course materials, the student has critically reflected on the topic.

Figure 4: Pony from Jordan (present day). Schulgeschichtliche Sammlung der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Foto: Pöhlein, Erlangen. Reproduced with permission.

The Russian educational system is still oriented more toward providing knowledge than fostering competencies. This trend forces students to memorize a lot of information without critically reflecting on it. In addition, students often justify their use of shpargalki in classes that they consider ‘unnecessary.’ Science students, for example, are also required to study philosophy and sociology, while literature students must pass exams in mathematics and ecology. Knowledge of these disciplines is by no means essential to working in their chosen professions; as a result, students usually consider such courses superfluous.

Using shpargalki during exams is also seen as less reprehensible by students who lack time to study, such as zaochniki (part-time students), who are usually adults with families and full-time jobs. They might not secure promotion without a higher education qualification, even though this is often viewed as a merely formal requirement. At the same time, many students believe that using shpargalki is immoral, and may not be proud of themselves for passing exams in such a way.

Figure 5: Pony from Poland (present day). Schulgeschichtliche Sammlung der Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Foto: Pöhlein, Erlangen. Reproduced with permission.

The use of shpargalki is widespread in Russia; many young Russians learn how to do so at school and perfect the skill during their time at university. Shpargalki are, however, violations of academic integrity linked to plagiarism, ghost-writing, manipulation of accreditation, degree-mills and other forms of monetary and non-monetary corruption in academia. Sometimes students use shpargalki because they find it hard to study to such a high level. At the same time, they feel compelled to enter higher education because it is seen as the only way to secure a professional future. About 80 per cent of young Russians enrol in some form of higher education, and almost all of them complete their studies within the allotted time-frame. One reason why students feel pressured to act in this way is the lack of social acceptance both of vocational education and of blue-collar employment.

Ponies have a long history and tradition not only in Russia, but also in other countries. In 2009, the School Museum in Nürnberg in Germany organised an exhibition of around a thousand ponies from the past 100 years. The exhibits came from all over the world and were displayed together with students’ success stories about their use of ponies. One such story was by Germany’s first post-war chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967). In 2014, a similar exhibition opened in Russia’s Ekaterinburg, showcasing more than 80 items dating back to the 1980s. One of the exhibits was a 100 ruble banknote with math formulas written on it. This was a pony no teacher would have dared to confiscate, given the potential risk of being accused of having extorted a bribe!

Further reading

Denisova-Schmidt, E. 2013. Justification of Academic Corruption at Russian Universities: A Student Perspective. Edmond J. Safra Working Papers, No 30. Available at Social Science Research Network, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2353513 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2353513
Denisova-Schmidt, E., Huber, M. and Leontyeva, E. 2015. ‘On the Development of Students’ Attitudes towards Corruption and Cheating in Russian Universities,’ Journal of Academic Ethics, forthcoming
Spickexperte Dr. Mathias Roesch. 2014. Video recording. TV Total, Germany, 9 October, http://tvtotal.prosieben.de/videos/Spickexperte-Dr-Mathias-Roesch--/19701/
Vystavka Shpargalok Porazhaet Voobrazhenie. 2014. Video recording. Rossiya 24, Russia, 11 April, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoeSfdjnaGY
Professor-Lopukh: V Ekaterinenburge Otkrylas' Vystavka Shpargalok. 2013. Video recording. Rossiya 24, Russia, 24 May, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJ7oThP-ojU