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Cheating in Online Exams: How Do We Prevent It?

01 Dec Rebecca Low 0 Blog
With most of the world’s universities and colleges pulled online in a hurry, there has been something of a scramble to get everything working smoothly. Even when we’ve ironed out the technical hitches that will inevitably crop up, one question still looms for many; how do we prevent cheating in online exams?
Formative testing can be done in a variety of creative ways throughout the course, but summative assessment – particularly traditional exams – has many campus administrators rather worried. Changing how assessments are done isn’t quick or easy. Reputable institutions have to worry about accreditation bodies who, while showing a certain flexibility under the circumstances, have to draw a clear line. Quality and integrity are non negotiable.
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Cheating in online exams – how serious is it?

paper produced by the University of Maryland suggests that students are no more likely to try to cheat in online exams compared to those in the offline world.  However, when we are asking students to self-report whether they cheat or not online, things are not so straightforward.
Kessler International looked into this in 2017, surveying over 300 students to find out what they thought about cheating in general. They found some complicated results:
  • 86% said they cheated at college
  • 54% felt that cheating was OK
  • 97% of students who said they cheated admitted they had never been caught
  • 12% said they would never cheat because its wrong
So what does this mean? It means that we really don’t know exactly how serious the issue is, but we do know that we cannot afford to be relaxed about it. A new generation of tech-aware students are on their way, and education has to be ready to ensure that students can be tested in a fair and valid way. If not, how can institutions reassure us that their qualifications are really worth anything at all?
The solutions proposed range from high-tech to no-tech remedies. With the vast numbers of online students in 2020, companies who can solve these issues will do very well indeed. So what do they propose?

The value of integrity

The University of Akron concluded in research that students will always find a way to cheat in online exams. The solution is strikingly no-tech; teach them about integrity. By making the value of integrity a central focus, and by supporting them to raise awareness of the power of rationalization in ethical decisions, they suspect they can reduce the rate of cheating considerably. In short, they make it much harder to cheat and justify it to yourself.

Randomised questions

For old fashioned exams, there is no real substitute for good software. Any good LMS (Learning Management System) such as Canvas or Blackboard will allow you to randomise question orders for each test taker. It is harder to quickly compare answers when the assessment is done under a time limit. This is perhaps best for less ‘serious’ assessments.

Knowing your students

Teachers will likely have heard of ghost writers, whom students pay to write essays for them. What they may not know is just how prevalent this practice is. In fact, nobody really does. However, it is still a real threat. The best way to combat this is to simply know your students. This means really creating space in your online course to get a sense of how your students engage with the material. Short formative tasks will give you a sense of their style, their knowledge and approach to a task. When it comes to essay or project submission time, you’ll have a better sense of whether or not the work is genuine. If in doubt, schedule an exit interview with them to discuss the work before confirming the grade.
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High-tech solutions

When you want to take online exam security to the limits, e-proctoring is the answer. E-proctoring means authenticating that the person who is supposed to be at the computer taking the test. There are over twenty companies now offering these services worldwide. They range from simple facial recognition to actually video recording the student taking the entire exam. A variety of detection tools can catch a test taker switching to other sites to google the answers, even on their own laptop. For the less Orwellian, Lockdown Browsers are an excellent tool. They prevent the test taker from taking screenshots, printing the test out or switching windows to look at other sites. It may also be ideal for those remote workers who are having trouble focusing on work and staying off social media.

Spoken response

For task types that favour the question and short response format, universities could ask students to record themselves answering verbally. Many language courses already use this technique to assess speaking proficiency. It could work well as long as universities are aware of any Special Educational Needs students may have which may make this challenging. If students can prep notes and re-record once or twice then there will be less of an incentive to give dishonest answers.

Fairness above all else

Cheating will never disappear entirely. Though assessments have to be secure for institutions to claim they are valid, we also need to think about students. If they feel that others find it easy to cheat, the levels of stress and frustration will be hugely  damaging. Why should they work hard while others coast along and get results through dishonesty?  For the new online education paradigm to truly work, it has to be fair and secure, and that might just take a little more time. What institutions do well will set the bar for how we view online learning as a community. We have to get this right, for everyone’s sake.