The transition into online learning has been a positive move for many academic institutions, allowing them to expand their student base and further their reach – but that’s not to say that there haven’t been any challenges.
Gone are the days where students had to sit in a lecture hall under your watchful eye, making sure that everything was above board. There will always be the odd student who tries their luck by cheating in their exam and online environments have made room for a new brand of sneaky creativity.
So, how can you actively prevent cheating in online learning? Here are some considerations and pointers that will guide you along the way!
How does online cheating differ from in-person cheating?
Cheating (bending or breaking pre-existing rules) isn’t a novel concept, so it can naturally occur in almost any type of environment. From an academic perspective, violating the rules of assessment is something that educators see in both online and in-person environments. But online test settings are definitely more cheating-friendly because there isn’t a proctor walking between the desks and the lines of expected conduct are often less clear in an online space (although you can rectify that – as we will discuss). This can cause a drop in the level of accountability because certain elements may be allowed in an online exam but not in-person.
For instance, it is highly unlikely that students would be allowed to have their laptops with them if they were in a hall writing a test. A student who wouldn’t dream of cheating in the traditional sense (like sneaking in crib notes) may see it as less of a risk and ethical infringement to subtly open Google during their online assessment.
A new testing environment therefore calls for new tactics to curb these temptations. Luckily, rapidly developing technology has brought us some innovative software to help in this regard.
There are three main groups of software that make online cheating more difficult to carry out. The first is online proctoring software. This software will monitor the student’s computer throughout the exam, including the desktop, webcam video and audio. It may also include a request for a video sweep of the room – recording each part of the student’s environment to ensure that there aren’t any notes, textbooks or other people in the room with them. Examples of online proctoring software include Examity, Proctorio and Honorlock in which students and their computer screens are recorded. Faculty members can then watch the videos afterwards to determine if cheating occurred. Online proctoring can also promote mental ethical barriers because students know that they’re being watched. This is one of the ways that an app could be the replacement for a human proctor and has scalability benefits.
You can also use a lockdown browser, which is effectively an internet browser that students download and use to complete the assessment. Throughout the test, it will lock all of the other apps on the student’s computer, as well as access to other web pages. This ensures that students can only use their computer to complete the exam – but it isn’t a panacea and won’t eradicate all opportunities to cheat. Ideally, lockdown browsers should supplement other preventative measures instead of being the only employed strategy.
Lastly, you can utilise plagiarism software like Turnitin, SafeAssign and CopyLeaks. This software is often used to ensure that assignments haven’t been plagiarised and that they contain enough original content. However, they work just as well when checking if students have copied answers from each other. If a student answers an open text question in the exact same words as another student, they will likely have cheated.
As much as these types of software can help combat online cheating, they also need to be carefully considered so that you use them appropriately. Academic integrity is a large priority, but you also need to contemplate how these methods impact the students’ privacy. Some proctoring situations can potentially infringe on their privacy because it can be seen as invasive or intrusive. They might not be fully comfortable showing you their home and a sudden request for a video sweep or proctoring could send them into a panic. For this reason, you should declare any of these methods upfront so that they have the chance to agree to them beforehand and prepare.
Another top tip that uses prior declaration is an activity to raise awareness about the academic integrity policies. We’re all guilty of ticking the box that says we agree to policies without taking the time to carefully read through them and students will often do the same with policies against cheating.
You can produce a disclaimer video of a lecturer or staff member explaining the exact rules related to taking exams. They can discuss elements such as what constitutes cheating, items or devices that aren’t allowed in the room, and the behaviour they expect from students during the exam session.
This is also an opportunity to specify what the consequences of cheating are. It might seem like a quick and easy route to getting your qualification until you hear about fines, expulsion or other punitive measures.
You can also use this video to explain what will happen if something unexpected occurs, like a student losing connectivity during the exam. You don’t want students to feel like they’re being policed though, so keep it creative and engaging to watch.
To make sure that they understand and remember these rules and consequences, you can add an interactive quiz after they’ve watched the video. This is a neat way to make sure that they know what is expected of them and avoid any hurdles down the road if they claim they weren’t aware of the rules. It also promotes those mental ethical barriers because they’ll have this information fresh in their minds as they complete the assessment.
Opportunities for collaboration
We all know how online learning has the potential to make students feel like they’re alone in their course. This may be alleviated by providing enough opportunities for students to work together in non-exam contexts. It also means that you can specify which assessments are meant as group work and those that they need to complete on their own. If a student does end up cheating in an exam, you can rest assured that they weren’t simply yearning for interaction in an inappropriate context because they would have other chances to collaborate with their peers.
Another effective technique that prevents online cheating involves the format and design of the assessment itself. You can probably imagine how simple it could be to cheat if all of the students were answering the same multiple choice questions at the same time and in the same order.
One deterrent is to create a randomised question bank. This means that you’ll have an abundance of questions and students will receive a random set in a random order. The result is that not all the students will receive the same questions and not in the same order. Additionally, you could restrict navigation between questions. This means that, once they’ve answered the first question and moved to the second, they can’t return to edit their answer.
Another option is to time the quizzes that students must complete. When an assessment uses a timer, students won’t have the luxury of being able to consult external material or contact a peer for their advice. They’ll automatically feel the pressure to focus on answering the questions in front of them without wasting time looking for answers. If you use a timer in conjunction with a randomised question bank, this makes it even harder for students to collaborate.
Of course, a multiple choice question is the easiest for students to copy and brings the most difficulty for faculty members to detect cheating. Higher-order questions are much more appropriate in this sense because you’re asking students to apply prior knowledge to new scenarios, such as problem-solving questions. They’ll need to write their original take on the question and it would be very difficult to cheat, partly because it’s not a fact that they can look up online and because it requires them to use theory that they’ve learnt beforehand. Naturally, this is only appropriate if you’ve scaffolded their learning and have already assessed competency at lower outcome levels.
As the content provider or teacher, you need to ensure that you change the assessments each semester. This entails following the evaluation phase of the ADDIE cycle frequently and generate entirely new exams for each batch of students. It can be all too easy for someone to get hold of past exam papers and, if your exams are still the same, they’ll have the answers before they even begin.
Additionally, ensure that you set an alternative exam paper for students who may have been sick, absent or need to retake the exam for some other reason.
You can take great leaps in ensuring academic integrity by implementing several of these strategies in concert. The ultimate goal that education aims to achieve is instilling knowledge and skills in our workforce. Cheating can stand in the way of that ultimate educational goal if it isn’t identified, meaning that individuals could qualify without having achieved this goal.
While preventative measures might seem like an action against students, it’s actually for them. They’ll gain so much more from their studies if they know what is expected from them and have clear parameters. We can promote their self-confidence by positively explaining how they’re capable of qualifying with only themselves to rely on. We must encourage students to take their ethics into their assessments with them and achieve greatness purely through their own innate skills.
ProctorExam. (no date). 6 Simple Strategies To Prevent Cheating In Online Exams [online]. Accessed 17 June 2022.
Smith Budhai, S. (2020). Fourteen Simple Strategies to Reduce Cheating on Online Examinations | Faculty Focus [online]. Accessed 17 June 2022.
University of the People. (no date). What Is A Proctored Exam And How Does It Work? [online]. Accessed 17 June 2022.