How to prevent cheating in online assessments

One of the most common concerns regarding online assessment and evaluation is the idea that the students can cheat more easily. This self-interview style post will cover strategies to protect academic integrity in and beyond online exams.

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The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education is undeniable large. Many educational institutions will embrace a form of a blended (if not completely online) educational approach in the upcoming semester.  As an unavoidable component of online education, there are questions and concerns regarding security of online assessment and evaluation processes. 

Questions such as:

Can I prevent cheating in online exams?

Well. The short answer is no, at least not completely. Although there are some strategies to be embraced to reduce the possibility of cheating, it is not entirely possible to prevent a determined student from cheating.

Hey, I thought this post was going to teach me how to prevent cheating completely.

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you.

It is OK, I guess. Can you at least tell me about the strategies I can utilize to reduce cheating?

Independent from being online or not, the most valid strategy against cheating is  to focus on the root causes driving learners to cheat (instead of focusing on the act of cheating). Even though this cause may depend on the culture of the university and of the country, there are some common elements. Anxiety and pressure of success may lead the learners to choose a more unethical way to overcome the obstacles they face instead of a more stressful one. 

So, what can I do to reduce learner anxiety?

The most important factor is communication. Learners feel anxious when they are not sure what to expect and when there is an uncontrollable risk of failure causing them to feel helpless. Therefore, explaining your educational approach, the techniques you are going to embrace during the semester, what is expected from them and how they are going to be assessed will reduce their unprofessional tendencies. You should explain all components of your syllabus in a very detailed way, ideally at your first lecture. You should avoid surprising your learners with last-minute changes or unannounced activities. 

During the semester you should be in direct contact with the learners giving feedback and receiving feedback from them. Make sure that they have enough time to prepare themselves for assessments. Try to boost their confidence (to a reasonable level) via Q&As, discussion sessions and quizzes (that does not affect their final grade).

Many universities possess an "Academic Integrity Pledge" or a similar document (Honor Pledge, Academic Integrity Code, etc.). With or without the help of such a document, you should talk to your class about academic integrity, emphasizing its importance for their professional career.  Understanding that the cheating is not beneficial for them on the long term may discourage some. This talk should also include academic consequences and other ramifications of the act of cheating (and plagiarism). However try to avoid making "punishment after getting caught" sole focus of your talk as it emphasizes getting caught. 

Wait a minute. I came here to learn about preventing cheating in online exams but you tricked me into reading some general educational advices. 

You got me. These are all good recommendations though. 

Can we please move on to online exams?

Sure. First, you can design your assessment in a cheat-unfriendly way. Then, there are exam settings you can fine tune and finally there are supplementary software you can utilize to further reduce the possibility of cheating. However please keep in mind that every measure you take has the potential to increase learner anxiety. Therefore, you should choose wisely what to utilize and let the learners know about all the measures implemented. Balance and communication are the keys here. 

How should I design the assessments in a way to reduce cheating?

Note that some features may not be available in your LMS. However, many of these are common in the most commonly used LMSs (like Blackboard and Moodle).

  • Know your way around the software your institution use. Receive training if necessary.
  • Try to diversify the assessment methods you will use in a course. 
  • Include short-answer questions to multiple-choice heavy exams.
  • Make sure the learners understand what you assess and how.
  • Limit the time the learners have to complete the exam to a minimum. Be reasonable though. 
  • Make sure that the learners are technically competent to use chosen assessment tool. If necessary, deploy a short unassessed demo exam or assignment.
  • If you have a reasonable number of learners in your class as well as the tools to check for plagiarism, utilize open-book, essay type-questions, and written assignments. Use rubrics to evaluate such questions/assignments. Share these rubrics with the learners beforehand and make sure they understand what is required. 
  • Prefer multiple-answer questions over yes/no questions as well as the multiple choice questions with "none" or "all of the above" choices. 
  • If you have question pools aligned  to course outcomes, you can let the system generate a random test for each of your learners.  However you should be careful about the equivalence of the questions in the same pool regarding what they measure and how difficult they are.  
  • To evaluate skills, you may ask your learners to record videos and upload them as assignments. Use rubrics to evaluate such videos. 

Which exam settings I can modify to reduce cheating?

Note that some settings may not be available for your LMS. However, many of these are common in the most commonly used LMSs (like Blackboard and Moodle).

  • You can set a time limit to the exam and even force learners to submit automatically once the time is over. 
  • You can make questions appear to the learners in a random order. However, this may not be suitable for questions that is supposed to follow one another.
  • You can randomize choices in a multiple-choice question. 
  • You can set the time that the correct answers will be revealed to the learners (instead of them being revealed after submitting). 
  • You can make questions presented one at a time and prohibit going back to previous questions.
  • You can track learner progress real-time. 

What are the supporting software I can use to reduce cheating? 

I am not going to talk about individual apps in detail but instead focus on common aims of such software. However, before I start I must state that implementation of such tools should be an institutional decision and should not be utilized by lecturers without such decision. It is important to note that there are ethical concerns especially regarding protection of personal data and invasion of privacy. 

  1. Browser lockdown: Since many LMSs are browser-based, preventing learners from accessing other websites may be useful in prevention of cheating. Some apps also prevent running software, taking screenshots,  minimizing browser window, printing a page etc. It is also possible to monitor every activity and internet traffic. However there are not many great free options. It is important to note that the protection of personal data and invasion of privacy are of concern while using such tools.
  2. Face-tracking: There are software trying to catch cheaters via face recognition (ie: if they look away from the screen).  This requires a paid software and usefulness of the obtained data is questionable. It may work as a deterring factor but providing face-tracking data as evidence of cheating may not be admissible.
  3. Screen capture: Recording the screen of the learner during the exam. This is relatively easier to perform but the problem is this: who is going to watch the recordings? This is especially problematic if you have numerous learners.
  4. Cameras: Recording the learner, her screen as well as the room she is in via one or multiple cameras. The most common strategy is to utilize the camera of the laptop that the learner use via Zoom or another video conference software. Sometimes use of a secondary camera (occasionally camera of the learners' cell phone) is implemented to record the user from a different angle. Implementing such measures requires written consent from the learner and this works best if the devices are provided by the institution. Relying learners' own equipment and having them record their surroundings may be problematic especially if you have learners from different socio-economical backgrounds.  

Example software: 

Software Platform Browser lockdown Face tracking Camera recording Other
Sumadi Chrome extension NO YES YES Keyboard recording
Respondus Separate software YES YES YES Recording all computer/internet activity 
Certify Assessment Separate software YES YES YES Live proctoring

Any final advice?

  • Talk to your learners. Be honest, fair, clear and concise in your communication. Give and take feedback. Act on the feedback you receive. Remember: anxiety leads to unethical behavior. 
  • Design your course and your assessment according to the educational guides. Good practices are more important than the security measures in preventing cheating.  
  • Know your tools: the LMS as well as the assessment tools provided by the LMS. Know the settings you can modify. Know when to implement security measures and more importantly when not to. 

Ali Burak Özkaya

Assistant Professor Doctor , Izmir University of Economics Faculty of Medicine

Comments

Go to the profile of Ferhan Sagin
about 2 months ago

Burak, this is a wonderful piece with practical advice as well as providing a great insight into the issue.
I loved the way you created it in a reader-friendly version.
Congrats and please keep posting!

Go to the profile of Ali Burak Özkaya
about 2 months ago

Thank you. 

Go to the profile of Mustafa Gul
about 2 months ago

Dear Professor Burak, 

Thank you very much for honestly sharing your suggestions to decrease cheating in online exams. I would like to believe that students can also learn a little bit when they cheat during exams. 

Go to the profile of Ali Burak Özkaya
13 days ago

Thank you.

Go to the profile of Isabel Varela Nieto
14 days ago

Yes indeed! keep posting!

Go to the profile of Ali Burak Özkaya
13 days ago

Thanks