Online Pedagogy: Maintaining Integrity in Online Assessments

Instructors who are new to online tests are often concerned about maintaining the integrity of the exam experience in ways that are comparable to a face-to-face experience.  The truth is that experienced online instructors are also concerned about exam integrity but they have devoted time toward designing their exams so that the chances of student cheating are greatly minimized.  No technological solution is foolproof, and relying on technology without also considering assessment design will leave you with a false sense of security as well as a less-effective exam.

This page discusses strategies you can use for communicating the importance of academic honesty to your students. It also contains practical steps you can take to reduce opportunities for students to compromise the integrity of an online exam.

Assessment Design in Your Course

1. Create a culture of academic honesty
Most course syllabi contain a statement about cheating or academic honesty, but that message can always be reiterated before an exam.  Talk about it!  Explain to your students the value of them doing their own work both for the current course and for future courses which may rely on demonstrated mastery of concepts being presented in the current course.  As the instructor, you have a right to certain expectations around exam integrity - don't be afraid to state them.

2. Rebalance low-stakes vs. high-stakes assessments
Students sometimes consider cheating when they feel desperate to avoid a poor grade, especially one that will have a significant effect on the overall grade.  So, avoid designing the assessment structure for the course around a few high-stakes assessments only (e.g. midterm, final, and research paper).  This is refered to as a "catastrophic" assessment design where poor performance on any single high-stakes assessment will have a severe consequence on the student's course grade.

Instead, rebalance things and consider building in many opportunities for the students to demonstrate mastery of the course materials and learning objectives, where each one individually is low-stakes.  Create short assessments to go along with each lecture video, for example.  When students have more opportunities for assessment throughout the course, they are less inclined to cheat because the individual assessments count for less of the overall grade.

3. Provide more than one attempt
If a student answers a question incorrectly on your test, how do you help them learn that content so that it's not left behind?  Limiting students to a single attempt on an assessment can also be a kind of catastrophic design.  Conversely, providing ways for students to correct their mistakes on tests helps them learn the content and achieve the course learning goals, but it also reduces the temptation to engage in dishonest behavior.  Examples of corrective opportunities can include building a secondary assessment that focusses on just the areas not mastered in the first assessment, a synchronous conference (5 min.) where the student follows up on any answer that needs correcting or clarifying, as well as a full second attempt at the original assessment.  In second attempts, consider reporting the average of the attempts as the final score.  Lastly, questions in online tests often have space for instructors to provide feedback and/or hints in the case of incorrect answers.  Use that feature to help students through the assessment.

Technological Approaches for Exam Integrity

1. Show a statement regarding academic honesty and test integrity
In this case, an additional item is created in the course web site that students must view and agree to before the link to the exam becomes available.

2. Set a time limit
Time limits should be short enough to keep the student focussed on the exam while not being so tight as to cause undue anxiety or potentially penalize the student due to network outages.  Remember: reading and writing take longer in an online setting, so the time limits you may have used in a face-to-face setting will need to be lengthened by 10-20% for the online experience.  In all LMSs, the exam timer does not stop counting down once the student begins an exam even if the student quits the browser and returns later.  To enforce the time limit, tell the LMS to close the attempt once the timer has expired.

3. Create pools of questions
Regardless of the type of question your exam asks (e.g., multiple choice, essay, etc.), a pool enables you to show each student a different set of questions from their peers.  Multiple pools can be created to categorize questions and then each question can be selected for potential use in an exam.  Using pools is especially recommended if your exams rely on multiple choice or other objective question types.  Pools should contain at least 20-30% more questions than the number that will be shown to each student.

4. Randomize exam questions and answer choices
Where possible, randomize the order of questions in the exam.  This is especially important if you are not using question pools.  Answer choices in objective questions should be randomized as well.  Indeed, rethink any multiple choice questions whose correct answer is similar to "All of the above" - create those as multiple answer questions instead, where the student has to indicate each correct answer.

5. Provide limited feedback until the exam closes
What do you want the student to see after they complete the exam attempt?  This is a question that is not at all relevant in a face-to-face exam, but is very important in an online exam.  Because students will take the exam at different starting points during the availability window, you should limit what the student will see after their attempt.  The LMS can display different exam information at different stages of the exam window.  Obviously, do not let them see the correct answers while the test remains open.  However, it is usually safe to let them see their overall score and to see their own submitted answers, and even to see which questions were incorrect (without revealing the correct answers).

Note: All of the main LMS tools at Stan State have robust exam settings that can be used to reasonably protect online exam integrity without the need for personal monitoring or lockdown browsers.  There are specific instances where those things may be warranted, but they should not be the default approach to all online exams.

FAQ

What does the educational research say about cheating in online courses?
The research says students do not perceive the online experience as any more advantageous for cheating than the face-to-face experience.  Cheating is most often an act of desperation by individual students in individual situations.

Can I set up the exam so all students take it at the same time?
Technically this is possible, but it is not recommended, necessary, or normal in an online course.  Providing students with a wider window (at least 6 hours; ideally 12 or more) in which to start the exam reduces both student anxiety and the possibility of technical glitches without diminishing exam integrity.  The technical suggestions outlined above will suffice to protect the exam during the window in the great majority of situations.

Wouldn't personal monitoring stop a student from taking a picture of their exam and sharing it around?
Not in a technical sense (the student could still figure out a way to beat the monitoring).  It may disuade a student from taking the picture, but it would require all students -- including those who have no intention of cheating -- to submit to monitoring as a defense against a largely potential threat.  Is that the kind of class culture you wish to create?

How do I protect my exam questions from being made available offline?
First, ask yourself whether the questions really need protection.  Are they simple objective questions that can be guessed correctly?  If so, consider more "authentic" assessments, such as requiring short bits of expository writing and/or creativity.  Second, there is no technological way to prevent that situation, but it can be mitigated against using the ideas discussed on this page.