Proctoring and anti-cheating measures during online examinations

Posted by Greten on 17 Nov 2020 under Thoughts, Tips

When the Wuhan virus pandemic (COVID19) struck, many of our daily activities shifted online. Companies sent employees to work from home whenever possible, and students are spending more time or all of their school time in online classes.

With the shift to online classes, another concern that teachers need to fix is cheating. With the students being in different locations, cheating seems to be easier. You can see your students through a camera, but they can control what part of their environment you can see.

The possibility of cheating is probably among the reasons why employee training and professional development are the early adopters of elearning. Since employees are measured based on their work performance and not on examinations that come with the elearning, they have no motivation to cheat on tests. On the other hand, students are evaluated using quizzes and exams with real-life consequences, such as whether they obtain admission to top-performing colleges or get their first job.

So I scoured the internet and asked some teachers in my social circles how to facilitate quizzes and examinations online and what anti-cheating measures they put in place. I also have second-hand experience through my son, who is enrolled in this academic year.

Big Brother approach

In this scenario, the teacher tries to replicate the onsite proctoring practices by telling the learners to always turn-on their cameras and microphones. The aim is to observe what the students are doing and check if someone is coaching them.

Cartoon face of a stern-looking teacher with short hair and glasses together with text Big Teacher is Watching You.I call this the "Big Brother" approach not to invoke an image of a teacher as an older sibling guiding their students. Instead, this online proctoring method invokes an Orwellian police state like the one ruled by a dictator called Big Brother. You can also compare this method to a reality show where people are confined in a house and with television viewers watching them through a series of cameras and microphones.

Why Big Brother online proctoring does not work?

Subjecting your students to extreme surveillance does not work against cheating for the following reasons:

  • Students who are sufficiently determined to cheat will find ways to cheat. For example, they can place their cheating notes (colloquially called "kodigo" in Filipino) behind the camera or on the floor. Their head movements are still typical of someone taking an exam.
  • Some students have weak internet connections. If the exam is conducted through an LMS or other online means, it's better to use the bandwidth to transmit the exam than to observe students.
  • Requiring students to keep their cameras and microphones on while observing them creates stress in both the students and the teachers whenever the internet connection weakens or lags. The student will worry that the teacher might scold them for the times they are missing in the camera or accuse them of cheating. Stress is one of the main reasons that drive students to cheat, and thus the surveillance defeats its purpose.

If you are conducting online assessments, you are conducting online assessments. You're not conducting traditional classroom assessments with the webcams and microphones as your eyes and ears.

Honor system approach

Opposite of the Big Brother approach is the honor system approach. The honor system tries to prevent cheating by trusting the student not to cheat. There is a precedence in the honor system in some universities, even in traditional classroom examinations; either there is no proctor, or the proctor's job is limited to distributing and collecting exam papers.

Other academic works also use the honor system, such as thesis and research publications. The students and researchers are prevented from plagiarizing by trusting that they will not plagiarize.

Three wise monkey: one covering eyes, one covering ears, and one covering mouth. Each of them has graduation cap.

In online learning, the cameras may or may not be switched on, but you do not observe your students all the time. You give them directions on working on the exam and remind them that you trust them to do their work honestly.

How to make the honor system work?

The point of the honor system is that you trust your students not to cheat. Thus, making the students follow the honor system is more on convincing the students to do the right thing in their own free will.

  • Appeal to the students to do what is right and just, not just what's in their best interest.
  • Appeal that not cheating is also in their best interest by stressing the importance of real learning instead of just getting high grades.
  • Some schools have students sign an honor pledge. It's a document where they pledge that they will not cheat, plagiarize, or do other dishonest work in their studies. Should a student cheat, the school could punish them more severely for violating two things: the rules against academic dishonesty and their honor pledge.

Why the honor system might not work?

The honor system can work only if the students already have an innate sense of honesty, and cheating is only a last resort that they will do if they are desperate. For example, they already flunked the previous exams, and this is their last chance to pass or have helicopter parents who pressure them into obtaining high grades at all times.

However, students who are serial cheaters and did not form any conscience to prevent them from cheating are likely to game the honor system for their end. The signed pledge can serve as a deterrent, but if the chances of being caught are small, those who want to cheat will think of it as a worthy gamble.

Open-notes approach

An open-notes examination aims to measure what the students understand instead of what the students know. Instead of measuring what the students remember, open-notes examinations focus on higher-order thinking skills: understanding, application, analysis, and evaluation.

Why the open-notes approach works?

In my opinion, the open-notes approach is the best way of facilitating online examinations.

  • The students are in their own environment, and they can find ways to access their notes. Instead of trying to stop cheating by catching those who open notes, let everyone open their notes to even the playing field.
  • It's easy to revise objective-type exam questions into higher-order thinking questions. For example, instead of asking, "What is the measure of hotness or coldness that is proportional to the average kinetic energy of the particles in a system?" ask instead, "In your own words, define temperature." The important part here is "In your own words", meaning, the students cannot just copy from the book and cannot just memorize it either. The downside here is that the teacher must now use rubrics to grade.
  • Remove all objective-type questions from the examination and move them to graded recitation. Instead of having the students answer all the questions, have them answer one, two, or three randomly picked items.

An open notebook with three highlighter pens, and with highlights on one side.

Possible downsides of open-notes approach

The open-notes approach is the best for online classes, but it has downsides that affect the teacher more than the students.

  • You need to rely more on rubrics in grading. Writing rubrics and using them to grade takes more time.
  • For some subjects, like math, it's very easy to make higher-order test questions. If a problem is used as an example in the notes or the book, you can substitute other numbers. However, other subjects, like history, are more oriented towards memorization of details.

Hybrid online proctoring approach

There's no reason to stick to just one online proctoring approach. You can combine different approaches without any of them being your main approach.

  • Ask the students to turn on the camera or the microphone but not both. If you cannot see or hear them because of slow internet connections, understand the situation and not stress your students and yourself. Microphones and cameras are deterrents, not absolute defenses against cheating.
  • Redesign your exam so that the objective-type recall items are only up to twenty or twenty-five percent of the total score. Hence, cheating by looking at notes will not have a significant impact on the overall score.
  • Encourage a sense of honor and honesty. You will be able to sway some, but not all, not to cheat. Those who are still inclined to cheat should be discouraged by the microphones or cameras or have the benefits of the cheating mitigated by reduced objective type quiz items.

Traditional proctoring methods do not work in online classes, and attempts to facilitate online examination to be as close as possible to traditional proctoring will fail. You can innovate your proctoring approach by obtaining ideas from existing elearning courses and combining them with other proctoring and assessment design approaches.

Last updated on 17 Nov 2020.

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