This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle and with the author’s approval.
How can you make sure your online students take tests without cheating? It’s one of the most-frequent questions asked by new online instructors and even some experienced ones. The short answer: You can’t.
You might be tempted to join the “arms race” in cheating-prevention tools, or to adopt punitive approaches such as proctored online exams and time limits for online tests. But the reality is, students will always find new and creative ways to get around your policing efforts. So what to do?
I’m not in favor of punitive approaches (though I recognize that proctored tests may be required in some STEM disciplines). Another school of thought is ungrading. Many passionate, committed, and caring educators advocate not grading student work and instead rely on self-assessments and peer assessments. While I respect their approach, I am not in that camp, either.
As a veteran online instructor writing this series on effective online teaching, I’ve found it’s nigh impossible to create a cheat-proof online test. Instead, I recommend something both simpler and more effective: Assume that every online quiz or test you give is open-book and open-note (or, for the tech-savvy, open-Chegg and open-Discord). Students tend to cheat when the stakes of a course are high and they feel pressured to do well — for example, when their grade is based solely on a midterm and a final exam. What follows are seven of my tried-and-true ways to both meaningfully assess student learning and foster academic integrity.
Ratchet Down the Pressure
Break up a big high-stakes exam into small weekly tests. Students are under a lot of pressure to do well on an exam that accounts for a third or a half of their grade. Instead, lessen that pressure—and thus the urge to cheat—by giving them a series of weekly tests that equal the weight of the high-stakes exam. The weekly tests should be just as rigorous, but if students bomb on one or two of them, all is not lost. It is possible to recover from a low score on one of 14 short tests.
Pair that strategy with a deliberate system to reach out to students who performed poorly on a weekly test. Offer extra help via tutoring services or office hours. Students who feel supported in their learning are less likely to cheat.
Skeptics might object that students may still be tempted to cheat by, for example, paying someone else to take their weekly tests. But arranging that actually takes a lot of work, not to mention money. Lower the pressure, and students are far more likely to take the tests without cheating.