Academic Honesty in the Online Environment

By Michelle Everson / March 2011

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I would be willing to bet I'm not the only online instructor who has received the following question from traditional classroom teachers: "How can you be sure students are not cheating?" There seems to be a common sentiment that online courses open up the door for students to become more mischievous and dishonest than they ever would dare in a more traditional classroom setting, but why is that the case? Do we naturally assume if we cannot see students as they complete an exam, then they are sharing answers or having someone else take their exam? Do we automatically worry that students will work together and help each other out when they should be working independently? Do we fear that if we are not policing what students are doing then we can never be truly confident that the exams actually measure their understanding of the concepts and ideas we hope they will master in our courses? Honestly, any time you have students work on an assignment or assessment outside of the classroom, you are never going to be 100 percent confident that the work they turn in is their own.

But let's think about the more traditional teaching environmentÂ… How often do we ask our students to complete assignments outside of class, which we expect them to work on independently? Do we assume these students will "cheat" on these assignments? When I am asked if I worry about cheating, I often want to ask the traditional classroom teacher if he or she is worried that his or her students will cheat on in-class exams. Can he or she know for sure—even when students are in direct eyesight as they work through an exam—that nothing improper is happening? And what about the instructor who gives take-home exams? How are these any different from the kinds of exams that students in an online course might take?

This has been on my mind largely because I've been thinking about my own online assessment practices and whether they should change. When trying to get advice from others in the distance education community, I have found that there are many different ideas and viewpoints when it comes to the optimal way to administer exams in online courses. My purpose here is not to point to one idea as being better than another, because I honestly don't know what the best solution is (if such a thing really exists). By chronicling some of my own struggles, I hope to try to figure out the best way to administer exams to my online students.

When I first started teaching online, nobody spoke to me about the possibility of using proctored exams in my courses, or using some kind of proctoring service as part of the assessment process. The first online course I developed was an introductory statistics course. At the time the online course developer, who helped me create the course, showed me how I could set up exams within the course management system. We talked about a variety of issues related to assessment (e.g., when exams should be available to students, how much time students should have to work through exams, whether the order of questions on exams should be randomized for each student, what types of questions should be included on exams, etc.). We took it for granted that students would do everything online, including exams. We wanted to provide an option for those students who could not—for whatever reason—take the course in a more traditional setting. I didn't anticipate any problems, because not only was it a graduate-level course, I also knew of several colleagues who gave take-home exams. I considered each of my exams to be just like a miniature take-home exam. I offered four exams—roughly one every four weeks—which were not "high stakes." Actually, many other assignments ended up factoring into students' grades along with the exams.

After much thought, it was decided that students would have a short window of time—from Friday afternoon to Monday afternoon—to take each exam. Once they opened the exam, they would have to complete the exam in one sitting, within a specific amount of time. Although I originally tried to use multiple-choice questions on the exams to ease the grading burden, I soon became very dissatisfied. I wanted to know more about why students were missing particular items, and I wanted to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to explain their reasoning.

Now in my exams, most questions are short-answer questions. Because some questions tend to build on others, each student gets the same order of questions. Given that there are many other opportunities for students to explain their understanding of different concepts and ideas in the class (e.g. via discussion assignments), I have something to compare each student's work to as I am grading exams. This can make it easy to spot instances where a student might have copied from someone else or had someone else write an answer for him or her. This has been my method of administering online exams for several years, and, for the most part, I feel it's been successful. Yes, there have been some occasions when I've questioned whether students are cheating, but not so many that I worry cheating is much more prevalent in the online environment. Scores on each exam tend to be variable and tend to mirror what we see in a traditional classroom setting using similar types of exams.

Despite this, I constantly feel the need to defend how I structure my online exams. Could I have each exam proctored in a testing center of some kind? Yes, I could arrange this, but it would be a challenge, especially since it's not uncommon to have students who live out-of-state or even in other countries taking my course. Could the students be responsible for finding proctors who will monitor them as they take the exam? I'm sure this too could be arranged, but, again, because the tests are not "high stakes," I find myself wondering if it's worth doing. I also worry—perhaps unnecessarily—of creating an atmosphere of distrust in my online course. If we tell students from the get-go that we want to monitor their every move when they are taking tests to make sure they are behaving ethically, we may do more harm than good. Of course, I want to protect the integrity of those students who do their own independent work when asked and punish the students who break the rules, but why does it seem like the only way to do this involves the assumption of cheating?

One thing I started doing several years ago was having students pledge "academic honesty." Before the first exam, I send students a message requiring them to acknowledge receipt before taking the first exam. I outline the official university academic honesty policy, and I ask my students to acknowledge that they understand the exam should be completed independently. Of course, the student who really wants to cheat will do so regardless of agreeing to the policy. However, I hope making students more aware of the consequences of cheating it will go a long way toward preventing unethical behavior.

So, what makes a "good" online exam? Does it have to be proctored in order for us to be confident with the results? I'm still not sure. As I write this, I recall one instructor who mentioned a situation in which students had to show their IDs when taking an exam in a proctored environment. It was discovered that a student attempted to impersonate another. There was another instructor who told me she used to have in-class exams, but then decided to move exams to the online environment because students were sitting too close together in the classroom, which created an atmosphere for cheating to more easily occur.

Perhaps the key for all of us—regardless of where and how we teach our course—is to really rethink just what assessment means, because no matter where the class takes place, someone who wants to behave in a dishonest way will probably figure out how to do so.

About the Author

Dr. Michelle Everson is a lecturer in the Quantitative Methods of Education track within the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. She has been teaching online for six years and teaches introductory and intermediate statistics courses, in addition to a course called "Becoming a Teacher of Statistics." In 2009, she received a Distinguished Teaching award from the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. She is the editor of resources for the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education, and the statistics editor for MERLOT.



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