Reducing Cheating In Online Classes: Preventing Robbery On The Information Highway

by Julie “Jules” Troyer Ph.D.

“I don’t know what your talking about Professor, I wasn’t cheating. I just cut and pasted the answers from a student who took the class last semester.”

The rise of online education opportunities has brought the question of how rampant cheating in online classes is to the forefront of institutional discussions. A recent study by Watson and Sotille (2010) with 635 undergraduate and graduate students specifically tested to see whether students in online courses were more apt to cheat than students in face to face courses. The results were surprising; revealing the rate of cheating was actually higher in face to face classes. This; however, does not mean that online educators are safe and the obvious reduction in monitoring in online class environments mandates a maintained rigor in safe-guarding the academic integrity of our online classes. The recent anecdote shared by one of the readers of this website about a friend who bragged he had attained an online degree without ever having participated in any of the classes (he had his wife complete the work for him) prompted a review of methods to reduce cheating and fraud in online courses.

The following are the five biggest areas where cheating or fraud occurs in online courses:
1)      Screen shots of the exam questions or cutting and pasting the questions
2)      Taking the test collaboratively or having one student take the test first and give other students the questions and answers (group tests, texting/calling  answers, etc.)
3)      Turning in someone else’s work as their own
4)      Using a paper writing service
5)      Plagiarizing articles or books.

There are a number of methods for reducing the propensity for cheating, plagiarism, and fraud in online courses; however, the following are some of the most favored by experts.

Use an assessment program that allows for randomization from a test bank. The use of randomization is the biggest and easiest way for educators to reduce the propensity for cheating in an online class. Randomized questions, coupled with the use of a large test bank make each assessment unique and very difficult to cheat.

Use primarily multiple choice items that assess deeper comprehension of the material, such as application questions. Multiple choice items have more options for answers and those answers can be randomized when the assessment is presented to the student. Thus, a test bank can be utilized more comprehensively to prevent cheating.

If a paper is required, use plagiarism services such as Turnitin. There are numerous academic plagiarism checkers such as TurnItIn, the University of Maryland’s Dustball, Ithenticate, Viper, PlagarismChecker.com, Plagirisma.net, and CheckForPlagiarism.net. These services are widely available and are an inexpensive way to check for plagiarism. It is easy to identify if students are cutting and pasting large sections of text, copying from Wikipedia or published articles, or simply using “canned” papers.

Answers to the exam questions should only be made available after all students have completed the exam and only for a limited time, if at all. This, in addition to time limits, on exams is universally disliked by students. Most students like to see what questions they have missed and what the correct answers are. There is a lot of research that suggests this can be very effective in assisting students in mastering the material; however, it makes the assessment process more cumbersome for the instructor. One way of circumventing the tremendous threat to future exam integrity is to only allow the answers to be available after everyone has completed the exam and only for a short window of time. In addition, it is imperative that each question be shown independently and only be on screen for a short time to prevent screen shots from being made. Many online professors do not allow students to view the answers to the questions or even to see which questions they got wrong. There are some serious pedagogical issues surrounding high stakes assessments where students only see the final grade; however, in standardized testing this is the norm and it does keep the item pool more protected.

All online exams should be conducted on a strict time limit. Although students find timed tests uncomfortable, setting a strict time limit reduces the student’s capability to cheat. It also reduces a student’s propensity to simply look answers up in a textbook or in their notes if external materials are able to be used. One minute per question is very lenient, while 45 seconds per question is the guideline to truly implement a recall test.

Questions should not be displayed all at once; they should appear one at a time. This makes taking screen shots or cutting and pasting the questions much more difficult to accomplish and tedious. This is especially true if there is a rigorous time limit on the exam.

Use security measures to ensure it is the student who is signed up for the course that is taking the exams. There is a disturbing trend emerging where people are receiving degrees or credit for classes that others are completing the work for. This type of fraud requires online educators to implement security procedures to ensure the identity of the students taking the assessments. Fingerprint access to classes that uses technology similar to what is being used on the new smartphones is one way of authenticating the identity of the test taker. Another method being popularized is online proctor organizations that use webcams to monitor students while they take tests. One San Francisco company is growing rapidly in this industry and has students show picture identification, move the webcam around the room and use a mirror to ensure no materials are hidden in the room like books or notes, and monitors the students eyes and hands carefully as they take the exam. An extension of this idea is using video conferencing software to monitor multiple test takers simultaneously. Coursera, a popular online course delivery institution, is using technology that monitors student’s natural keystrokes as a mechanism to detect identity. The technology is based on the idea that the way an individual types is a virtual fingerprint and unique to each person.

Include academic honesty contracts as part of the course syllabus. Having students read and sign an academic honesty contract might not work for all students but it does set an important precedent at the beginning of the semester that cheating, fraud, and dishonesty will be monitored and the consequences enforced. Psychologically, this sets a tone that could effectively prevent many students from giving into the temptation to cheat.

If possible, include within the assessment process, subject or constructed products. Although it takes a lot more time to grade and has all the psychometric deficits of subjective assessments, it is beneficial to include projects, presentations, discussions, and papers as part of course requirements. These are more difficult to cheat on, especially when there is a clear grading rubric outlining the requirements. Group projects also make students accountable to one another and promote honest work (although this has the inherency of some students working harder and doing more of the work than others).
Although some research suggests cheating is less rampant in online than face to face classes, the same research study revealed that students in online classes were more likely to get answers from classmates during the exam itself. This indicates that although cheating occurs in all forms of education, the idea that “when the cat is away the mouse will play” is probably a truism. As online education propagates, it is necessary for security measures to grow organically also. The idea that students need some sort of proctor or security measures for online assessments is a reality that may make online institutions clutch the metaphorical wallet but technology is advancing some very cost effective methods of controlling honesty in online learning environments. Additionally, employing logical tenants of online assessment design builds in natural defenses for maintaining the integrity of the testing process.

References
Grijalva, T., Nowell, C., & Kerkvliet, J. (2006). Academic honesty and online courses. College Student Journal, 40(1), 180-185.

Ferriman, J. (2013 July 11). How to prevent cheating in online courses. Learn Dash Blog. Retrieved from www.learndash.com/how-to-prevent-cheating-in-online-courses

Hi-Tech Cheating: Cell Phones and Cheating in Schools – A National Poll. Common Sense Media. Retrieved from http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/PDFs/2010_PDFs/100202_CellPhoneSchoolCheating.pdf.

Lanier, M. (2006). Academic integrity and distance learning. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17(2), 244-261.

Luce, A. (2012, Sept. 17). How do I know students aren’t cheating? Instructional Design & Development Blog. Retrieved from http://www.iddblog.org/?p=1194

Olt, M. R., (2002). Ethics and distance education: Strategies for minimizing academic dishonesty in online assessment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 5(3).

Redmann, E. (n.d.) How Technology Is Raising the Stakes In Classroom Cheating. Edudemic. Retrieved from http://edudemic.com/2013/01/technology-classroom-cheating.

Stuber-McEwen, D., Wiseley, P., & Hoggatt, S. (2009). Point, click, and cheat: Frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(3), 1-10.

Trenholm, S. (2006-2007). A review of cheating in fully asynchronous online courses: A math or fact-based course perspective. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 35(3), 281-300.

Watson, G., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the digital age: Do students cheat more in online courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring131/watson131.html

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12 Comments

  1. Jasmaine Ataga says:

    I really find this article to be very beneficial for student. I know for me personally being an undergrad student we would always speak amongst ourselves about online classes being easy. The online classes were easy because they were online; meaning online test (encouraged cheating). However here at my university, they changed the guidelines for online classes, implanting that half of the test (i.e., 2 out of 4) would have to be taken at a testing center. It was interesting to see the number of students who became discouraged by this due to it reducing their chances to cheat. In concerns of the “rate of cheating being actually higher in face to face classes”, I believe this is somewhat due to the familiarity in face to face. In class as a student we are able to observe your teacher, their ways, and others. Thus aiding us in the possibility of being successful if we choose to cheat. What I also must admit is that, I really believed instructors who had online classes were oblivious to the easiness of cheating. So to read this article from an instructor’s point of view it lets me know their a bit more ahead of the game in this matter!

  2. Renee Marcinski says:

    I have taken a lot of online classes especially in high school! I was very sick so I had to do Georgia Virtual. I hated it I feel like it was pointless! My teachers were horrible and I did not cheat but I know many people that did. The teacher did randomize questions but that didn’t stop te cheating! I proposed that he made 2 different test with different question that way there was less chances for cheating and he tried it and he thought that the cheating went down.. I know that there are tons of people that cheat in class aswell but I agree with the research that thre is less cheating in the face to face setting rather than the online setting!

  3. Kelby Shields says:

    I agrees that cheating during online tests has become a bit of an issue. I took a super section class my first semester of College and all of my test were online. The professor made the test a little harder to cheat by making the test timed and also letting us know that she can see how long we took to answer every question, which is a good way to tell if someone is just copying the answers from another student. As a student as Valdosta State I have noticed that in the three years I have attended the University that some online classes are basically made for students to get an A without much effort at all, while other online classes are a lot harder than some of the in person classes I was taking at the same time. In my opinion you can tell how serious a teacher takes their classes by how much of the material they make you learn and how they make you remember that material. Some of my classes, online or not, can be breezed through without learning single concept. As long as you can memorize simple A B C test questions without having to think about how they are used or related to the class you can make I through. I think by making online classes harder to cheat on and with a limited amount of time allotted to take a test it will truly make the students have to learn the material.

  4. Mary O'Neal says:

    Your most recent article about online cheating really caught my attention because our school is about to roll out a bring your own technology (BYOT) program and there are a lot of concerns about cheating in the online world. One of the suggestions for helping to prevent cheating is simply signing an online agreement form about cheating. I think that this is a great idea for our BYOT, especially if individual teachers have their own agreements. This way students are constantly reminded about cheating. Although some will ignore it, some will really take it to heart and be conscious of their actions.
    I know the research is there, but it seems so counterintuitive for there to be less cheating in online classes than in face-to-face classes. Without someone monitoring students it seems very likely that students would take advantage of that. Personally, however, I can say that usually my online classes are much harder than my face-to-face classes. Teachers expect cheating so they make the material much harder and usually have many more weekly assignments due, versus just having a few tests or papers due through the semester. Because the material is harder you really have no choice but to study. Otherwise, your grades will show it.

    • Mary,
      One potential reason why there could be less cheating in online classes is the fact that students tend to have less communication with one another in online classes. Additionally, students complete work on their own time and often want to finish the exam or project then and do not bother to wait and get information from another student. Research has shown that when students have less communication with one another the tendancy to attempt to cheat is less due to increased personal accountability.

  5. Allison Manus says:

    I have only taken a couple online classes and they can be pretty hard to pass when you only are graded on your exams and a couple papers. I will say that my professors used the plagiarism contract and it scared me into not asking anyone to sit with me while conducting my exams. I had a hybrid online class where we would take a quizzes at home and the chapter exams in class but it was all online. The teacher was only there to monitor us, give us spelling test (it was a medical terminology class), and collect our papers. I think that if people are getting degrees by solely taking online classes that they need to be monitored just as much as face to face class students. I have a teacher watch me take my exams, take attendance, and collect my papers. If I am getting my degree this way and being monitored they should to. I am too worried about getting caught to plagiarize and it is not fair for people to get a whole degree without having to put in the same effort as I am to get mine. Security measures have to be taken so that we can all be equal. Plus I don’t want to go to a dentist and have him/ her work on my precious teeth just to find out that his/ her spouse took all the exams.

  6. Allante` Fairley says:

    This article is just another example of why I avoid taking online classes. I find that I do my best learning with hands on participation in a class physically full of other students. A learning environment just isn’t there with online classes for me. In every instance where an associate of mine has take an online class, they constantly brag about how “simple”, “pointless”, or “effortless” the course was. Personally my opinion is contrary to what the article stated, and I believe that more students are bound to cheat in online classes rather than in physical classrooms. Cheating doesn’t just extend to letting someone else take the test for you. Cheating a test can be as simple as rampantly flipping through a textbook or slipping onto Google while the exam is being conducted.
    Some of the methods for preventing student cheating are already being used by professors. I think the most effective method would the limiting of how many questions are seen by the student and the presentation of time limits. Too many students take advantage of looking ahead on test and Googling possible answers, and without time limits it is so easy to glaze over a text book until the correct answer is found. However, as with all cheating methods, it is impossible to have 100% accuracy with catching cheaters. I will stick to my ideal of staying away from online courses because the temptation is far too great for me to easily look up an answer, and because I see greater benefits with face to face interactions.

    • Allante`,

      Your comments about friends who have reported their online course experiences were “pointless or effortless”, is exactly why I am dedicated to improving the excellence of online courses and programs. The demand for online course options is increasing annually at both traditional and online universities. This high demand tempts the individuals responsible for course delivery to be more focused on “getting the course available” and not enough on constructing high quality, engaging, and challenging online classes. Many times courses are constructed to meet only the basic program objectives for the class without thinking about the best pedagogical methods for initiating those objectives. The truth is, online learning environments are very different from traditional one’s and there needs to be attention to how to best use the technology as an advantage in the learning situation, not a hindrance. An online course constructed and administered by an expert in online learning has the potential to be even more rewarding than an in-person class. The reality is that the experience is as good as the course designer and professor; just like in traditional classrooms, the same class can be fantastic or excruciating depending on who the teacher is.

  7. Christi Fletcher says:

    This article is a constant concern at my place of work. We teach many online classes and are always skeptical that the person taking the exam is the actual student enrolled in the course. The college has looked into the fingerprinting software and webcam software, Tegrity. Each one comes with a hefty price for the college and the student. When considering the software, it almost seems like it could cause an increase in face-to-face classes because of the inability to acquire the software needs or the inconvenience. All of the methods listed are ones in practice at my place of work with the exception of the software. I think that all students regardless of where they are taking the course are going to consider cheating. It has always been a concern and will always be a concern. Our department has a strict no tolerance policy in which the dean has followed through on the promise. I think that this has detered students from cheating since word has gotten out that it will not be tolerated.

    • Christi,
      The strict policy against cheating and the consistent enforcement of the repercussions is one of the best conditioning deterrents available. The cohesion of a department on the methods to cope with it is the front line defense against a climate of student misconduct.

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