Should cheating be redefined for online exams?

Many academic institutes around the globe were forced to conduct online exams in the last year.
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Image for representation

Many academic institutes around the globe were forced to conduct online exams in the last year. However, the integrity of these exams is at stake as there have been complaints of rampant cheating in such tests.

An online exam is nothing but a take-home test, which has been practised for decades. It’s widely believed that these are being compromised as the students are taking the help of the internet and external experts. Some institutes ask students to write exams while keeping a mobile or laptop camera focused on them so that they can be invigilated remotely. However, in a world where many students lack access even to a single online connecting device and sufficient high-speed internet, this seems impractical. The approaches attempted or discussed to circumvent ‘cheating’ include using a double shuffle examination software, online proctoring software, setting lengthy question papers so that the students don’t get enough time to discuss answers, a combination of written and oral tests, and setting innovative questions wherein answers for each student differ.

However, measures to curb cheating in such online exams are often not very effective. IIT Bombay had cancelled a November 22 exam after reports emerged of cheating. One may employ video surveillance and other sophisticated technology, but the cat and mouse game would continue through various WhatsApp groups, browsing the internet on a separate device, etc. And new ways to counter surveillance would pop up. Not to forget, the mentality of ‘cheating’ is not alien in our society; starting from school projects and assignments, cheating happens on offline exams as well. Moreover, such a game is bound to induce a lack of trust between the students and teachers.

In fact, the academic world was rocked by cheating incidents involving take-home exams in some of the most renowned universities even before the pandemic. The 2012 Harvard scandal involved approximately 125 students who were investigated for cheating on the take-home final exam in an introductory course in politics. An estimated 70% of the investigated students were forced to withdraw. Interestingly, in 2010 and 2011, these take-home exams were essays, but in 2012 they were changed to a short answer format. The 2007 cheating scandal at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business involving a take-home exam resulted in the punishment of 34 graduate students. West Point, Ohio State University and University of Central Florida were also rocked by similar incidents in the past.

Still, some experts believe that take-home exams may be the preferred assessment method on the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy scale because they promote higher-order thinking skills and allow time for reflection. But what about the questions of pandemic-driven online exams? Take an example. It’s reported that in some university paper with five questions required to be answered out of eight, the solutions to seven could be found through a simple internet search! Are such questions ideal for online exams? In a 1983 article in the journal Research in Higher Education, researchers from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University observed that, for the same question paper, the mean percent achievement test scores for ‘knowledge items’ for closed-book, open-book, and take-home exams were 55.8, 62.5 and 68.8 respectively, while these mean scores for ‘application items’ were 60.0, 60.5 and 61.0 respectively. Thus, knowledge items are not quite suitable for take-home exams. Subsequently, of course, the massification of higher education and the emergence of the internet have fundamentally changed university education and its dynamics of take-home exams.

Thus, it’s clear that questions for the unproctored, take-home online tests should be such that ready-made answers can’t be found in standard textbooks or even on the internet. And that’s possible to ensure, especially at the higher taxonomy level. The grading of open-ended problems for a large number of students may not be consistent though.

Not every student cheats. But why do some? A circular argument dominates that almost everybody else must be practising unfair means to gain relative advantage, so the ‘honest’ students would be penalised in their grades and relative ranking. It may be a vicious circle and it’s almost impossible to eliminate cheating in online tests. But what if cheating is redefined in this case? Not everybody is critical of students who were accused of collaboration or cheating. In an opinion piece written in Slate in September 2012 on the Harvard cheating issue, American journalist Farhad Manjoo wrote: “Outside of Harvard, these students won’t face many situations in which they’ll be prohibited from consulting with other people. Instead, they’ll have to act exactly as the alleged ‘cheaters’ did in this case.” But can our education system expand its wings? In today’s world, the instructor’s role has changed from ‘lecturing’ to ‘facilitating’ and the student’s role has changed from ‘recipient’ to ‘participant’. Farhad Manjoo wrote further: “Talking about an exam with your friends feels like cheating. But it’s time we realised it’s not, and that teaching people how to work together is a critical skill. Today, in most areas of life the government, the military, science, the corporate world real breakthroughs occur in groups. It’s time our universities prized group work, too.” 

Sounds radical? Can the pandemic trigger our education system to introspect and engage in extensive debates? To get out of the comfort zone of the standard bookish format and gazing through a pair of changed spectacles, however, is never easy, even for me. And it is the same everywhere and for everyone.

Atanu Biswas
Professor of Statistics, Indian  Statistical Institute, Kolkata

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