October 30, 2020

Hello fellow CNS Instructors,

Holy cow! It is Friday already?  I feel like I just woke up on Monday morning.

This week I am addressing student exam cheating.  I have been thinking quite a bit about this topic and discussing it with other instructors as I plan for teaching a large enrollment science course in a hybrid format next semester.  I have taught online courses for several years, including this course.  For online courses I have always used online exams proctored by ProctorU, HonorLock, etc. with no major complaints or issues.  In contrast, I heard considerable complaints from instructors and students alike regarding the proctoring services for classes forced into using online exams during this pandemic.  I always assumed there was some cheating occurring in my exams, both face to face and online, but assumed it was fairly minimal.  Then, along with the rest of you, I learned about contract cheating from Erica Suchman, Derek Schutt and Andrew Norton in their MTI teaching tips.  I also received useful information from them and Joseph Brown (Director of Academic Integrity, TILT) on ways to address contract cheating:

Wednesday, October 21st was International Day Against Contracting Cheating and the ICAI (International Center for Academic Integrity) offers some programming that our faculty will find helpful via Youtube. There were 20 presentations spread out across the day, all under 20 minutes long each. The complete schedule can be found here: https://www.academicintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/20-in-20-Final-Schedule.pdf

The Youtube Channel where these presentations appear: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvtCD2gu5hB1Kgp5iJuZ6Wg/featured

I am also attaching the Contract Cheating fact sheet ICAI created. There is some strong information in there that will help faculty understand this issue and to communicate with students about it.

Finally, you can follow the events of the day by simply following our Academic Integrity Program twitter account (@csuintegrity) or the ICAI twitter account (@tweetcai).

All this still leaves me conflicted.  I have heard from the CSU Administration, teaching experts and fellow faculty that we should consider alternative way to assess student learning and not be so concerned about cheating and exam proctoring.  To me, this made sense last spring when instructors and students were thrown into online teaching essentially against their wills.  I feel the situation is different when both instructors and students know in advance that courses will be taught in hybrid or online format during registration.

So, I did some research and found an article by Flower Darby, co-author (with James M. Lang) of Small Teaching Online on ways to “promote academic integrity in your virtual classroom without joining the ‘arms race’ in cheating-prevention tools” (Darby, F. Sept. 24 2020 CHE, attached). Darby suggests assuming all quizzes and exams are open-book, etc. and to promote academic integrity though the following:

  • Break up a big high-stakes exam into small weekly tests.
  • Start and end each test with an honor statement.
  • Ask students to explain their problem-solving process.
  • Get to know each student’s writing style in low- or no-stakes tasks.
  • Assess learning in online discussion forums.
  • Don’t base grades solely on tests.
  • Offer students choice in how they demonstrate their knowledge.

From my experience teaching large enrollment courses online I feel that not all of Darby’s suggestions would be so easy for me to implement.  I ran across a series of articles by Beckie Supiano looking critically at both sides of argument over whether to be concerned about cheating on assessments.  For her article “Students Cheat.  How Much Does It Matter?” Supiano interviewed teaching experts and instructors (Supiano, B. Oct. 21 2020 CHE, attached). She also moderated an online panel discussion “Creating Effective, Equitable Assessments for Online Courses”.  Several of these instructors had followed the experts’ advice and felt it did not work out well.  These instructors teach STEM high enrollment, content courses that are part of a curricular sequence.  In addition, the content they teach is important to licensing and standardized exams (MCAT, etc.). Many instructors knew there was some cheating but had not been aware of contract cheating.  Even if the instructor writes new exam questions each time these contract cheating sites can generate answers in minutes.  One instructor tried Zoom proctoring by GTAs and emphasizing the university’s honor code.  At least 20% of the students cheated.  Subsequently, they spent 50 hours dealing with the academic integrity process prosecuting these students.  Teaching experts cite stress and disconnection as the driving factors leading to cheating.  While no data exists on whether cheating has increased, we have likely been a bit “naïve” about the level of cheating.  On the other hand, one instructor estimates that cheating on face to face exams provide little grade boost while online cheating increased scores by 10 points.  They also do not agree with those that feel that cheating only harms the students that cheat if it leads to a higher grade.  Again, teaching experts recommend moving away from a few high stakes exams and providing other types of assessments that focus on applying what they have learned and explaining how they got their answer.  However, many instructors, particularly in STEM, believe in well-designed exams requiring recall and application of content and concepts for accessing learning. On the other side, online exam proctoring imposes additional stress and inequities on students.  One chemistry instructor went to great lengths to reduce the stress and potential for cheating, to no avail. They are now focusing on lowering student stress further and emphasizing academic integrity including discussion of why using sites like Chegg are cheating.  They think it is working so far.

In summary, I have found no definitive approaches for eradicating cheating.  I do plan to give it some serious thought, conduct more research and modify my instruction to minimize it.  I also plan to continue to put more energy into improving learning outcomes than combating cheating and to keep work-life balance in mind.  In the end, I suppose this was a public discussion with myself.  I would welcome any thoughts, suggestions or resources you have.

Thank you for all you do for our students.

Cheers, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Co-Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences