How cheating on online exams may be eroding higher ed’s future credibility

Confirmed breaches of proctored online exams soared to 6.6% in 2021, according to one provider.
By: | April 26, 2022
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The fact that cheating on online exams rose during the pandemic may not surprise higher ed leaders, but the steepness of the increase may be startling. And now one company is sharing its data as a warning to those who would preserve academic integrity.

Confirmed breaches of proctored online exams soared to 6.6% in 2021, according to Meazure Learning’s ProctorU platform. That may not sound like a huge amount of dishonesty until it’s followed by this number: It’s 13 times the cheating that was recorded in the year before the pandemic when the rate was just under 0.5%, the company says in a just-released analysis.

“I don’t think, if you go to the average institution, that they could point to data to tell you how much cheating is taking place,” says Jarrod Morgan, founder of ProctorU and chief strategy officer at Meazure Learning.”You can’t decide if it’s a problem and you can’t do anything about it until you measure. We’re hoping to encourage higher ed to measure.”

A breach occurs when the company’s proctors spot evidence that a test taker has violated a test’s rules or other misconduct. The evidence is then reviewed by a second company analyst, who reports the incident to college or university officials to then make the final determination. Other forms of cheating the company measured include the use of unpermitted resources (such as a cell phone) and active interventions in which a proctor reminds a test-taker of the rules.

Morgan suspects the amount of cheating is even higher at colleges or universities that do not proctor their online exams. “When people use only the honor system, this data proves that doesn’t work,” he said. Meazure Learning’s analysis—which covered more than three million online exams spanning 1,000 colleges and universities and numerous professional testing and credentialing providers—shared some additional numbers on potential cheating:

  • More than 200,000 exam sessions proctored by ProctorU contained evidence of misconduct.
  • More than two of every three pre-test sessions had “unpermitted resources,” which are items that are not allowed by exam rules.
  • A“confirmed breach” incident was logged in more than one in every 15 exam sessions.

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College instructors should redouble their efforts to ensure students know the rules for exams and what the consequences are for violations. They should also make it clear when students are allowed to use additional materials to find answers. “Most students, when they cheat, have some kind of rationalization,” Morgan says. “A much smaller percentage of people cheat on exams right after reading something that says, ‘We expect you to do your own work and not cheat.'”

With online learning only likely to grow in higher ed, Morgan calls cheating a potentially existential issue. “If schools don’t get this right, over time the whole system starts to collapse,” he says. “People stop believing in courses and degrees because cheating can erode the value and growth of higher ed.”