RPI researchers reveal new method to reduce cheating

A testing strategy that is cost-effective and less time-consuming may work in combating collusion.

Cheating on exams has become a cat-and-mouse game for institutions of higher education, instructors and students, who are continually trying to find ways to beat the system, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As remote learning has increased the likelihood for misconduct to occur, colleges and universities have invested more time and more money to find solutions that can prevent deceptive academic practices from occurring, including turning to web cams, lockdown browsers and even third-party proctoring services, which can be pricy and invasive.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., engineering researchers say they may have unlocked a method to combat cheating that is more old school than high-tech – and potentially more effective – with something they are calling “distanced online testing.”

The strategy focuses first and foremost on collusion among students, the top form of cheating, according to researchers. It involves the simple process of delaying test questions hierarchically to students based on their levels of competency. For example, allowing the most accomplished students to take exams after others start their tests – and whereby all have a fixed set of time to answer those questions – can prevent online collusion from occurring with other students.

“Often in remote online exams, students can talk over the phone or internet to discuss answers,” said Ge Wang, an endowed chair professor of biomedical engineering in RPI’s Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies and one of the study authors. “The key idea of our method is to minimize this chance via discrete optimization aided by knowledge of a student’s competencies.”

Researchers say their system is geared toward “math or fact-based courses and compatible with most types of questions.” By knowing which students can be pooled into the high-achiever bracket, based on previous grades, it might be logical to know which students might be more prone  to looking to collude.

When used in conjunction with other “complementary” methods, they say their method is reliable in combatting collusion. They tested their algorithms by comparing a midterm exam that was proctored to a final exam that was done via distanced online testing. Each student was given 40 questions out of a possible 60 questions overall. They found no significant disparities between the groups.

Researchers say their method has several advantages over others: there are no privacy concerns, it is far less costly than using outside proctoring agencies and it is  also less time consuming and far more effective than faculty who turn to big banks of questions to try to keep students from cheating. The truth is, they say, those pools would have to be so large that no instructors would have the time to create them. And they would need to change over time.

“A pool of size 1.5 times the number of questions in a test is found to be sufficient to suppress collusion gain to an insignificant level with our method,” researchers said in the report. “The substantially smaller required pool size allows educators to devise their own questions relatively easily that require intellectual efforts than factual recalls that can be simply done via Google search, and update the questions frequently rather than directly rely on published question banks without paraphrasing, which has a high risk of inviting academic dishonesty.”

Additional options to lessen cheating

There are other methods to combat cheating than all of the tricks that institutions have at their disposal.

Back in May of 2020, a Wiley Education study led by Dr. David Rettinger at Mary Washington University and Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant at the University of California-San Diego, noted that 93% of those who instruct college-level courses say students are more likely to cheat online than in person, although 95% of students said cheating occurs in both environments.

Bertram Gallant told University Business in an interview last fall that sometimes a more holistic and personal approach from faculty can work well in building trust and thus combatting cheating. She offered a number of ideas:

  • “Create a class statement of values or a code of ethics. You could just tell them what the rules are, but it will help you build community and garner student buy-in if you do it with your students.
  • Make standards and expectations absolutely clear. For example, what does ‘open books/notes’ for exams mean? For students, it likely means ‘open internet’ and on the internet are sites and people who will do the work for the students.
  • Give timely integrity reminders. Don’t just talk about integrity at the beginning of the quarter.”
  • Monitor student product and conduct. After each assessment touchpoint, check in on your students’ activities. Are they logging in? Are they engaged?
  • Evaluate the integrity of assessments before grading.”

When necessary, she said instructors and institutions should report violations or reach out to their campus academic integrity office for help. “It is the moral imperative of higher education to develop ethical citizens and professionals and we can do that, in part, through the promotion of integrity.”

And if all else fails, maybe the method by RPI will be the new way to combat collusion. Wang said if students know it’s not possible to collude and get away with it, they might turn to studying harder. Either way, RPI’s researchers are moving ahead with a plan to address it.

“We plan to develop a good platform so that others can easily use this method,” he said.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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