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How to minimize cheating in online assessments

Academic dishonesty is a touchy subject. From college admission scandals to exam cheating, it affects all schools in one way or another. At one point, all teachers have wondered at their students’ creativity when it comes to dodging work, wishing that they’d use that skill to complete assignments instead.

Yet, it goes deeper than that. Sixty-eight percent of graduate students have admitted to cheating, according to this 13-year study by Dr. Donald McCabe. In comparison, seventy-five percent of high school students admit to doing the same. It doesn’t just lead to getting ahead dishonestly, as cheating in school is a predictor of similar workplace behavior.

With online classes and remote learning taking over classrooms, at least temporarily, teachers worry about rampant cheating. After all, both K-12 and Higher Ed students aren’t supervised at home. It’s difficult to imagine how the evaluation will play out online if you haven’t done that before.

Here’s the truth: one hundred percent cheating prevention might be too much to ask of both face to face and online instruction. Minimizing cheating is a safer option.

One way to minimize cheating is to try to take the pressure off in any way you can, especially when external demands are at stake: school prestige, dealing with failure, parental expectations, etc. In light of recent events, some teachers advocate for compassionate flexibility, which means being more open about accepting late work and listening to students who struggle to cope with the ongoing pandemic.

The second option is to make it hard for students to “beat the system.” Plagiarism is now extremely easy to detect, and so is creating safer online quizzes. While being flexible is a teacher’s choice, anti-cheating tools do a great job of minimizing cheating. In the end, it’s a balance between empathetic decisions made by educators and less biased decisions made by the software.

Read more: The benefits of an empathic mindset approach to classroom management

This brings us to the next question...

Which LMS tools help you minimize cheating?

A few features and tools work well and integrate into most learning management systems (LMSs), so your job is made easier when scoring exams or grading assignments. I’m going to give as an example the most popular ones, but keep in mind that it’s the function that matters:

  • Proctoring. As the name suggests, the proctoring feature ensures that assessments are carried out safely. Through this feature, you typically limit students’ access to assessments until the day of the exam. For example, you can give out access codes, only publish the assignment at the start time, and limit access to specific IP addresses.

  • Safe exam browser. This software turns any computer into a secure workstation. It means that the browser records everything that the student does but also limits their actions. They cannot open other tabs to check their answers. The LMS interface will also contain only the bare minimum they need to take the exam. The system turns off features such as messaging or keyboard shortcuts (no copy and paste!).

  • Antiplagiarism tools. Solutions like Turnitin and Unickeck help both teachers and students check assignments for any traces of plagiarism. They can compare a student’s submission against your database to find similarities with other papers or against other resources on the internet. There are some differences between the two, as Turnitin can also check the originality of images. Some might say that Unickeck is more helpful for students who want to review their work before submitting it. Regardless, it makes it hard to plagiarize and not get caught.

  • Policy documents. Sometimes, all you need to minimize cheating is an agreement between the school and students. The policy documents feature serves this purpose as they have to read and agree to such a document before using the LMS. For the academic dishonesty policy, add simple rules that anyone can understand: no copy-pasting from other sources, no collaboration during individual exams, no external help, etc.

What teachers can do to minimize cheating in online assessments

The features and tools mentioned above work well so all teachers can decide what to use and when. The way you evaluate students matters even more. Remote learning has been around for quite some time, and online instructors have some tricks up their sleeves to create engaging and cheating-free assessments.

Read more: How to manage assessments in the blended classroom

Most of these tips take about a few seconds and clicks to implement. Let’s see how the most skilled teachers deal with academic dishonesty in the online classroom:

Open-textbook assignments

Open-textbook assignments require students to use higher-order cognitive skills, such as creativity and critical thinking. They have all the resources they need to write essays, work on projects together, and even the possibility of checking their textbooks while answering a question because this task doesn’t need a factual answer. Plus, essays are more flexible and fair if you want to allow late submissions, within reason. You can:

  • Give essay and open-ended questions for essential tests, and leave quizzes for practice (these are usually non-graded). Students will have to produce original answers within a week or so. Time is not that important here, as long as they’re applying what they’ve learned.

  • Think of diverse questions that require them to reflect on what they've learned. If you assign a factual information recall quiz, make sure that you also include freeform questions. See this example:

    • Question 1: When do plants photosynthesize?
      1. during the night
      2. during the day


    • Question 2: How do you explain that? Motivate your answer.

  • Hold debate and discussion assessments, as these types of questions are great for students ages 12 and up. They can debate via web conferencing or through debate assignments. You can evaluate the quality of their arguments and reasoning skills, as well as problem-solving techniques.

  • Assign group projects through your LMS. Divide students into groups and tap into the power of remote project-based learning. If you need to do a thorough evaluation, students can use a tool such as MS teams to present their part of the project via screen share.

Online quizzes

Quizzes are easier to grade, but it’s trickier to configure them, especially if you haven’t got a tool such as Safe Exam Browser enabled. Yet, there are ways to make cheating pretty hard, even in this instance.

  • You can start by making true/false statements and multiple-choice questions hard to cheat by setting a time limit to answer each question — they’ll only waste their time trying to look for the right answer.

  • Make sure all students should start and finish at the same time. If connectivity issues happen, have a plan B, meaning another set of questions ready. In this way, those who start late don’t have time to get the subjects from their peers.

  • Display one question at a time so students can’t quickly skim ahead to see all items. In this way, they have to examine each one closely. Plus, it’s hard to find answers by searching for keywords in a textbook (or what their parents, siblings or other “helpers” can find).

  • If you’re not planning to go with diverse questions, make sure that you randomize them. In this way, students can’t see items in the same order. If you also add time limits, randomized questions work even better.

  • Another great way to evaluate students is by creating multiple assignments. For example, if you have 20 students, create four different quizzes, so only five students get the same questions at a time. Moreover, if some students can’t participate on exam day for some reason, you can use multiple assignments as a back-up plan.

  • If you’re on your own, it takes a lot of time to come up with quiz questions. However, if all teachers work together on adding items to a question bank, it’s easier to prepare pop quizzes, tests, final exams, etc. You can collaborate with teachers within the same school or district.

  • Don’t show quiz results as soon as students submit their answers, as those who finish faster can help others cheat. If you have freeform questions within the quiz, of course, you have to grade them yourself so that the score will show up later regardless. The instant feedback of auto-graded quizzes is excellent for practice, but they can wait a day or two in this case.

  • Have an open camera policy if you think it’s necessary. Some schools prefer to work live with students during exams, and having their cameras and microphones open will discourage them from cheating. Not everyone feels comfortable with this measure, so try to proceed with caution. Consult with school management and colleagues, make a list of pros and cons before taking this decision.

Plagiarism detection

Thanks to antiplagiarism tools, it’s harder to even self-plagiarise, because let’s face it: sometimes we do that without even being aware of it. That’s why all teachers should strongly encourage students to check essays and other original work first. Instructors can also:

  • Provide a guide for citation right from the start. Older students should know better, but it’s important to remind them to cite all sources correctly. Something as easy as a short citation guide on the assignment intro page or at the start of the course can set them on the right path.

  • Compare against other documents with Similarity Reports. The tools don’t just check the internet for the original sources. You can compare the work of different students and even check between different institutions, meaning that if your student plagiarized a paper written by someone at another school, you’ll know it.

  • Be aware of how they cheat. Students get creative with fonts, white space and they change letters from one language to another, so the text looks good, but in reality, it’s fine-tuned to trick antiplagiarism detectors. Another trick is to insert pictures with text and convert the document to pdf and simply make up fake references. Plagiarism detection tools usually take care of this, but you might also want to ask students to submit the text directly in the LMS, which will make the tool’s job even easier — and yours as well.

Wrap up

Academic dishonesty isn’t synonymous with online testing. Minimizing the factors that lead to cheating, such as external pressure, and discouraging it through handy online tools are your best bet for safer evaluations. Most students have a hard time adjusting to remote learning, and a lot is going on in their lives right now; this is a time to be fair but also more flexible and understanding.