Online Exams and Cheating – Should I Care?

researchI’ve been assessing students with online exams for several years and one issue that has plagued me has been whether I should be concerned with “cheating”. Using un-proctored exams in distance education courses leaves open the possibility of students using notes and textbook resources to answer questions, in effect creating “open book” tests. I’m not sure that this is a problem, especially for introductory general education courses. I teach a 5-credit, 15 week long physical geography course which can be a daunting experience for many non-science students. After 22 years of teaching the course, most of the time in a face-to-face setting, I’ve wondered why I continue to use proctored closed note/closed book exams. My course will likely be the only formal exposure to physical geography for 90% of these students, why make it such an anxiety ridden experience using this type of assessment? Besides, they are likely to toss-off much of what they have been required to “learn” within a short period of time after they leave the course.

We are increasingly faced with large amounts of information that require skills to sift and evaluate it. Instead closed note/book exams, why not allow them the flexibility to use any resource they have available to answer questions? Doing so encourages them to hone their skills at information retrieval to solve problems. In addition, putting the exam online also gives them the flexibility to take the exam when they feel prepared to do so.

Giving students the ability to learn more about what they experience on their own is valuable. Most students relate to the content of my course through experiences with natural phenomena, usually from their travels, recreational pursuits (e.g., hiking,) or extreme events like storms. The next time they are planning a trip, they’ll have a better understanding of how to find information about the environment they are to visit. Using open resource assessments to make exams less stressful while honing their ability to find and use information may give them a better appreciation for the subject of study and skills to make their life experiences more fulfilling. And I can stop worrying about “cheating” …..

(Image courtesy StudentHacks)

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About Michael Ritter PhD
Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

One Response to Online Exams and Cheating – Should I Care?

  1. rscot138 says:

    Hello, Just wanted to offer a students prospective on this issue:

    I’ve had a few classes that offered the online exams. The exams that seemed would be most easy to cheat on were the exams with no time limit, and offered multiple chances to take the exams.

    With the format of your exams and the way the questions are asked, the cheating factor is reduced greatly. Sure, I can look in the text book and the lab manual and try to find the answer, but the answers aren’t written in black and white. I have to read the material and then analyze it to figure out the answer to the question. So cheating or not, it still requires critical thinking.

    I am not a geography major or minor, but a WDMD major with a computer science minor. With that said, most of this material I won’t use again. I love being outside and enjoy hiking, backpacking, fishing, etc. Learning about weather and climate systems will be useful in my outdoor activities, so while I may not remember every detail of the class, once the hailstorm is over and we’re picking up the shredded tent, I can explain to my buddies that the hailstorm was created in the cumulonimbus clouds through instability and strong vertical air currents…

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