My Strategies to Deter Cheating on Online Exams

student_laptopI’m often asked by colleagues just stepping into distance education what to do about cheating on online exams. I chuckle and admit that I don’t worry too much  about it anymore. Why?  I accepted the fact that if someone wants to cheat, they’ll find a way to do it. This became clear in my second year of teaching when I found a #2 lead pencil with notes carefully etched into each of the facets of the barrel without cracking the yellow paint covering it. People can and will be sneaky.  Here are a few things I do to inhibit cheating on my online exams delivered through DesireToLearn (D2L):

  • Address the Issue in the syllabus. I address the issue of cheating, especially plagiarism, upfront in the the syllabus. I inform the students of the potential consequences and point them to university policies they should read.
  • Open exams. I’ve made the exams open book and notes hence  cheating by  using forbidden resources is no longer relevant.  Students can use any resource they want to solve the problem-oriented questions that populate my exams. I’m a firm believer in helping student be “knowledge-able” not just “knowledgeable”. Michael Wesch describes being knowledge-able as being “”able to find, sort, analyze, ultimately criticize, and even create new information and knowledge.”  (Michael Wesch: Moving From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able. (n.d.). nancyrubin. Retrieved September 1, 2013, from
  • Problem-oriented questions.  I use problem-oriented questions addressing Bloom’s level 3, 4 & 5 in addition to those that rely on recall of basic information largely at Bloom’s level 1 & 2.  The problem-oriented questions require an understanding of spatial processes and relationships, the answers for which are not easily found online or in a printed textbook. Students are given a scenario with four to five possible outcomes. Quantitative, map reading, and graph interpretation skills are needed to answer these kinds of questions.
  • Timed Exams. Exams are accessible on a single day unless special circumstances require a student to reschedule their exam date. My introductory physical geography course has a 75 questions objective test for each of the four units of the course. Approximately fifty questions relate to the conceptual content and twenty-five  questions to the lab component. These are the same exams given to my face-to-face sections of the course. When teaching face-to-face, an entire 110 minute lab period was devoted to the exam. Thus I set the time limit for the online exam to 110 minutes.
  •  Randomization. Randomization is easy with an online exam. I have my quiz questions grouped by topic. Each set of questions in the group are randomized as are the answers to each question. It’s very rare two students get the exact same test. It does not prevent them from copying the exam and questions, but this is true of regular printed tests if you allow access to them. Performance statistics for each group of questions identifies where I need to tweak questions or course content and delivery to achieve better learning and assessment.
  •  Submission view. Desire2Learn has a variety of options for viewing exam submission view options that can be used to prevent cheating during the exam period. I allow students to view their score upon submission but not the answer key. Answer keys become available a few minutes after the exam closing time. Students can access their answers and seek help with those that were incorrectly answered at this time.

Cutting down on group cheating is more difficult. Students have the ability to meet as a group with one person taking the test while the others help and take notes. Using web cams for exam proctoring virtually eliminates this problem. In any case, trying to find a reasonable approach to controlling cheating is a challenge, made even more so by the connected culture we live in.


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.

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