Online Exams and Assessments: Promoting Academic Integrity

Increased student stress and isolation, coupled with the ease of inappropriate collaboration and resource-use in an online environment, may lead to increased cheating. However, there are ways to mitigate cheating online by adjusting course and assessment design. Below are suggestions generated by Penn faculty and the Office of Student Conduct.

To reduce the temptation and opportunities for academic integrity violations, consider:

  1. Promoting a sense of student belonging and accountability to each other and the instructor.
  2. Designing assessments that discourage cheating


Promoting Student Accountability

Students are also concerned about cheating: it can diminish the hard work and achievement of students who complete assessments honestly, and when students perceive cheating by others many feel pressured to cheat themselves. Creating a sense of mutual accountability and communicating clearly about expectations can remind students about the importance of integrity and reduce some pressures to cheat.

  • Set expectations around proper ways to take an exam. Taking exams in the privacy of one’s own room doesn’t feel like taking a traditional exam and means the usual reminders not to cheat are not visible. With that in mind, there is value in revising the story and reminding students that this is still an academic enterprise. This might include discussing the importance of integrity in this project, reminding students what it means to take an exam, or talking about expectations – or better still, getting students to voice those expectations themselves. Some faculty ask students to write a statement of their own indicating what it means to take the exam with integrity.
  • Frame academic integrity as a collaborative effort and part of one's responsibility to peers and to scholarly activity. Remind students of the larger impact of inappropriate collaboration and use of resources, such as text books, during exams.
  • Remind students of the purpose of exams and other assessments. Though sometimes stressful, they are opportunities for students to display their hard work and progress.
  • Clearly define what kinds of behavior is and is not appropriate. For instance, in an open-book exam, what sources (including collaboration) are and are not legitimate.
  • Maintain clear and open instructor-student communication during the exam window so students know where to turn with questions, rather than seeking out peers.
  • Let students know that you are checking to make sure students are not cheating. Faculty have said that being specific about this (perhaps letting the class know when an instance of cheating has been determined – though without any names), can make this feel like something instructors take seriously, which can be reassuring for students

Click here for more ideas on Creating an Atmosphere of Academic Integrity in Your Class.

Assessment Design

There are a number of ways to organize exams to mitigate cheating in an online course. CTL's website on Adapting your exam for the online teaching environment explains how to enact some of the suggestions below.

Cheating on exams online often takes one of these common forms:

  1. Students looking things up during exams, using sources they should not be using. This is particularly common in cases of closed-book exams, but there can also be problems in open-book exams in which students are allowed to use some resources, but not others.
  2. Students communicating with each other during exams. This may be via text, shared Google Doc, or even in conversation.
    • Students collaborating during the exam by discussing answers or dividing up work.
    • Students sharing exam questions or their answer with those who are taking them later in a window. For instance, different students may take turns taking the quiz early on and then share the quiz with peers so their peers can benefit from knowing the questions.

General assessment design strategies

How you implement assessments in your course can have a significant impact.

  • Consider frequent, low-stakes quizzes rather than a few high-stakes exams. Spreading out the opportunities for students to prepare and display mastery reduces the stress of, and impulse to cheat on, specific exams.
  • Give students the chance to retake quizzes or exams. This focuses on a mastery model and makes the stakes even lower.

Consider exam styles that double-check students’ thinking.

  • Ask students to explain or annotate their answers. This annotation could be graded or serve as a way to double check answers. For multiple choice questions, some faulty suggest asking students to explain why the incorrect questions are wrong.
  • Follow up assessments, such as a brief oral exam, let students know they will be accountable for demonstrating what they know in another context. This can be done periodically, rather than after every exam for every student, to manage workload.

To discourage students from looking things up inappropriately on exams:

  • Use open-book exams. Be sure to specify what, if any, resources are impermissible.
  • This means writing questions that require complex thinking, not recall of facts. Faculty suggest some types of questions that are hard to Google:
  • Questions that pull together ideas from different parts of the course, creating uncommon questions;
  • Questions that ask students to apply course concepts to specific and new case studies;
  • For questions related to course vocabulary, consider giving students the definition and asking them to supply the term (rather than the reverse) was suggested.
  • As a way to check whether students are using online sources to answer questions, one can Google one’s question before the exam to be sure it is not already on the internet. Consider Googling it afterwards as well. If it shows up, that’s an indication a student likely submitted it to an exam-answering or online-tutoring site. In that case, OSC can be helpful in investigating further.
  • Giving students a tight time length for completing the exam (even if students can select when that time is within a window). This can looking things up, particularly for complex questions, inefficient.

To discourage students from collaborating with each other during exams or during an exam period:

  • Give students different versions of the test (Canvas can automate this), by showing each student a different subset of questions or randomizing the order of questions or answers.
  • Ask open-ended questions in which students would not likely have similar answers without inappropriate communication.
  • Giving students a tight time length for completing the exam (even if students can select when that time is within a window). This makes back and forth more difficult (particularly if students do not all have the same version of the test).
  • Require collaboration, assigning groups to work together. This makes collaboration something that happens by design.
  • Assign a two-stage exam -- where first students take it individually and then they take it in a group and their score is the average of the two. This may reduce the pressure to collaborate, since students know they will be asked to collaborate as well as work individually and they will have the chance to get some points back from that.
  • Student sharing of full quizzes MAY be detectable after the fact by looking for patterns in how long it takes students to complete quizzes and how they do on them as a function of when they take them.


Managing Academic Integrity Violations

The suggestions above can help reduce instances of cheating, but no system is perfectly secure. If you suspect cheating in your course, CTL provides more information on steps you can take and the resources available to you. You can consult with or refer cases for investigation directly to the Office of Student Conduct.