Levels of cheating in online exams soaring, say invigilators

One in 14 students who took tests monitored by ProctorU last year were caught breaking the rules

April 26, 2022
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Rates of cheating in online examinations have hit a record high, according to proctoring data that show that one in 14 students were caught breaking the rules last year.

Analysis of data on 3 million tests globally that used the ProctorU invigilation platform found that “confirmed breaches” of test regulations – incidents where there was clear evidence of misconduct – were recorded in 6.6 per cent of all cases.

This is 14 times higher than the 0.5 per cent misconduct rate detected in the 15 months prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which triggered the widespread adoption of online assessments and, with this, a surge in the use of online proctoring services such as ProctorU.

But it also represents a steep increase on 2020, when breaches were confirmed in 3.9 per cent of tests – indicating that the problem is getting worse as students become more accustomed to online tests.

The data are based on tests conducted in about 1,000 centres across the world, mostly in the US, the UK and Australia. The confirmed breach rate for higher education assessments only – excluding professional exams – was even higher than the overall average, at 7.2 per cent.

ProctorU founder Jarrod Morgan, who is now chief strategy officer of Alabama-based parent company Meazure Learning, said he was concerned that the rate of cheating was so high even though students knew they were being watched by an invigilator.

Confirmed breaches included candidates looking at papers or books they should not have had, other people being present in the room during an assessment or a student attempting to take a test on behalf of a classmate.

Mr Morgan said rates of cheating would likely be even higher at universities that did not use online proctoring, and he expressed concern that such high levels of rule-breaking could devalue students’ qualifications.

“It doesn’t take long before the whole thing starts to collapse; the value of a degree or grade comes from society agreeing that if you get it from such a place, it means something,” he said.

“If we start to think it doesn’t mean as much because we know people have cheated their way through the courses, the whole thing starts to get shaky.”

A report from ProctorU also details misconduct that did not amount to a definite breach of the rules. Nearly two-thirds of higher education students (64.4 per cent) arrived at exams last year with “unpermitted resources” such as textbooks or mobile phones, while invigilators had to intervene to clarify or enforce rules to prevent potential cheating in nearly one in five cases (19.1 per cent).

Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow and expert in academic integrity at Imperial College London, said that while it has been well documented that misconduct has risen during the pandemic, it was surprising to see such an increase among students being monitored online via a process that has been criticised as being “more invasive than face-to-face proctoring”.

“That suggests to me that students feel under so much pressure that they have been forced to resort to unfair means in this situation,” Dr Lancaster said.

Some researchers have raised concern about the lack of independent evidence that supports the idea that online proctoring can reduce cheating, while students have criticised the invasion of privacy that comes with an invigilator accessing their screen and webcam.

Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) at UNSW Sydney, said the findings should prompt “educators to reassess whether tests and exams really are the best way to measure and assure student learning”.

She added that although there will likely always be a need for some proctored exams, there are at “least some circumstances where there are almost certainly better ways to have students demonstrate their learning achievement”.


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