Dealing with cheating

At BI Norwegian Business School, we are (naturally and way overdue, but a virus crisis helps) moving all exams to digital. This means a lot of changes for people who have not done that before. One particular anxiety is cheating – normally not a problem in the subjects I teach (case- and problem oriented, master/executive, small classes) but certainly is an issue in large classes at the bachelor level, where many answers are easily found online, the students are many, and the subjects introductory in nature.

Here are some strategies to deal with this:

  • Have an academic honesty policy and have the students sign it as part of the exam. This to make them aware of they risk if they cheat.
  • Keep the exam time short – three hours at the max – and deliberately ask more questions than usual. This makes for less time for cheating (by collaborating) because collaboration takes time. It also means introducing more differentiation between the students – if just a few students manage to answer all questions, those are the A candidates. Obviously, you need to adjust the grade scale somewhat (you can’t expect all to answer everything) and there is an issue of awarding students that are good at taking exams at the expense of deep learning, but that is the way of all exams.
  • Don’t ask the obvious questions, especially not those asked on previous exams. Sorry, no reuse. Or perhaps a little bit (it is a tiring time.)
  • Tell the students that all answers will be subjected to an automated plagiarism check. Whether this is true or not, does not matter – plagiarism checkers are somewhat unreliable, have many false positives, and require a lot of afterwork – but just the threat will eliminate much cheating. (Personally, I look for cleverly crafted answers and Google them, amazing what shows up…).
  • Tell the students that after the written exam, they can be called in for an oral exam where they will need to show how they got their answers (if it is a single-answer, mathematically oriented course) or answer more detailed questions (if it is a more analysis- or literature oriented course). Who gets called in (via videoconference) will be partially random and partially based on suspicion. Failing the orals results in failing the course.
  • When you write the questions: If applicable, Google them, look at the most common results, and deliberately reshape the questions so that the answer is not one of those.
  • Use an example for the students to discuss/calculate, preferably one that is fresh from a news source or from a deliberately obscure academic article they have not seen before.
  • Consider giving sub-groups of students different numbers to work from – either automatically (different questions allocated through the exam system) or by having questions like “If your student ID ends in an even number (0,2,4,6,8) answer question 2a, otherwise answer question 2b” (use the student ID, not “birthday in January, February, March…” as this will be the only marker you have.) The questions may have the same problem, but with small, unimportant differences such as names, coefficients or others. This makes it much harder to collaborate for the students. (If you do multiple questions in an electronic context, I assume a number of the tools will have functionality for changing the order of the questions – it would, frankly, astonish me if they did not – but I don’t use multiple choice myself, so I don’t know.
  • Consider telling the students they will all get different problems (as discussed above) but not doing it. It still will prevent a lot of cheating simply because the students believe they all have different problems and act accordingly.
  • If you have essay questions, ask the students to pick a portion of them and answer them. I do this on all my exams anyway – give the students 6 questions with short (150 words) answers and ask them to pick 4 and answer only those, and give them 2 or 3 longer questions (400 words or so) and ask them to answer only one. (Make it clear that answering them all will result in only the first answered will be considered.) Again, this makes cheating harder.

Lastly: You can’t eliminate cheating in regular, physical exams, so don’t think you can do it in online exams. But you certainly can increase the disincentives to do so, and that is the most you can hope for.

Department for future ideas
I have always wanted to use machine learning for grading exams. At BI, we have some exams with 6000 candidates writing textual answers. Grading this surely must constitute cruel and unusual punishment. With my eminent colleague Chandler Johnson I tried to start a project where we would have graders grade 1000 of these exams, then use text recognition and other tools, build an ML model and use that to grade the rest. Worth an experiment, surely. The project (like many other ideas) never took off, largely because of difficulties of getting the data, but perhaps this situation will make it possible.

And that would be a good thing…