Proctoring Online Exams or Tests Is Essential

By Scott McFarland
March 23, 2021

Proctoring online exams or tests is essential. By that I do not mean it is important or simply a good idea. I mean it’s indispensable.

That may come across as bold, even brash to some. And, yes, I am aware how self-serving it can sound when the CEO of any company says how necessary their company’s service is.

But to whatever extent there is a debate or a dialogue going on about online or remote proctoring in assessment, there are still facts. And those facts, uncomfortable as they may be to confront, are not going away. They lead, unavoidably, to the truth of my opening statement – that, if the goal of an exam or test or assignment is to measure learning or skill mastery, proctoring online exams is not optional.

Let’s review what we know.

Proctoring Online Exams Is Needed to Ensure Academic Integrity

The first thing we know is that academic misconduct, cheating, is common. Academic studies going back more than 50 years estimate that at least 50% of college students cheat at least once during their schooling.

In fact, it may be far more than one in every two. In their seminal 2012 book, Cheating in College, researchers Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Klebe Trevino put the number higher. “More than two-thirds of college students report they engaged in some form of academic dishonesty in the previous year,” they write. Note, “in the previous year” and that this, like most all research on misconduct, likely still undercounts infractions since it’s based on self-reported surveys that rely on people being honest about their dishonesty.

Some evidence also suggests that cheating is on the rise. And whatever upward trajectory cheating was on, it is also likely that academic misconduct has exploded over the past year, as a result of the sudden and thorough move online.

Editor’s note: In Cheating in College, McCabe, Butterfield, and Klebe report that rates of self-reported student cheating have been falling since the ’90s.

A laptop stands partway open on a table in a shadowy living room.
Niek Doup, Unsplash.

Of course, online courses have long presented a challenge for academic integrity. And though research about the correlation is ongoing, a research paper published in Computers in Human Behavior Reports provided a recent summary of the evidence. The authors, Seife Dendir and R. Stockton Maxwell, write, “studies are increasingly reporting that academic dishonesty – in perception as well as self-reported behavior – is more common in online environments.” It also says, “Although the early literature was somewhat inconclusive on the extent of cheating in online courses, recently there is mounting evidence that it is substantial.”

With that as a baseline, our own data shows that confirmed violations of academic integrity in online tests – we call them confirmed breaches – increased more than 800% starting in March, 2020, just as the pandemic move to online happened.

Anecdotal Reports Suggest Cheating Increased When Schools Quickly Transitioned to Remote Learning

The impact of this shift has been too recent to study with quality academic research. But the anecdotal evidence is persuasive. Multiple speakers at the most recent annual conference of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) spoke candidly about the surge in integrity violations they are handling at their schools. Most of those are related to online exams.

In just the 60 days between January 20 and March 20 of this year, we logged 20 schools that publicly reported increased incidents of cheating. Collectively, they accounted for more than 5,000 separate incidents.

Those are just the ones we know about, that have made the news. They are also only the cases that were reported to school leaders, which may represent as little of 1% of actual cheating incidents. That’s according to an ICAI presentation this month by Medicine Hat College Interim Dean Rick Robinson and Director of Teaching and Learning Jason Openo. Faculty, their research shows, are incredibly reluctant to report students who violate integrity rules.

In other words, whatever we already know the rate of cheating is, it’s probably much worse.

Which brings us back to proctoring.

Schools Need to Ensure Academic Integrity

If cheating is happening, and potentially happening more online – why is remote proctoring a solution?

Again, the research, what we accept as proof in complex systems, is clear. In their study published last December cited above, researchers Dendir and Maxwell found, “that some form of direct proctoring is perhaps the most effective way of mitigating cheating during high-stakes online assessments.” The authors also write, “other tangential measures … can be helpful but should be thought of as a complement, not a replacement, to direct proctoring.”

In that study, the researchers studied 19 sections of two online, asynchronous courses. They proctored exams in 10 sections and did not do so in the other nine. “The findings of the study suggest that cheating was taking place in the unsupervised exams,” they wrote, adding, “From these results one can also infer that online proctoring of assessments is a viable strategy to mitigate cheating in online courses.”

Proctoring is also common sense. People are less likely to engage in dishonest conduct when they know they’re being watched, when they know there’s an increased likelihood they’ll be caught. It’s the very reason that banks and convenience stores have security cameras and why you probably instinctively slow down on the highway when you see a police car.

But even at that, the role of proctoring in deterring misconduct is understated.

A separate, peer-reviewed research paper published in May of 2020 in the Journal of the National College Testing Association also confirmed the link between online classes and dishonesty. The authors write, “With the advent of online learning, that ability for students to engage unseen with faculty has grown, as has the ability for students to cheat and rarely get caught.” They also make the case that, by not proctoring online exams instructors essentially encourage cheating.

That paper says unambiguously, “Results of this study found that students are insistent that the responsibility for mitigating the opportunity for cheating be placed on the institution and the instructor. It is imperative that faculty, staff, and administrators understand that the perceived responsibility of an institution is that unless cheating is being prevented and discussed, the institution is essentially tacitly encouraging it.”

In other words, the consequences of proctoring or not proctoring an exam are real and extend to the powerful, subtle messages instructors and institutions send about how they themselves value those assessments, the courses, and, ultimately, the degrees and credentials they award. In online classes specifically – where misconduct may be more likely and where in-person proctoring is impossible – the entire education value proposition of grades and credentials is wrapped up in whether assessments are proctored or not.

Let me be clear: proctoring by itself is not a solution to academic misconduct. Instead, it’s part of a solution that includes robust student supports, innovative assessment design and delivery, honor codes, smaller classes, empowered teachers, clear policies, and a culture of open conversation about misconduct.

Let me also add that not all proctoring methods are equal. Some are active environments for engaged teaching and others are passive and robotic. I can share the research and statistics as to why our technology-assisted but human-first system is the best way to go. But whatever approach is used, proctoring is still a yes-or-no proposition. A test session is either verified, observed, standardized, equalized, and protected by proctoring, or it’s not.

It’s no longer credible for an institution to certify or stand behind the value of an educational attainment done online without any integrity safeguards such as proctoring. If an institution is planning to certify learning accomplishments in an online environment, and assessments of any kind are used, proctoring is essential. Otherwise, the assessment is so devalued and cheating can be so common that it becomes impossible to say with any accuracy what any specific student actually knows or what they actually did to earn their grade or degree.

Scott McFarland is CEO of ProctorU.

Editor’s note 3/29/21: This is not a sponsored post. All Op-Eds published by eLearning Inside have been submitted, accepted, and edited without the exchange of money or any other compensation. We follow the model set by the New York Times when they launched their section in 1970. At the time, their editors wrote:

“The purpose of the Op. Ed. page is neither to reinforce nor to counterbalance The Times’s own editorial position. The objective is rather to afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from our own.”

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Featured Image: Logan Weaver, Unsplash.


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