Canadian colleges and universities are in the midst of midterm exam season. But with many students forced to trade in-person lectures and labs for online learning during the pandemic and experts reporting rising cases of academic misconduct, students as well as some instructors are raising the alarm about the software being used to assess them.
Cheating is nothing new, but academic integrity experts have flagged that academic misconduct — which includes plagiarism, falsifying information, submitting work completed by someone else and unauthorized collaboration and sharing of test questions or answers — has been on the rise worldwide since the pandemic began.
“It’s not anything that’s specific to one university, college or higher educational institution. It’s really been a response to the stress that people are experiencing under these unique conditions,” said Amanda McKenzie, director of the University of Waterloo’s office of academic integrity.
“It’s been a pivot for everyone, instructors and students alike, and that means we really have to shift in the way that we’re providing our instruction to students, as well as the way that we assess students.”
The tools that many institutions are employing this year include remote proctoring software designed to monitor students taking online exams and programs that lock down computer systems — for example, to block the opening of a side chat, new browser window or additional program — as they complete a test, quiz or exam.
WATCH | What’s it like to log on to a remotely proctored exam:
With this new generation having grown up so comfortable seeking and sharing information online, “it’s really important at higher educational institutions that we’re clear about what they can access, what they should access and how they should use that information,” McKenzie said.
“If you’re accessing information on the internet to answer questions, without answering them yourself, you’re not really learning that content.”
There are some courses or departments at Waterloo that have e-proctoring in place for exams, McKenzie said, noting that in certain cases, these may be linked to outside requirements from professional agencies (e.g., for board or licensure exams).
However, she said that the southwestern Ontario school encourages its instructors begin by considering other assessment methods.
“Every institution has probably considered proctoring tools,” she said.
“It’s not our first choice.”
At the University of Alberta, school officials have published information about effective assessments for online studies, including highlighting methods that offer an alternative to the “typical sit down, block off an hour to write an exam,” said David Draper, vice-president academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union, in Edmonton.
“But there are a lot of professors who are still doing the sit-down, e-proctored exams,” said the fourth-year arts student. “It just locks down your computer, turns on your webcam and just focuses in on you and scrutinizes every single one of a student’s actions for the entire time.”
Students have come forward to the students’ union raising concerns about these programs, he said.
Exam anxiety ‘magnified’ to nth degree
Some students with disabilities have told him that they rely on specific screen-reader software that’s incompatible with remote proctoring software. Students of colour have had problems where the application doesn’t recognize their faces, and they’re told repeatedly to move somewhere with better lighting, Draper said.
“In a regular year, exam anxiety has a massive impact on students.… When you have your entire life, your entire location scrutinized to immense detail, that just gets magnified up to the nth degree,” he said.
“We [have a greater] workload for classes, we’re being monitored way more intently than ever before on our exams and our overall mental health is degrading.”
Kristin Smith, vice-president advocacy of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU), has heard similar worries from her peers in Winnipeg.
“Students obviously have a lot of anxiety around being watched through a camera while they take an exam, and specifically they were concerned that some of their movements would be unduly flagged as being suspicious and then lead to false accusations of academic dishonesty,” said the third-year arts student.
They’ve asked a wide range of questions, she recounted, from more general (What if I need to use the restroom? What happens if I lose my internet connection?) to specific privacy concerns (Could my photo and identification information be leaked? Will my information be used for advertising?).
“What a student should be focusing on during an examination is demonstrating their knowledge, not having to think about every movement, having this anxiety about whether they’re going to be flagged.”
The UMSU assembled a list of recommendations for the university’s consideration of assessment during the pandemic, including the use of remote proctoring. Though Smith said she and her colleagues recognize that some courses may require e-proctored exams, “it just has to be implemented correctly.”
Being considered cheaters before submitting any work
The adoption of certain kinds of assessment tools can make students feel like they’re being considered cheaters or academically dishonest before they’ve even submitted any work, according to academic integrity expert Ceceilia Parnther.
Students are being asked to jump through hoops — showing where they live, being in an interruption-free space with bright lighting, having an internet connection that doesn’t drop, maintaining consistent eye contact or interaction with a webcam, keeping still and/or silent — in addition to knowing the course content, she said.
“When you have things like this that are embedded now as part of a course and students have to navigate who they are and what they look like to take exams, it presents an entirely new set of challenges, and it increases anxiety,” said Parnther, an assistant professor in the department of administrative and instructional leadership at St. John’s University in New York.
Whether or not a student is actually cheating, a feeling of being watched or judged to a different standard can fuel anxiety that contributes to lower achievement “but also a likelihood that a student might consider doing those things that would help them to get an edge.”
WATCH | Professor outlines why students might consider cheating:
“The question becomes ‘what do we do, as institutions, to create the conditions where students feel they have the opportunity to be engaged, that they understand what their responsibility is in the learning process?'” Parnther said.
“We’re never going to stop students from cheating.… But I think that we can get students more engaged and more invested in feeling like doing honest work matters.”
Rethinking how to teach, assess students
The act of moving most students online hasn’t turned more students into cheaters, according to Sarah Elaine Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education.
She said that approximately a decade of research prior to the pandemic showed that in cases where the same course was taught in-person and online, there was less cheating in the latter instance. Instead, she blames the rise of academic misconduct on the uncertainty of the pandemic itself.
“We have people teaching online who have never taught online before. We also have students learning online who have never learned online before. So we have a situation where expectations are not clear, assessments may not be appropriate for the online environment and students may not understand what is OK to share,” said Eaton, whose research focuses on academic integrity.
The pandemic has challenged educators to rethink how they teach and assess students, in particular, those instructors who haven’t changed their methods for years, she said.
While a multiple choice test might be appropriate in some cases, there are also a host of alternative ways to gauge what students have learned, Eaton said, from one-on-one oral exams via Zoom to collaborative group projects to having students create a podcast or infographic.
Student groups have also recommended essays, papers, open book and take-home exams, as well as assignments or quizzes weighed more evenly throughout the course (versus one massive final exam), as different assessment methods that don’t require online proctoring software and are more likely to curb academic misconduct from the start.
WATCH | Schools implement online exam monitoring to stave off cheating but spark controversy:
Eaton believes the questions students have raised about some of these online tools — about privacy and specific student populations placed at a disadvantage, for example — are ones everyone should be concerned about.
“I’m actually super proud of the student groups that are driving that conversation because institutions should have been asking those questions before they signed the contracts,” she said.
Still, she said many Canadian schools are re-evaluating how they assess students as the pandemic continues.
They’re considering questions such as “Can we have exams with real proctors who are teachers that have a relationship with students?” Eaton said.
“Can we do in-person if the exams are absolutely needed, so that we can preserve the integrity of the exam and also help to preserve the mental health of our students?”