Ways to prevent students from cheating through online applications (opinion)

COVID-19 has impacted higher education in many ways and will likely continue to influence the academy in the future. Students found themselves in an extremely difficult situation during the pandemic, having to deal with online classes and, in many cases, forced to interact with their peers only through the internet.

Online communication applications such as GroupMe, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp have supported these interactions. Such applications allow students to communicate in private groups using any electronic device, but more easily a cell phone. Groups can include not only class members but also students from other fields such as Greek organizations, clubs, teams, etc. For example, students in an introductory psychology course can form a group to exchange messages about that course.

A group begins when a single student registers their group on an online application. This person then invites other people or receives requests from them for permission to join the group. Once another student is authorized to join the group, they can access the group by clicking on their device. All members are free to add others to the group, but only members of a group can access them.

The main purpose of these online groups – to allow easy communication – has most likely served the students well. Such groups appear to have improved the social and learning experiences of students. Consider just three possible uses:

  • You are a freshman on campus trying to meet class peers.
  • You missed class and need grades.
  • You did not understand something from the lecture and want clarification.

In either case, whether you need hookups, notes, or an explanation, an online communication app can help.

Yet at the same time, these apps have a negative side that is rarely talked about: the potential for cheating that is almost impossible to detect.

Several months ago I gave the first exam in an online course. After the exam, I received an email from a student who told me that many of their classmates – ultimately 35 out of 270 students – had posted screenshots of the exam to a GroupMe . Not only were students sending screenshots of the exam questions to their peers, they were constantly discussing the exam questions. If this student hadn’t contacted me, I probably would never have known about the cheating. The experience made me wonder if my colleagues were also faced with this type of online cheating. Also, I felt like I had lost control of my class, and I didn’t know how to best fight this type of cheating.

The cheating incident made me think more like my students – and how they might use these apps – and drastically change the way I present graded material in my classes. I also kept in mind that the fact that students don’t cheat because of an honor code or statements in a program was probably going to be a losing battle, based on years of college cheating research. Unfortunately, many students are ready to cheat, and online communication apps give them another way to do it.

Six strategies

Can online cheating via apps be stopped in its tracks? It’s unlikely, but at least some of it can be preventable. Here are six strategies to help you deter potential cheating.

  1. If possible, take the quizzes and exams only in person. While online delivery and scoring of exams and quizzes may seem easier, the possibility of students cheating using online apps will most likely increase when students are out of your sight.
  2. If you decide to take exams and quizzes online, develop a question bank. For example, if you have a 40-question exam, randomly select 40 questions from a bank of 80 questions. This strategy makes it more difficult for students to share information because they will not all be given the same questions.
  3. Decrease the time allotted for a specific graded activity. With a decrease in time from, say, 50 minutes to 40 minutes, students can think twice before using precious minutes to move from activity to group verification and vice versa. Keep in mind, however, that this change may have an impact on students who tend to take longer to complete these activities.
  4. Do not offer an extended window, such as a full 24 hour period, to start and process the graded material. This extended window is an invitation for students to communicate with each other online about the material. Also, remember that students are willing to compromise with their classmates when it comes to providing and receiving information. For example, in Exam 1, Student 1 completes and gives the answers to Student 2, and vice versa in Exam 2.
  5. Don’t rely on software that prevents students from accessing the Internet on their computers during exams, quizzes, or homework. Likewise, do not rely on software that records student movements when graded material is presented. Internet blocking software will not prevent students from accessing online groups using other electronic devices. Also, the video can show students looking around or accessing these other devices, but in most cases you will need to take the time to watch your students’ recordings, and even then it can. always be difficult to determine if someone was using another. device to access a group and cheat.
  6. Avoid questions about graded activities that require only one correct answer. Such responses are the easiest to communicate through a group. Instead, ask questions that require creativity, critical thinking, and application of information.

In conclusion, as university professors, we must recognize that many of our students are ready to use online communication applications to facilitate cheating. I hope the above strategies will help you take back control of your classroom and mitigate this type of cheating.

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