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Should students be allowed to use Google during online exams?

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Should students be allowed to use Google during online exams?
Should students be allowed to use Google during online exams?

Should students be allowed to use Google during online exams?

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Depends, but usually not.

I recently observed a university administrator maintain that students cheating using Google (and other search engines) during online exams is not of significant interest as “there is not enough time in a one-hour test to search for answers to upwards of 50-questions contained in exams.” The room, full of faculty, nodded their heads in endorsement.

Surprisingly, the administrator acknowledged that students were indeed cheating in their use of search engines (as opposed to potentially-benign usage such as looking up word definitions). He further contended that any students’ outcome would no doubt result in a failing grade due to “only having time to partially complete the test.”

Not only does this notion create a cyclical model of failure for students and neglect the school’s set forth academic integrity policy, but the idea of cheaters not having enough time to cheat using Google is simply wrong.

In a properly constructed online exam, a short time limit more-negatively affects honest students who must comprehend, synthesize, and critically evaluate the questions while violators skip this process entirely.

So how did this misconception for online testing come about? Reduced time limits for exams certainly used to be part of online academic integrity best practices and culture; most likely derived to diminish the aid of textbooks during online exams. In this case, the well-prepared student would have a considerable advantage over those needing to pinpoint an answer in a sea of unread material.

The speed of cheat.

Technology has evolved, effectively reversing the roles. Students using search engines to cheat have a rampant advantage over integrity-driven students when it comes to short time limits. It’s not uncommon for the former to complete a 50-question exam in under fifteen minutes. It probably helps that they don’t even have to read the questions — answers are just a copy and paste keyboard-shortcut away.

A user typically only needs to Google a single string to find the answer: the question itself. This internet magic trick is courtesy of search engine indexing.

The spectrum of test-bank availability ranges from ‘not there yet’ to ‘at your fingertips’

In any given exam, the chances of finding the exact matching test-bank by searching for a single question is astounding. In essence, you’re using the word-for-word uniqueness of the question as an identifier to locate websites hosting a copy of the entire test-bank.

Try it yourself; get creative with your searches by adding quotations around your string to yield verbatim results or try removing numbers in problems requiring calculation to find instructor solution manuals.

My team found that nearly 80% of exam materials tested are online, hosted by third-party sites, often posturing as study-help resources. The spectrum of test-bank availability ranges from ‘not there yet’ to ‘at your fingertips’ depending on the originality of the content, date of its creation, and format of the test.

Multiple-choice tests from textbook publishers seem to be the biggest victims; their test answers are almost always accessible. It seems that only recently created, self-authored tests offer any assurance that the content has not made its way onto the internet.

Multiple-choice tests from textbook publishers are the biggest offenders; their test answers are almost always accessible.

Can’t stop, won’t stop.

While writing new and original test content every semester would be ideal for curtailing the online presence of exams, to do it right would be nearly impossible.

Writing online test content that is thoroughly original, utilizes Bloom’s taxonomic complexity, and is SLO-driven is no trivial feat. This is further amplified by the fact that online exam best practices suggest generating question selection from moderately-sized question pools.

This issue is a by-product of advances in internet-based technology, and has outpaced most of the best guidance currently available. The next step seemed to be securing existing content, so we built-in a digital content security tool into Honorlock as an effortless approach to this challenge.

One thing we know: continuing to reduce time limits for online exams is no longer an effective strategy. The consequences include creating an unbalanced playing field for honest students and may ultimately persuade well-meaning students into succumbing into the advantages of light-speed technology temptations.

It might not hurt to finally give the honest students a break. Go ahead and extend those time limits, friends. Your star pupils will thank you and cheaters won’t know the difference.

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