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Universities grapple with new ways to test students to combat cheating

June 29, 2020 12:51 pm

Universities are exploring new ways to tackle cheating and prepare students for workplace demands in a post-coronavirus world, with a particular focus on how exams and other assessments are conducted.

Academic integrity researcher Cath Ellis, who is associate dean of education in the faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of NSW, has found the bulk of students who cheat do so under the noses of supervisors during old-fashioned exams.

“The trust that people put in the integrity of invigilated exams may be misplaced,” she said.

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Associate Professor Ellis and a team of researchers recently found that close to 6 per cent of more than 14,000 university students surveyed admitted to cheating.

Of those, more than half said they had provided help with exams and 41 per cent said they received help.

About 8 per cent admitted to taking an exam for someone else and 4.2 per cent admitted someone else had done their exam.

“This research showed that exam cheating remains the most common type of contract cheating behaviour to which students admit,” she said.

It was also the most likely to have involved payment including through a professional service.

Some universities have started using expensive new software that monitors individual students through cameras and keyboards to keep an eye on students sitting exams. Different versions included directly watching students, tracking their eye movements and keyboard activity.

The changes come as the federal government establishes a $3.9 million integrity unit in the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). New legislation will empower the unit to block access to cheating websites using court injunctions.

Associate Professor Ellis said the COVID-19 crisis had prompted universities to reconsider traditional ways of examining hundreds of students.

“The real challenge we are facing is what can we do to replace exams,” she said.

“I do appreciate there is a need for them in some circumstances. Whether we over-rely on them as an assessment technique is a valid question for us to ask ourselves.

“I think that there are cleverer more authentic ways to assess student learning and that is where a lot of universities are putting their efforts,” Associate Professor Ellis said.

This included assessment of a broader range of skills students would be expected to demonstrate in the workforce. In that vein, the University of Sydney is trialling the assessment of student qualities including inventiveness, cultural competence and influence, which it hopes to adopt across all faculties.

The university’s acting registrar and academic director for education policy and quality, Peter McCallum, said there had been a mixed response from different faculties including some that had raised concerns about their ability to fairly assess the graduate attributes.

Law professor Barbara McDonald said the law faculty had objected to the proposed assessment of students’ cultural competence or influence, among other things.

“Many academics have deep concerns about assessing cultural competence, and think it is ridiculous to be trying to assess whether a student has influence, as opposed to assessing their expertise and communication skills to go out and be influential,” she said. “We think this is distracting us from our core responsibilities and would be impracticable to do fairly and meaningfully across hundreds of students.”

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