Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What to Do About Cheating on Assessments in Virtual Learning?

By Thomas R. Guskey — August 30, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest blog is written by Thomas R. Guskey, professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky.

As we reopen schools with a return to virtual instruction, teachers remain concerned about how to prevent students from cheating on assessments. To provide meaningful grades, teachers need accurate information on what students have learned. But how can we ensure accurate assessment results if we can’t prevent students from cheating?

To address this problem requires that we first consider why students cheat. Evidence indicates that students don’t cheat on assessments because they’re lazy or unmotivated. In many instances, cheating actually requires more effort than determined preparation. Students cheat on assessments because of the consequences attached to their performance and uncertainty about results. In other words, they fear what might happen if they don’t do well and they’re unsure about how best to prepare.

Students know that teachers generally use assessments for two purposes: (1) to hold students accountable, and (2) to determine students’ grades. Past experience tells them, however, that assessments don’t always align with what teachers emphasize in teaching or what was practiced during instruction. Preparing for assessments, therefore, becomes a guessing game where students try to anticipate what their teachers are likely to require. This uncertainty prompts the question that teachers disdain but students so frequently ask, “Will this be on the test?”

Teachers generally try to discourage or prevent students from cheating on assessments in one of three ways. The first approach is to strictly control the context of assessment administration, especially in virtual environments. Teachers who use this option set a specific time for the assessment, limit the time they allow students to complete the assessment, and try to restrict students’ access to resources that might aid their performance, such as cellphones, books, online materials, or other students. Testing organizations concerned with the validity of assessment results and assessment security use this approach.

A second approach is to increase the severity of consequences for cheating. In using this option, teachers try to heighten students’ fear about what will happen if they are caught cheating. For example, students may face public embarrassment, huge amounts of extra work, penalties that make achieving a passing grade all but impossible, or assignment of a failing grade that cannot be rectified.

A third, potentially more effective but far less frequently used approach, is to change the purpose of assessments. Teachers using this option make assessments about feedback and learning rather than about accountability and grading. They focus on the formative purposes of assessments where results serve primarily to guide students and teachers in making improvements.

In other words, instead of changing the assessment context or altering the severity of consequences, teachers simply take away students’ reasons for cheating. Why cheat on an assessment if that hurts your chances of getting the individualized assistance you need to do well? Some teachers go so far as to make every assessment formative until students get it, and only then do they consider results for summative purposes related to accountability and grading.

The Power of Feedback
Making assessments about feedback and learning requires distinguishing the gradebook from the report card and disabling any gradebook function that calculates a grade before the end of the grading period. This allows teachers to record formative assessment results in the gradebook, even when they don’t count those results as part of students’ report card grades. Families need to know how students perform on formative assessments so they can monitor progress, provide support when needed, and celebrate successes. However, by making the formative-assessment results in the gradebook about feedback, teachers ensure the attention of families and students is on learning rather than on accumulating points to earn a grade.

Focusing on feedback and learning also requires disabling the grade computations built into online grading programs. For example, when students’ report card grades are based on their level of achievement at the end of the grading period, scores from the beginning of the grading period cannot be averaged in when determining those grades. Summative tallies are important, but not until the end of the grading period when teachers will make grade decisions based on the best evidence available at that time related to their grading purpose. This allows students to make mistakes along the way and not worry about irreparable consequences. It also gives students the chance to experiment, be creative, try new ideas and new approaches. If something doesn’t work, they have opportunities to fix things, to recover, and to improve.

Perhaps most important, making assessments about feedback and learning changes the teacher’s role, especially in virtual learning environments. Instead of being an assessment constable, concerned with the sanctity of the assessment process, teachers can become learning facilitators, focused on helping students master important learning goals. Instead of worrying about how to detect cheating and how to prevent students from cheating, teachers can concentrate on helping students use assessment results to improve their learning and reach higher levels of achievement. Taking away students’ reason to cheat not only lessens teachers’ burden in a virtual learning environment, it also allows teachers to do what they really want to do: help their students succeed in learning and gain the many valuable benefits of that success.

Connect with Tom Guskey on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Getty.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.