How can I prevent students from cheating on tests and exams?
The pandemic has made this question even more frequent, since many educators are concerned about the quality of learning and the possibility of cheating. Yet, it’s always been a common question among educators.
There’s a flaw in this question, though: It assumes that students want to cheat and will cheat. It also is reactive instead of preventive. My advice and coaching, as a discipline-based education researcher in science, has always been to avoid Band-Aid fixes and solve the root of the problem. I encourage teachers and professors to reflect on two questions:
- Why do students cheat?
- How can we, as educators, create a culture that eliminates the desire to cheat?
To eliminate the temptation of cheating, we need to adopt strategies that reduce anxiety about tests and exams, increase clarity of learning expectations and students’ learning progress, and emphasize the process of learning. We want students to be relaxed with tests and exams and see them as nothing more than an opportunity to demonstrate their current knowledge and skills.
8 Strategies to Change Class Structure and Shift Students’ Perspectives
1. Change your language: Sometimes, unintentionally, our language and behavior reinforce an emphasis on correct answers and grades. During instruction, try to use more open-ended questions that begin with “Why” or “How.” Emphasize process instead of final, definitive answers.
As a science, technology, engineering, and math educator, I have students explain how they solved the problem, and I assign more points on assessments for showing the thinking process and problem-solving. I resist answering students when they ask for a correct answer. Instead, I reply with a question to encourage them to think through the problem.
2. Constructive alignment: The alignment of learning objectives, instruction, and assessment is critical to reduce cheating. Learning objectives provide clarity of the expectations. When students know that the learning objectives are representative of the exam, they do not have as much test anxiety about the unknown. They can better prepare for the assessment.
3. Frequent low-stakes assessments: Frequent low-stakes assessments reduce the anxiety of a heavily weighted test or exam, and they also provide timely feedback to the student about their learning, which brings clarity and again reduces the unknown. I encourage improvement in my courses. I will replace any low-stakes assessment with their test or exam grade, if they demonstrate improvement. This creates a culture in which students can be rewarded for their growth and learning from mistakes.
4. Diagnostic tests: One week before a large unit test in my course, students independently complete a diagnostic test. They review the diagnostic in groups using a specific protocol. They determine the correct answer, what made the problem difficult, what was essential to know, and how they could better study or prepare for similar questions. At no point do I provide correct answers. Students love brainstorming study strategies with their peers. They then have a week to study and seek further guidance.
5. Test design: There is so much cognitive processing that goes on during a test, and much of it is not related to the actual content. Let students know the structure and format in advance. Use a cover sheet that has a cartoon or other funny, topic-related joke to activate dopamine boosters to calm students. I include mindfulness prompts to reduce anxiety and remind students to break problems down into smaller steps.
Additionally, line dividers between questions, rubrics for point breakdowns, clearly defined places to write answers and show work, and plenty of spacing between questions are all formatting structures that help reduce the cognitive load on students. Minimal effort should be spent trying to figure out how to take the test.
6. Question design: We can ask questions that eliminate a single definite answer and reinforce the process of learning. Ask questions that focus on students’ problem-solving or thinking process. Another option is to use creation-style questions. Ask students to explain an example or create a scenario with certain criteria. I also give a problem fully solved, and students analyze the response and justify their analysis with evidence. If students know that questions are more about their individual thinking, they will respect the assessment process more.
7. Review and reflect with exam wrappers: Emphasize the process of learning by explicitly teaching students to reflect on their learning. Using exam wrappers, which are guides with reflective questions, will help students identify their performance and strategies to improve. It’s not enough for students to know what their mistakes were; they need to understand why they made these mistakes.
8. Metacognitive check-ins: After the exam wrapper, students answer four questions. First, they identify their strengths in the course; second, they note their areas of improvement; and third, they describe actions to improve and change. The fourth question empowers them to think about how they can advocate for themselves and seek help from their teacher. I have student conferences in which we discuss the four questions. This reduces the anxiety of talking with a teacher and not knowing what to talk about.