December 8th, 2017

But What If They Cheat? Giving Non-Proctored Online Assessments


online testing

As online education continues to grow, so does the potential for academic dishonesty. So how do you ensure your online students are not cheating on their tests? Bottom line, you don’t. But there are ways to stack the deck in your favor.

The good news is it’s not as bad as you think. A 2002 study by Grijalva, Kerkvliet, and Nowell it found that “academic dishonesty in a single online class is no more prevalent than in traditional classrooms” (Paullet, Chawdhry, Douglas & Pinchot, 2016, pg. 46). Although the offenders have become quite creative in their endeavors, the prevention remains the best defense.

First, start by creating a culture of integrity. Many institutions have students review the school’s Honor Code and sign a “pledge.” The first question on every exam I give is True/False, “I will follow the Honor Code while taking this assessment.” It follows the similar rule that locked doors are for honest people, but it also serves as a good reminder of the possible consequences, which often is enough to keep many students from breaking the rules.

Second, do not set rules that you have no way to enforce, e.g. forbidding the use of books, notes, or other resources. Instead ask questions that will not be evident in the resources, such as items where students have to analyze, evaluate, and think critically about the content. Essay questions, case study analysis, fill in the blanks, sequencing questions, and hot spot questions are difficult to look up. It also helps to set a time limit for the test so that Googling answers becomes impossible.

Third, make every assessment different. No, I am not saying create 25 exams, but you can scramble questions and create multiple versions of the same test. If everyone finishes the exam with an essay question, you can create three different questions and have one randomly assigned to each exam. If you have deep enough test banks, you can have several different test versions with no question being repeated. Anything you can do to mix up the versions can detour efforts of deceitful activity.

Many instructors withhold feedback until the exam has closed. In this way no one can pass on answers to others. Some will have the exam synchronous for this very reason. However, making the exam synchronous takes away the flexibility for online students that work unusual shifts.

If you have the added budget, your school may want to invest in software that does not allow the student to travel off the page of the test. The downside of this is that students often have multiple devices so there is nothing preventing them from taking the assessment on their laptop and looking things up on their smartphone.

If you are really tech savvy, you can check time stamps for test takers and compare them to the IP address. If multiple students log on to the exam from the same IP address in a relatively short timeframe then it’s probably safe to conclude they are having a test-taking party where they sit together in one location and ask each other for help.

In the end, we must balance the fact that we are teaching adults who deserve a level of trust. And for those students who have a licensure exam waiting for them at the conclusion of their studies, they’re only hurting themselves.


Paullet, K., Chawdhry, A., Douglas, D., & Pinchot, J. (2016). Assessing Faculty Perceptions and techniques to Combat Academic Dishonesty in Online Courses. Information Systems and Computing Academic Professionals. 14 (4), 45-53.

Sullivan, D. (2016). An Integrated Approach to Preempt Cheating on Asynchronous, Objective Online Assessments in Graduate Business Classes. Online Learning, 20 (3) 195-209.

 Sheryl Cornelius is a registered nurse who has been teaching for the last 15+ years in universities and community colleges. For the past three years, she has been teaching online in a nurse educator program in Charlotte, N.C.

  • Laura Shulman

    There are now online proctoring services like ProctorU that students can use from any location.

    • Tess Beebe Olten

      Those aren’t foolproof either. Proctors watch six students at a time, and there are ways to game the system.

  • Judson Garrett

    Software-based, automated proctoring offers the greatest flexibility available for students and instructors. Unscheduled, unlimited usage allows instructors to proctor every quiz, test, and exam throughout the semester. The software delivers exam recordings directly into the school’s LMS and provides a suspicion rating for each exam attempt. This process protects student privacy while keeping the power of determining academic dishonesty in in the hands of instructors.

    Institutions around the globe are increasingly using this solution to verify student identities, secure exam content, and protect academic integrity during online exams.

    Proctorio now offers mobile device secure mode in conjunction with their online proctoring so there is something preventing students from taking the assessment on their laptop and looking things up on their smartphones. Also, the software detects I and head movement to indicate use of any other notes or devices.

  • Adel Lelo

    Great suggestions that can work well for low stakes assessments. I don’t believe honor codes work for high stakes exams, but there are ways to, while not eliminate cheating possibilities, make it much more difficult; high quality, high security online proctoring.