Test Proctoring and Fall 2020

We’re looking at another term — and maybe more — of learning and assessment that happens predominantly through online means. This can make instructors nervous about maintaining academic integrity for their assignments and exam materials in particular. It also poses some thorny ethical questions for those presenting and grading tests, which I think we need to take a few minutes to unpack. I’ll provide my own views here, and I’d welcome further discussion!

The Risks…

Test proctoring through remote technology is imperfect at best and can be threatening in some forms: It requires surveillance of students in their homes. Many of the technological solutions to replacing traditional in-person test taking come with a host of privacy and access issues. For example, some proctoring services require eye-motion tracking; others require students to show their entire room to the camera; still others will invalidate tests for any interruption, leaving students with little recourse over infractions as minor as resting their chin on their hand or reaching out to move an interrupting pet from the desk.

If you’re working from home right now, you can imagine what might be shown — or what might interrupt — you at any moment. Now, put yourself in the position of a student being asked to take a high-stakes examination, while also concerned that a child or roommate might come in at the wrong moment.

In addition, using proctored testing services for students can set up an atmosphere of distrust from the start. I’ll admit, when first reading this critique a few years ago, I felt automatically defensive about the accusation that my use of anti-cheating technology was inherently discriminatory. In the intervening years, watching not only the discussion among faculty about these practices but also hearing from my own students, I’ve come around to the ideas that Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, heads of the Digital Pedagogy Lab, support and espouse.

…Outweigh “The Rewards”

There’s not much evidence that online proctoring services or technology have any impact on improving student learning or preventing cheating. In fact, they may do the opposite, while having a negative impact on student success. Josh Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, summed this up nicely in a blog post today. Here’s a key excerpt:

There will always be those who have planted their flags of resistance firmly on the hills of rigor and standards. These are not bad things in an of themselves–I believe in having standards for our students and helping them to meet those standards–but when they conflict with students’ ability to do their best work or even serve as an obstacle to students’ emotional wellbeing, then we need to look closely at why the commitment to rigor and standards is so rigid… Those who are not persuaded by the ethical and empathetic position should know that proctoring software fails miserably when checked against the science of learning too.

Josh Eyler, “The Science of Learning vs. Proctoring Software.”

Little research exists into whether online proctoring has an impact on student test-taking behaviors. Are students less likely to cheat when being monitored? Maybe. Are students who would have done well (and never considered cheating) more likely to struggle because they are being monitored? That result seems clear.

What’s the alternative?

Put succinctly, the alternative is to trust that students are enrolled in courses because they want to learn, and then to provide them with the best opportunities to demonstrate what they’ve learned (and support to make sure they’ve learned it) throughout the course.

Project-based learning presents likely the best alternative to high-stakes testing in general. In courses where this seems impossible, restructuring exams to make sure that they assess the skills necessary in the course — not memorization of facts but the ability to demonstrate learning — can still be done through standard quiz methods. Lowering the stakes for some tests by offering multiple attempts and promoting recursive learning is another strategy that has promise.

Most importantly, talk to your students about whatever path you want to take. Showing that you value their learning and trust their integrity will go a long way toward building a learning community and a culture of honesty. Students are talking about these practices among themselves, and the reviews for this type of monitoring are overwhelmingly negative — and often very public. Students are experts in their own situations, and involving them in the decision of how to assess and monitor learning can be a rewarding experience for everyone!

Further Reading:

4 thoughts on “Test Proctoring and Fall 2020

  1. Andrea Goering

    Would you say there’s a difference between using projects as assessments versus project-based learning? I had always thought project-based learning referred to a more extensive time focused on the specific project, and that there was a lot of self-direction.

    By contrast, one can give take-home, open-book and open-note exams which focus on applied (non-Google-able) questions but that don’t require the curricular overhaul that project-based learning would entail.

    1. Jenn Kepka

      They go hand-in-hand to me, but looking at this, I’ve used the language too interchangeably!

      I think wandering down the path of PBL leads to experimentation with projects as assessments, or student involvement in deciding how to quantify success, for instance. Applied learning in exams seems like an intermediate (and valuable) step in this evolution. Exams still imply a set amount of time in which to demonstrate skills through a result, whereas PBL is (often) more about learning through the process as much as the finished product (particularly when learners get engaged in deciding on evaluation criteria).

  2. Katie Winder

    Thanks for this well-written article, Jenn! It’s circulating around LBCC right now as we also are struggling with this in our remote learning environment (we are using Respondus, mostly in the math department). I hope you are well!


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