The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in academic cheating’s biggest increase in 16 years, according to Jarrod Morgan, founder of test supervision company Meazure Learning.
A new study by Meazure shows that from 2019 to 2021, confirmed cases of academic cheating during online monitored tests increased by about 13 times.
“We’re catching them definitely trying to break the rules of the exam at a much higher rate than they were pre-pandemic,” Morgan said.
The study analyzed 3 million supervised online tests for more than 1,000 universities and credentialing providers.
“The level of confirmable violations of test rules that we’re seeing, incidents of what we would call provable cheating, is obscenely high—exponentially higher than anything we’d seen before the pandemic,” Meazure Learning’s chief compliance officer, Ashley Norris, said.
“When we see that more than 1 in every 15 students taking a remote exam is engaging in conduct that can be considered cheating, that’s a significant problem.”
The study found that cheating is more common in higher education tests than in professional tests such as bar exams or pharmacy licensing tests.
Meazure’s survey backs the results of many smaller surveys and anecdotal evidence that have pointed out a rising wave of cheating.
Caught on Laptop Camera
Meazure’s survey examined three categories of student cheating or potential cheating behavior.
These included unpermitted resources removed before exams began, active interventions by proctors, and confirmed cheating.
If a student has a non-allowed resource, or if a test proctor actively intervenes, it doesn’t confirm that the student was cheating, the survey stated.
The student could have forgotten to put their books away, gotten a phone call at a bad time, or even had a cat jump onto the computer’s keyboard.
“An active intervention is not necessarily an indication of misconduct,” the survey results read.
But these events can often still be suspicious.
During the pandemic, the rate of unpermitted resources discovered by proctors before exams rose from 60.3 percent in 2019 to 68.8 percent in 2020.
In 2021, that rate remained fairly steady at 68.7 percent.
Active interventions tripled from happening in about 10 percent of exams shortly before the pandemic to happening in about 28 percent of exams in 2020.
But the biggest increase in cheating was in confirmed breach cheating cases. Confirmed cheating has a very high evidence threshold, Morgan said. Two proctors must independently verify that someone cheated, and the school administering the test also has to confirm the incident.
“That person is dead to rights,” Morgan said of cheaters in confirmed breach cases. “They had their phone, they had their papers. Clearly they were doing something they were not supposed to do.”
This high bar makes it even more significant that confirmed breaches rose from happening in less than 1 percent of tests to happening in 6.6 percent of tests in 2021, Morgan said.
“I’ve been in the online academic integrity space for 16 years, and it’s the largest jump by a very wide margin,” he said. “Previous jumps were half a percentile.”
It’s also important that this massive increase in cheating happened in exams when students knew they were being monitored, Morgan said.
“How bad is this problem in situations where this isn’t being measured?”
Colleges Hide Cheating
Institutions should always expect some amount of cheating, Morgan said. But a sudden, large increase should make institutions wonder whether something has gotten out of control.
“As long as humans have existed, there’s always some subset of the group that will try to take a shortcut,” he said.
But academic institutions often prefer to keep cheating problems hidden, Morgan said. They see public knowledge of cheating as reputational damage.
Sometimes Meazure catches massive international cheating conspiracies, only for schools to prohibit the company from mentioning them publicly.
“The schools that bury their heads in the sand and allow themselves to get cheated on have a better reputation than the schools that actually tackle it,” Morgan said.
This willingness to ignore or hide cheating often makes it difficult to fix the real problems, he said.
“Is it acceptable that most schools can’t answer the question, ‘How many people did you catch cheating this term?’” Morgan asked. “And is it acceptable that if they answer that with any number larger than zero, it’s a shameful thing?”
Pandemic Stress and Cheating
According to Alan Reifman, a professor of human development at Texas Tech University, his students say they cheat most when they feel overwhelmed.
“It may very well be that they just became very desperate,” he said. “They may have had negative events going on in their life outside of school. Plus, they were feeling school-related pressure and time was running out.”
Reifman said there’s a difference between cheating from an impulsive glance and deliberate cheating by copying a paper.
When exams went online during COVID-19, it seemed to Reifman that students using internet resources was inevitable, he said. It was impossible to monitor everything students did, and proctoring every exam sounded too complicated. Instead, he chose a novel solution.
“There’s no way I can monitor what you’re doing. So just open any resource,” Reifman told his students. “My thinking was that you still have to know the material in order to do well because it’s a timed exam.”
Students also seem to participate less in class after having experienced online schooling, Reifman said. Although his online class comment sections still feel energetic, in-person classes have become quiet after COVID-19.
“Maybe students were put in more of a passive mode with online classes for a year or two during COVID,” he said.
Better Answers Needed
To combat the rising incidence of cheating, schools need to learn the scale of the problem, Morgan said.
“It starts with the people in charge of a program making this a priority and making the proof of the probability of the validity of a program a priority,” he said.
Proper supervision of exams also helps fight cheating, he said.
Every generation of cheaters finds new ways to deceive schools. In many ways, the fight against cheating is a constant arms race. Sometimes the schemes used to cheat seem far more difficult than studying the material would have been.
“You want to ask the student, ‘Wouldn’t it have been less effort to just study for the test than it would have to do this elaborate ‘Rube Goldberg’ cheating thing you’ve got going on here?’” he said.
The most important part of punishing cheaters is making sure they don’t get the grade they cheated for, Morgan said. Students don’t have to be expelled for cheating, he added.
Finally, schools need to encourage a culture of integrity.
“If you make students read the honor code at the beginning of every course, [cheating] becomes harder for them to justify in their mind,” he said.