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There are many reasons for considering alternative assessments as we move forward, both while remote instruction is the primary mode of instruction and as we move out of the pandemic. This document focuses on issues connected to academic integrity and traditional exams. It is important to understand that the proposed alternative assessments have merit from both a pedagogical and practical perspective.

Why focus on academic integrity? Both an Academic Senate faculty survey and the annual UCUES survey of students revealed this to be a top concern. Here is a brief summary of the results:

Exams and online proctoring

Based on Instructor and Student Survey Responses on Remote Teaching and Learning, Academic Senate and Institutional Research and Academic Planning June 2020

One significant challenge for instructors and students were decisions about online proctoring and exams, which were somewhat tempered in Spring 2020 because of greater flexibility with pass/not pass grading.  If remote instruction continues in the fall, greater guidance will be needed in this area. Almost half of instructor respondents indicated they couldn’t assess academic dishonesty, but over one-quarter believed it was more or much more prevalent than with in-person classes. Additionally, preliminary UCUES responses showed that almost 60 percent of undergraduate respondents were very concerned about their ability to do well on tests and assignments in online courses.  Fifty-five percent were more or much more concerned about the fairness of the tests they took and 47 percent were much more concerned about academic dishonesty.

Given these survey results, we will focus on two different categories:

  1. Student perspective of cheating, impact of others cheating on their grade, and fairness
  2. Assessment strategy explicitly aimed at reducing/eliminating academic integrity issues

Obviously, most techniques address both of these issues to some degree; however, it is worth categorizing them by their main impact.

Student Perspective

  1. Avoid grading on a curve.  Academic dishonesty disadvantages honest students when top grades are limited to a fixed percentage of students. When grades are assigned with an absolute scale (criterion-referenced grading), honest students are not impacted by isolated cases of cheating. Combining an absolute grading scale with explicit learning outcomes rewards honest students by allowing them to set goals and study with intent. This combination also promotes collaborative teamwork while reducing student anxiety (and complaints) about fairness and competition.
    • An absolute scale does not require grading on a “traditional” 10-point scale where 90 - 100 is an A. Leverage historical performance to determine a reasonable absolute scale that can be posted in the syllabus at the beginning of the quarter.
    • Use the scale as a “guarantee” of a minimum letter grade, allowing for adjustments if scores are lower than expected. For example, assume you guarantee that an 85% or above will earn a grade of A- or better in the course. In grading the final exam, it becomes clear that the final exam was harder than you expected based on scores and responses on the exam. You may determine that a score of 83% still qualifies for an A-. This scheme enables you to make that change while maintaining the positive elements of absolute grading.
  1. Clear statements on your approach to academic integrity. An approach that focuses on the assumption of academic integrity versus an assumption that it is your job to “catch” students, coupled with a grading scheme that does not compare students to each other, can create a very positive and learning-focused environment for the students. One faculty member that utilized this approach in Spring 2020 reported the following for a class of 400 students:

When polled about 2/3 of the way into the quarter with a multiple choice question about their cheating perception:

  • Hey, what others are doing is not my problem...!: 34
  • I think being trusted may be leading to less cheating: 81
  • I actually don't have an opinion either way about this: 88
  • I don't think there's more cheating than usual: 157
  • I think there's significantly more cheating going on: 20

Assessment Strategies that Encourage Academic Integrity

  1. Smaller, low stakes assignments throughout the course. By creating a series of low stakes assignments throughout the course that have randomized questions for each student, instructors can decrease the motivation for dishonesty on these assessments. They also increase the information available on the students’ style and a record of their performance. Creating a series of assessments can be done over the summer with the help of the DTEI Graduate Fellows available for this type of support.
    • Another advantage of increasing the number of assessments is that it builds in flexibility to create alternate grading schemes within a single course. For example, one faculty member had weekly quizzes and allowed the top three weekly quizzes to replace a single traditional exam score. This way no single day or week in the course would have too large a negative impact on the student’s grade. It also encourages student participation throughout the course.
  2. Open book/internet exams: An open book/internet exam converts one set of actions that are often considered “cheating” and hard to monitor in a remote environment and makes it an expected activity that is part of the assessment. This also acknowledges that the nature of information and the access to information has fundamentally changed, and assessing if students can access and correctly utilize information is a valid course outcome. One challenge is developing exams that can be graded at scale. Some recommended approaches:
    • Design exams where there is both a short answer that is easy to grade for each question and a longer answer that is graded either for a subset of the questions as a check on the work or on a simplified scale (link to our existing example).
    • For a fraction of the assessments, utilize peer grading. This recognizes that evaluating others’ work is an important skill in almost all post-college careers and can be integrated into the learning outcomes of the course.
    • Speed grading tools and Gradescope can help with grading of certain styles of questions.
    • Include exam questions that require higher order thinking (analysis, evaluation, etc.), the answers to which are not likely to be found easily online.
  3. Timed Canvas or Gradescope exams with multiple versions/question banks: One form of cheating is for students to share answers. Canvas allows the creation of question banks, essentially generating a different exam for each student. This helps limit the ability of students to work their exam and simply share the answers. For exams involving questions that are difficult to create banks of questions, having 2 to 4 different versions of the exam is already a standard in-class practice and can help mitigate some forms of cheating. A challenge with creating large question banks and multiple versions of exams is the time involved to create the additional questions. This is another ideal task for the DTEI Graduate Fellows this summer.

Alternate exam approaches

Some specific examples that other faculty have used are based on developing different styles of exam questions that are better aligned with open book, group, or multiple versions of exams. Again, development of these new questions is a great task for the DTEI Graduate Fellows.

  1. Programming: Instead of asking students to write code for a process or task, have them evaluate existing code. Possible options: (1) find errors in a given code segment (same code can have different errors); (2) take some code and modify it to do a slightly different task; (3) identify which pairs of code segments are equivalent (i.e., identical in their effect/output).
  2. Problem-based exams (typically in math, physics, engineering, economics, etc.): In addition to (and in some cases in place of) having students provide the algebraic solution, grading the numerical/final algebraic expression AND a short, text explanation of the approach allows for more personal variation in the answer that can provide insight into the level of academic honesty. This can be especially powerful when combined with open book and/or group exams to determine a student’s ability to explain concepts in their own words. The idea is to replace time spent grading algebraic work for partial credit with grading text. Additionally, text answers often provide insight into learning at a deeper level than just calculations.
  3. General problem-based exams: Leverage more complex, open ended questions, problems, and case studies and provide students with a set of “solutions” that they are required to critique and/or select “best” answers from. Leverage DTEI Graduate Fellows do develop the “case studies” over the summer. Depending on the approach, one can adjust the required grading time and minimize the ability to cheat with sufficiently complex situations.

Approaches that rethink the grading system entirely

This was not practical in the sudden switch to remote instruction for Spring 2020. However, academic dishonesty is often deeply intertwined with the grading scheme, philosophy, and assessment approach. A number of faculty are considering entirely new approaches to grading. Here are a few examples:

  • Renee Link (Chemistry) has piloted the use of a “specifications based” system which meets the goal of being criterion based and allows multiple opportunities to meet the required specifications. For more information, go here.
  • Group exams that embrace teamwork as a learning outcome: There is growing literature on the use of group exams (more information can be found here and here and here). These recognize that teamwork is also a critical learning outcome.
  • Several faculty piloted a framework for developing alternative assessment strategies that are intended to substitute for an in-class multiple choice/short answer exams commonly seen in the sciences (as well as social sciences and large GE courses) and exams involving questions with symbolic and/or numeric solutions with positive results in Spring 2020. Details are available here.