Sydney University is set to move exams back on campus after months of remote assessments led to hundreds of students being reported for using banned materials and devices during online tests.
More than 1400 online exam breaches by students were reported at the university in the past two years, prompting concerns remote test-taking had “normalised cheating” as institutions relied heavily on monitoring software to try to detect misconduct.
Sydney University’s registrar and academic director (education) Peter McCallum said a spike in exam cheating found during the pandemic suggested students had taken advantage of the shift to remote learning.
Online exams are more vulnerable to cheating due to the ease with which prohibited materials – such as mobile phones and headphones – or other external help can go undetected, the university said in its latest educational integrity report.
“For students, online learning led to a blurring of what is allowable assistance and what is collusion,” said McCallum. “We’ve continued to see reports of misconduct in semester 1 this year, and that’s why we are looking at moving onshore students back to on-campus, invigilated exams.”
“We are concerned that the move to online learning has normalised cheating and the university is taking all actions possible right now to reverse that and get the message across there are consequences,” he said.
First year students studying full-time are most likely to be reported for academic breaches at Sydney University, but the rate of decline for students in their second and third year was less than in pre-pandemic years.
Guy Curtis, an academic integrity expert from the University of Western Australia, said face-to-face exams is one measure universities can take to help to try and reduce cheating.
“You can be fairly confident that for in-person exams the student’s work is their own, and then you can compare with work handed in for assignments,” Curtis said, noting that while large city institutions like Sydney University and UNSW will bring in-person assessment back, many regional universities will stick to online assessment.
A University of Wollongong spokesperson said the use of “alternative assessment methods” had increased, and about 85 per cent of its exams are now done online.
“COVID-19 has taught us that universities need to operate in ways that reduce risks of disruption to student progression. This is especially so given the unknown impact of future COVID-19 variants,” a UOW spokesperson said.
“To this end, UOW is now conducting most of its exams online. Exams are about the validation of learning. However, they are just one of multiple assessment methods that are available. Having online exams also provides a level playing field for all students.”
At the University of Technology Sydney, online and invigilated exams are held during formal exam times, as well as in-semester online quizzes. “Students also complete examinations on-campus that include oral, practical, and clinical skills exams. We don’t have data to hand as to the current percentage of each mode,” a UTS spokesperson said.
While the University of NSW started on-campus invigilated exams in term 2, it was anticipating and preparing for “additional demand for traditional invigilated exams” in 2023.
“The university is also continuing to leverage pandemic-era advances in the delivery of authentic assessment practices that do not require an invigilated exam, while better measuring student learning outcomes and better supporting academic integrity,” a UNSW spokesperson said.
George Williams, UNSW’s deputy vice chancellor of planning and assurance, said given the experience the rise in cheating, the university should consider returning to more traditional forms of exams.
“We need to have these integrity issues front of mind when designing assessments,” Williams said.
Phillip Dawson, from Deakin University’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, said while in-person exams are more secure than online testing, they are still far from perfect.
“It’s a mistake to think that getting back to invigilation is a silver bullet to get cheating under control. Types of assessments need to be carefully designed to make sure universities are getting an accurate picture of a student’s ability,” Dawson said.