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Assessment Blog

2nd September 2022 | Exam malpractice

Has the move to digital assessment made cheating easier?

Gwyneth Toolan

With the pandemic fast-tracking the digital transformation of assessment, awarding bodies are recognising that in some cases, paper-based exams are no longer fit for purpose in a digital age where candidates require on-demand assessments to be flexible and reflect the world they live and work in (1). Students need to be prepared for work environments that are becoming increasingly shaped by automation and artificial intelligence.

However, simply moving old-style paper exams online isn’t a valid solution as much of the academic literature suggests. The thinking now is that digital assessment needs to be authentic in testing skills needed to perform roles and practices in everyday life; to allow candidates to be creative, apply theory to practice and go beyond simply testing memory. This is underpinning many awarding organisations’ move to re-imagining and re-designing assessment.

Arguably, further along in their adoption of digital education technologies, more and more professional qualification and Higher Education (HE) exams are now taken online and many use remote invigilation to assist exam boards with security, verification and analysis of exams. However, exam malpractice has risen significantly since the pandemic, particularly in the HE and professional qualification space. Within the assessment community, the concern over e-cheating or virtual cheating is becoming more prevalent as assessment providers struggle to prove cases of malpractice, and as methods of malpractice evolve. Begging the question, has the move to digital assessment made cheating easier?

Certainly, assessments which are taken from home or over a 24-hour period allow candidates more freedom and access to technology while they are being assessed. We are seeing more cases where candidates take advantage of these scenarios; such malevolent practices often involve exam collusion, proxy exam sitting or even screen/keyboard sharing during an exam. We can see there are networks of students now presenting very similar content for their exams and, in some cases, are attempting to disguise such copying by changing certain words and altering the order of paragraphs. We can also see that some candidates have had access to unauthorised material and in rarer cases, that the exam material itself was compromised before the exam was released.

As awareness of these cases grow, universities and exam boards are beginning to put measures in place to detect and discourage exam malpractice. Some organisations have set up dedicated ethical practice teams (DEPs) to investigate exam fraud and, where necessary, disqualify candidates. In certain professional contexts such as medicine, engineering and accountancy, it is extremely important that awarding bodies have full control of malpractice to protect the integrity of their exams and of the professions they prepare candidates for.

So, where are we now? In April 2022, a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill was passed to make it a criminal offence to engage in paid cheating services. As a result, awarding bodies are bringing more cases of student malpractice to tribunal. Some legal experts in this field even go so far as to say that candidates are presumed guilty if their work is flagged as suspicious and that the examiner’s word is final, even if it’s subjective. It’s also recognised that where plagiarism is suspected, there is an opportunity to engage with students to support them in understanding how to accurately reference sources. There is also a lot of academic referencing software available now, which if institutions provided more training on, could help candidates cite more precisely.

Ultimately, throughout any periods of technological progress, we see acts of fraud and scams increase where unscrupulous individuals are motivated by reward. Think about banking fraud: now many of us use online apps and contactless payments, increased policing of such behaviours is necessary. Similarly in the assessment space, moving to digital has seen some try to take advantage of the prospect of exam malpractice. At RM we have developed a tool to help awarding bodies detect malpractice which offers evidence to support DEPs in forming their cases.

If you would like to know more about our Exam Malpractice Service, please get in touch.

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(1) Interim report of the Independent Assessment Commission The Future of Assessments and Qualifications in the UK; Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England


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