October 11, 2005

Is plagiarism a problem?

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/elearning/trends/funding/tqef/existingprojects/sciencescaa/

I got an encouragingly lively reception when I climbed Gibbet Hill on Friday afternoon (a walk I miss since Mathematics moved to Central Campus) to talk to the Biological Sciences Undergraduate Teaching Committee about CAA. The discussion ate 15 minutes or more into their precious meeting time but brought me some positive outcomes:

  • Two first-year modules were identified where CAA would help, and suitable materials already exist for one of them
  • CAA could play a useful role in the continuous assessment of several second-year modules
  • The departmental Chair, Professor Robert Freedman, did not entirely rule out the possibility of freeing up staff time to develop CAA resources

Two of the discussion points were:

  • The value of using paper-based data-capture methods for continuous assessment
  • The risks of plagiarism

I will discuss data capture in a separate blog but will make a couple of points here about the risks of cheating in computer-aided assessment when it is used in a 'summative' mode, that is to say, a mode where the assessment directly affects the outcome of a student's degree (for example, yielding marks for course credit or determining progression).

First some general points:

  • The level of security in exams only needs to be proportional to the weight of the assessment
  • A vanishingly small amount of course credit seems to get most learners engaged
  • Credit representing say 10% of a first-year module affects at worst the second decimal place in the final percentage used to determine a student's degree class
  • Students who cheat in continuous assessment shoot themselves in the foot; they are usually exposed in the final exam
  • No system of invigilation offers 100% security against cheating

Now a few practical suggestions for raising the level of security in computer-aided tests and exams used in summative mode:

  1. Generate many variations of each question type and permute them so that each student answers a different question paper; several assessment packages are good at this for numerical questions
  2. When a student logs on to a test, display his or her university card on the table and screen to make identity confirmation easy
  3. A couple of random visits by an invigilator to the computer room during a 50-minute exam is a good deterrent
  4. Install CCTV in computer suites used for assessment
  5. Disable access to other computer applications and directories while the exam is in progress if the style of the questions makes this necessary (to prevent students using, for example, the internet or some mathematical sofware to answer the questions)

Other suggestions please.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Steven Carpenter

    I think there's often a disproportionately adverse response to CAA when it comes to security. I think the main concern is point 5, application lockout; how to prevent students taking an exam from having access to an internet browser for instance and even this wouldn't be a concern for a Maths test where the answers must be calculated. CAA allows randomised, parameterised assessment which by design reduces the probability of plagiarism. Whether a student can see the neighbouring screen is not a risk if the likelihood of seeing the exactly the same question is reduced to a minimum.

    In terms of invilgilation, I see no compelling justification for increasing security other than point 5 – I have taken CAA exams at Coventry University and invigilation was similar to conventional exams, except perhaps the need for fewer staff to manage collection at the end; students would sit at a computer, place their id cards on the desk and once the exam had commenced the invigilator would make a note of the student id against the computer id. Short of a student getting up and swopping places with another there was no possibility of identity fraud.

    I'd be interested on the views of staff on these questions:

    • What characteristic of a CAA exam requires the addition of CCTV to standard invigilation techniques?
    • Would adding CCTV to invigilation of CAA, but not to paper based exams, unfairly discriminate against students who take either type of
      exam? For example, the added pressure of CCTV observation could cause CAA examined students extra difficulties.
    • Under what conditions would application lockout would be desirable/undesirable?

    11 Oct 2005, 16:21

  2. Steven Carpenter

    To qualify the last question further – I'm not sure to what extent this has been explored elsewhere, but I can think of scenarios where asking students to go off to an online resource or separate application (a journal archive, or a maths/stats package) to calculate the answer during a CAA exam might be used to assess competence in using the application.

    11 Oct 2005, 17:03

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