Academic Integrity,  Assessment and Evaluation,  Remote Teaching

Worried About Take Home Exams and Academic Misconduct?

There is more than one way of looking at the extended time period for open book exams when it comes to academic misconduct worries.   

You can see 24 hours of unsupervised time with an exam as more time for students to break your rules.   Some students may use the time that way and that is deeply frustrating.  

More encouraging is a view based in research about academic integrity in higher education (for a great review, see the 2013 book referenced below). The basic premise is this:  When students are more confident they can do what needs to be done on their own, they are less likely to cheat.  


Perhaps less obvious is how this 24-hour, open book exam format may allow for this:  

  • Students are not being tested on how quickly they can answer questions.  Speedy students are always advantaged in short time frame exams and there can be many reasons some students aren’t fast at writing exams that are unrelated to what they know or can do.  If you are more interested in correct than fast, this format allows students to show you what they know and they may feel more confident as a result.
  • Students do not need to strategize about allocating their time to the same extent.  Effective traditional exam writers do this to maximize their scores given the time limits.  Under time constraints, areas of uncertainty could have been where the worried student had the cheat note, or looked at someone else’s exam, or called a friend. Now, students will have more time to work on the areas of uncertainty, and they may feel more confident as a result.
  • Students can concentrate better with breaks – mental and physical.  The human attention span is said to be 20 minutes, plus, humans should only sit for 30 minutes at a time.  Effective traditional exam writers probably pause and reset mentally at least, but many students think they just have to keep going as fast as possible.  Students will rightly think they can think better when breaks are more possible – and they may feel more confident as a result.

And, one bonus point to ponder about open book exams, unrelated to time frame:

  • Students do not become preoccupied with memorizing answers because it is not necessary to do so.  Memorized material doesn’t last in long term memory anyway (unless they use it 6 more times). Students recognize the exam will be more about how to use the information, or solve the problems, or apply the theory, or analyze or diagnose the case, or evaluate potential alternatives, and so on. These are higher order cognitive abilities and allow students to show greater depth of understanding.  If students work on these abilities to prepare for an exam, what they learn is much more likely to last. This is how the brain works.  When students know the exam does not require memorization, they may feel more confident as a result.

 These above points may not apply perfectly to all disciplines, teaching styles, or assessment philosophies.  However, if you watch to see if these advantages of this format arise, maybe you’ll opt for an exam something like this from now on? 

Lang, J. (2013).  Cheating Lessons:  Learning from Academic Dishonesty.  Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

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