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It seems to me that it is impossible to prevent cheating (as in: communicating and getting help from outside) if one allows students to use the restroom during written classroom tests.

Excluding creative solutions involving full-body searches, Faraday cages or invigilators in the stalls, the most practical way to prevent it seems to completely forbid the students to leave the room.

Of course, this seems overly penalizing to students with small health problems or personal emergencies, since they would have to retake the test.

How is this problem dealt with in practice in universities? What is the best solution?

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The duration of the exam has to come into play here. How long do exams at your institution take? –  Floris Jun 22 at 22:49
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sigh my high school forbids bathroom use during our 3 hour exams, often leading to many turning in the paper much earlier than they normally would have to avoid urinating in their pants. –  shortstheory Jun 23 at 16:21
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@FedericoPoloni If your exam is 4 questions wrong, the exam is wrong. I think it's unfair to judge ability in 4 questions. If I answer even 1 wrong, I'm at a C. That's not an accurate judgement of skill in any real context, though I suppose that the grading schema you use would affect the 'judgement' process. How are students looking at a solution sheet to an exam in the bathroom? How do they have the answers at all? The only way I could see them getting help in the bathroom is reading a proof or two, but I don't think that's enough time to learn/fix answers that make up 20% of the grade. –  Chris Cirefice Jun 24 at 8:42
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my 2cents: I often use bathroom breaks/the water fountain as an excuse to get up from the chair and clear my thoughts. I am quite sure that if these breaks were forbidden, my perfomance would be impacted –  josinalvo Jun 25 at 4:20
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@ChrisCirefice One does not even need to type the questions: copy them on a piece of paper in the classroom, hide it in your pocket, snap a photo of it when you are in the stall. As for the proofs, those have not been already explained and covered in the lectures. The students have to come up with the proofs of new statements during the test. It's one of the most creative kinds of exam you can imagine, and it's very close to a mathematician's work in real life. –  Federico Poloni Jun 25 at 6:26

7 Answers 7

up vote 50 down vote accepted

How do other uni's deal with this?

I've attended courses in two universities and have been an exam supervisor in another academical institution. In all those cases only one student could go to the bathroom at a time. A supervisor would accompany the student up to the bathroom door and wait until the student would return.

Sure, the student could hide a book, laptop, anything in the toilet stall. If it's a good exam these methods are not going to get the student anywhere as a good academical test requires that the student can use his brain, not just reproduce knowledge from a book. Therefore I think making a big deal of cheat prevention is not necessary.

What's the best solution?

Not allowing students to take bathroom breaks is inhumane. I think the solution I experienced and described above is the best you'll get without exaggerating.

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"Not allowing students to take bathroom breaks is inhumane." That statement is way too absolute. I have recently surveyed other lecturers in other universities, and approximately 75% assume bathroom breaks are not a necessity for exams that take less than 1.5 hours. –  xLeitix Jun 22 at 16:01
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@Leitix in 2007, at University of Freiburg, a student with a health problem was not allowed to take the break, and consequently had to pee into a fellow student's water bottle inside the exam room. spiegel.de/unispiegel/studium/… –  Jo So Jun 22 at 18:52
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@xLeitix To be honest I tacitly assumed an exam duration of 3 hours as that was the scheduled duration of all exams I took or supervised. However, my stance is that bathroom breaks should never be denied as sometimes you can't control your body. About the phones: if an exam has questions that can be answered with the help of someones text (which is even more brief than a book summary) I think the question is not well posed. –  Bart Arondson Jun 22 at 22:55
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+1. If you think it's a good idea to deny people access to the bathroom (at least on long exams e.g. 3 hours where at least a handful of people might actually need it) just because one or two students might use it as an opportunity to "cheat", then you have your priorities seriously messed up. What's next, intrusive full-body searches? Spying on the student in the toilet to check on what he's doing? –  Thomas Jun 23 at 1:32
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As someone who has IBS (as do many people), I know what it's like to go from fine to emergency situation near instantly. –  ResidentBiscuit Jun 23 at 15:49

Forbidding use of restroom facilities is extreme and more than a little ridiculous. If a student is resourceful enough to defeat your exam's purpose (which should be to measure a student's capability in a particular subject) without your certain discovery given only the use of a few minutes and a toilet, then probably your exam needs some work and/or that student deserves whatever grade he/she is awarded.

What's more, forbidding the use of facilities comes with some liability. From Brian Freeman, Esq.'s Bathroom Rights:

...The same court said, in an earlier case, “However primitive and ordinary, the right to defecate and to urinate without awaiting the permission of government…are rights close to the core of the liberty guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. When government undertakes to eliminate or to impair either or both of these rights, it should be required to make a strong showing of necessity for the restrictive measure.” Indeed, we all have the “basic liberty of access to the bathroom when needed.”

People who believe they have the authority to deny access to a bathroom, especially teachers and educators throughout the country, need to be aware that denial of a pupil’s right to use the toilet could carry significant liabilities. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a state actor can be held liable for both compensatory and punitive damages, including paying for the winner’s attorney’s fees.

In addition to liability under § 1983, a defendant could also be held liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Depending on the facts of the case, other potential liabilities could arise from prohibiting a person from their bona fide need for access to a toilet. For these reasons, all people, especially young students, ought to be able to use the restroom whenever needed, without be required to first obtain permission.

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I disagree with your first paragraph. As I wrote in another comment below, I cannot think of a modality for an exam in mathematics in which I would not get an advantage by communicating with a friend outside. I do not mean "defeating the purpose", but still getting a significant advantage, which could mean the difference between a C and an A. –  Federico Poloni Jun 22 at 22:53
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@FedericoPoloni - Maybe. But I also know that those that cheat regularly are a lot less likely to have the kinds of friends that would be willing to go out of their way to assist them in that way. Eventually character catches up regardless of what you do, and I think the best any of us can do is only that which we deem to be right for its own sake. Willfully confining a crowd of people even against nature's calling because they might cheat is the kind of thing I would judge at least borderline misanthropic. –  mikeserv Jun 22 at 22:59
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Sure -- I am not advocating locking them up, by all means. I am just pointing out that there is a problem which seems unsolvable, and asking how people deal with it. As you point out, forbidding breaks can be illegal, in addition to inhumane. What I find surprising, though, is that many people minimize the problem and do not believe that a brief help from outside can improve performance by one or two letter grades. –  Federico Poloni Jun 23 at 6:54
    
@FedericoPoloni - maybe so, but in the end someone who gets by cheating all of the time is going to need more than one or two letter grades - theyre going to need that knowledge they cheated themselves out of. After all, especially in a university scenario, they're buying it. I wouldnt stress on that score too much. –  mikeserv Jun 23 at 7:00
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theyre going to need that knowledge they cheated themselves out of. — [citation needed] –  JeffE Jun 25 at 15:31

Not an example from a university, but from my school's finals (A level, wich will grant you access to take a class at university) which I find is neither inhumane nor impracticable:

  • Bathrooms are checked before the tests are starting. Out-of-class access is restricted during that time for the specific bathrooms. Not following that restriction will lead to a penalty.
  • Every test has 2 supervisors, one of each gender.
  • Only one student at a time is allowed to use the bathroom at the same time from all courses participating in a test.
  • Time of leaving / re-entering the room will be noted on the test paper.
  • A supervisor of the matching gender will escort the student to the bathroom and can check it before/afterwards.
  • While the student is in the bathroom the escorting supervisor is advised to only enter the bathroom if the average time is exceeded massively (usually 2~3 min for men, 3~4 min for women) for privacy reasons.
  • Time is noted in a separate file with a sign of the respective supervisor outside of the room (also to doublecheck if students from different courses are outside of the room the same time for potential comparison of the tests from those students).
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I like this idea. –  Simon Kuang Jun 25 at 19:33
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It was the same during my "Abitur"-exams. Plus they checked whether some active mobile phones were in the room (I think with a frequency scanner) - and typically caught one or two teachers who forgot switching their mobile phone off ;-) –  Dani Jun 27 at 12:39

Although this is not often how things are done, here is a suggestion for improving exams, whilst addressing your problem:

An exam is meant to test the ability of the student to apply what was taught in the course. If this knowledge is to mean anything "after the course", then the conditions in which the course is administered need to mirror the real world closely. This, in turn, should mean that the understanding needed to do well in the exam should not hinge on the ability to memorize (I am a big fan of "open book" exams - bring in the reference material, it cuts down on cheating), but rather the ability to synthesize and apply - two things that are very hard to get help with during a bathroom break.

The other solution is to divide the exam into a series of shorter exams - say 1 hour exams followed by a 15 minute break, followed by another hour, etc. The intermediate results are handed in before each break, so there is no point in obtaining help during the breaks. Regular short breaks will refresh the exam takers, and give them a chance to go to the bathroom if they need to.

In line with this suggestion, the idea that "people cannot concentrate on a task for more than 45 minutes" seems to be widely believed - see for example http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/8560/how-long-is-it-possible-to-maintain-concentration . If that is indeed true, the above makes even more sense.

And if the exam is such a coherent whole that it is not possible to break it up (for example, it requires three hours of solid writing of a single essay) then good luck to the person who attempts to get help during a bathroom break...

In summary:

  • allow reference material
  • break into shorter pieces
  • test understanding and synthesis, not memorization
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If you break the exam into pieces you end up with an organisational nightmare. For instance, you'll have to re-check IDs for every segment. Regarding breaks that leave everybody seated, we tried that but found no way to balance fairness vs comfort. So we give the full time and assume students are mature enough to take a short break when they need it. –  Raphael Jun 23 at 6:33
    
I think that breaking a long exam into smaller pieces could work. Say, the students get one hour to answer 2 questions, which are collected. Then there is a break where they can use the restroom if they want to. Then they come back for another hour and two new questions, then another break... I would worry more about cell phones being used to cheat than textbooks stashed in the loo, or asking a friend for the answer. Open book tests where reasoning rather than memorization is stressed are another possibility. Students determined to cheat will always find a way. –  Phil Perry Jun 24 at 17:08
    
One of the skills I want to test on an exam is the ability to organize their time in the face of several hard problems. (I always pass out the entire list of problems, give everyone five minutes to read, and then pass out answer booklets. It dramatically reduces the number of students who "run out of time".) Breaking the exam into smaller pieces would defeat that purpose. –  JeffE Jun 25 at 15:36
    
@JeffE - that is a good point. As is often the case, there is no "absolute best approach"; I hope that my thoughts contribute to the discussion but I'm not claiming to be an authority. In fact I always encourage people to argue against any position I take - until you see more than one side of an issue, you haven't really grasped it. –  Floris Jun 25 at 17:59

Interesting question. We had similar discussions recently in our lab as well. Our conclusions after discussion were that, practically, you can either (1) let students go to the rest rooms and live with some potential for abuse, or (2) not let students go to the rest rooms (barring medical reasons, of course).

We could not come up with a solution to let students go to the rest rooms and prevent them from cheating, if the students are prepared and reasonably cunning. For instance, in our university some large exams have the policy that students that want to use the rest rooms are escorted by one of the TAs to the door of the rest rooms. While this prevents some avenues for cheating, it does not help if the student stashed the lecture material in the rest rooms or just calls his pal when inside. Another approach was at some point that mobile phones had been collected, but clearly there is no guarantee that every student has exactly one mobile phone. Essentially, we decided that collecting mobile phones is a futile effort (as also discussed here).

How is this problem dealt with in practice in universities? What is the best solution?

In my current university, the status quo is "let students go to the rest room, and live with the avenue for cheating". In my previous university, the rule was "there are no rest room breaks" for every exam taking less than 2 hours. For 2 hours or more exams, see above.

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Collecting mobile phones doesn't help if somebody has two phones, as you point out. But it isn't even guaranteed to work for people who have only one phone: somebody could easily claim that they left their phone at home because phones aren't allowed in exams. –  David Richerby Jun 22 at 17:35
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@DavidRicherby Sure. I am sure this is even the much more common problem. What do you do if somebody just says that he owns no phone? Unlikely, yes, but impossible to disprove without actually searching the student (which is, btw, clearly illegal where I work). –  xLeitix Jun 22 at 17:47

The basic solution to the problem of bathroom breaks and the possibility of cheating is to design the test in a manner that best negates the benefit of cheating.

For instance, avoiding multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank type questions is an obvious step. Similarly, including questions that require multiple logical steps to successfully complete makes the likelihood of useful cheating much lower. Similarly, having multiple copies of the exam with slightly different variants of the problems (for instance, using slightly different data or assumptions) will also make it harder to cheat in a meaningful matter—students may have to spend many minutes getting the answers they would need, for relatively little benefit.

Also, allowing students to have some access to course materials during an exam cuts off one obvious reason for cheating—to access materials that they wouldn't otherwise have.

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This seems easier said than done, at least in my field. I cannot think of a modality for an exam in mathematics in which I would not get an advantage by communicating with a friend outside. –  Federico Poloni Jun 22 at 22:46
    
Obviously, you would also want to couple this with a one-at-a-time strategy. But also, how long would you spend talking with your friend? And compare that time spent with the length of the exam. It may not be worth it in the long run. –  aeismail Jun 22 at 22:49
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@FedericoPoloni: Mathematics seems especially suited for this! Even if they get some proof idea by text, bad students are unlikely to write it up well enough to pass. –  Raphael Jun 23 at 6:36

In almost all exams which I have taken, leaving the room while taking an exam was not forbidden. BUT returning to complete the exam was expressly forbidden. The penalty for taking a break was confiscation of the exam material, with no possibility of resuming the exam. (Note that these exams were almost all less than two hours long.) Students were strongly encouraged to take a bathroom break immediately before beginning the exam.

This avoids the problem of actually forbidding the student to use the bathroom, but does impose a significant penalty. If you have not completed the exam before your bathroom break, you must hand in the incomplete exam and are not permitted to finish if/when you return.

Presumably, students who can document a medical necessity for more frequent bathroom breaks are entitled to special accommodations, most likely including taking the exam separately, as a proctored exam in the academic testing center. This is not a perfect solution to the problem (what about students who are briefly ill or suffer from test-anxiety that causes them to need frequent bathroom breaks?), but the solution has worked well in my experience.

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This solution seems to fit very well with the Italian exam system, which has the peculiarity that a student can take a test many times a year without consequences for failing. –  Federico Poloni Jun 22 at 22:02

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