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It has recently been proposed that our college's math department move away from giving remote, online exams to our online students, and begin mandating that all students take (at least) an in-person final exam. This was the format for years before the pandemic, so this would be a return to something all* faculty felt good about. The proposal is meant to address widespread cheating via Chegg, etc. [Online proctoring software is a solution that has its own issues, so I specifically want to discuss in-person, human-proctored exams.]

There has been some push-back from administration on this, citing that mandating in-person exams seems incongruous with the online course model. ["A student signs up for an online course and then finds out they have to take an in-person test." However, the proposal includes advertising this to students before they ever sign up, and makes provisions for students to take the exam at an off-site proctoring facility as needed.]

I am wondering how common this practice is these days and if there is any agreement (e.g. general trend in higher ed) that online courses should have no in-person components (e.g. final exams). If your college has changed its tune on this (moving to give proctored exams to online students), I'd also appreciate hearing how that move affected students.

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    That depends a lot on your institution (before and after Covid). I would think that most small liberal arts colleges were near 100% residential (students live on/near campus), so they are readily available. Larger campuses with more non-traditional (part time, older, ...) students would be (and have been) in a different boat.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 13, 2023 at 20:33
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    Are your students all within easy commuting distance? Is it possible to take the course asynchronously now? That is not all students are seeing lectures etc. at the same time and can set their own schedules?
    – Buffy
    Feb 13, 2023 at 21:00
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    My partner's graduate program has a large online component at various points, and includes various in-person commitments. People do travel and stay in town for it. I'm not leaving an answer because it's not quite the same as a one-semester class with one test, but it's not, to me, prima facie absurd. Feb 14, 2023 at 4:07
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    Ughh, I had that too. I had to teach a class remotely over Zoom for a whole year, and at the end of the year I was forced to give a mandatory in-person exam. I would have gladly done the exam online instead, and use the in-person time for an in-person lesson instead. This whole exam was a bunch of administrative hypocrisy by the university who was afraid that online exams would diminish the prestige of its diploma, but somehow did not care that online lessons would diminish the quality of the teaching.
    – Stef
    Feb 14, 2023 at 10:18
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    Reasonable is whatever you make clear before people sign up for your course, isn't it?
    – Karl
    Feb 15, 2023 at 18:01

6 Answers 6

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At the FernUniversität Hagen, the German (or rather NRW state) long distance university founded in 1974, where I worked 1980 - 1984, we had all examinations supervised. In rare occasions, (inmates), by persons of trust, but most course examinations were taken in person, usually in rooms rented from another university. We bundled several exams in order to save costs (e.g. beginning Math with second year Math) and had them supervised by a person competent to answer questions. Students needed to travel about 1-2 hours maximum by car. We (scientific employees) did not question this model because at this time, cheating on exams in Mathematics was common, to the extent that state examinations for future teachers were done under much stricter conditions.

Therefore, I agree with you that in person exams are helpful. Once students get it into their heads that cheating happens (whether that is true or not) they are much more likely to engage in cheating themselves because they do not want to be honest losers. They want to be honest in their great majority, but do not want to be severely disadvantaged by it. My impression at a US private university now is that students do not think that anti-cheating software is successful.

In some classes, it is certainly possible to restructure examinations so that they can be given as open-book, open-online, but if it is a class that is a standard undergraduate class, then paid help is much more possible.

We are having the same problem already with homework for a long time. If you have a large class, then having students explain their homework becomes impossible, especially since random samples would lead to accusations of picking on students.

I personally give online, open-book exams in my upper-division classes. Nobody interferes with this choice. If I give a coding project, I would include a clause that students need to defend their code. If they cannot explain their code then they get no points for the explanation, which implies that they get a failing grade on the code.

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    Open University UK may do something similar.
    – Buffy
    Feb 13, 2023 at 20:53
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    These days, for a standard undergraduate course in English, it is easy to pay someone in India to take an open book open online exam for you. Feb 13, 2023 at 20:56
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    I have (in person) students whose families live an hour away from the nearest supermarket and farther than that from the nearest police station, never mind a university where they could be supervised taking an exam. Feb 13, 2023 at 21:31
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    @Buffy: The Open University has in-person exams, but it offers exam venues across the country (and world) where you can take the exam. In the UK this means you can usually take the exam at the nearest major city (I had to travel 30-60 minutes to mine). Outside of the UK your options are more limited. Feb 14, 2023 at 8:56
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    Prof. Kevin Bryan, U. Toronto: "I am shocked by how good OpenAI's new chat [ChatGPT] is. E.g., you can no longer give take-home exams/homework." twitter.com/Afinetheorem/status/1598081835736891393 Feb 15, 2023 at 18:09
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From a student perspective, generally no. I have taken online classes since circa 2004, some with proctored in-person tests at outside universities, some remotely using proctoring software, and some where I traveled upwards of 90 minutes to take the in-person test at the university I was attending online.

The language used to describe the course goes a long way. Consider calling the class a hybrid class if in-person attendance is required for part of it. At least in the US, online options are fully online so you could attend from the other side of the planet if desired. Hybrid classes allow for flexibility on from where to attend class, but also come with the expectation of some in-person experiences. In-person classes are 100% in person (even if recorded). A hybrid class clearly sets the in-person expectation up front as opposed to burying it somewhere in the course description.

Asking a student to change their location for a single test adds barriers to their one-and-done chance to showcase their skills. It is not a fair assessment of a student's knowledge in that subject. The travel alone is enough to disrupt one's ability to focus and can add undue stress, plus taking a test in a new environment can increase test anxiety.

If in-person tests are a requirement for reducing cheating, consider strongly recommending students to show up in-person more than once or twice a term. This will encourage students to a) learn the commute, b) develop good patterns around commuting, and c) learn the environment in which they are being tested. Once every other week for in person discussions or group exercises or even just lecture will do the trick. Even students who plan to take the test at different in-person location will benefit from having made the trip a handful of times before having a test placed in front of them. Instead of asking students to change their patterns for what is often a high stress moment already, encourage habits so that the high stress moment is about the stress you are measuring (their knowledge) and not the stress about the change in their patterns.

As I mentioned, I have had to travel for these one-off in-person tests. I prefer them to putting proctoring (aka, spy) software on my personal computer. That said, I've had tests were I had to travel to the university the day before and get a hotel for a night because the test schedule didn't work with my schedule (work, access to the shared vehicle, accounting for commute traffic, etc.) even though it was a financial hardship. I've had tests were I arrived to find that the test room was very very cold and I did not have a jacket handy. I've had tests where the HVAC was broken, causing "whining" sounds in the room that we all just had to deal with. These issues were noticeably distracting, and could have been mitigated by knowing the environment (including travel) in which I was testing before starting the test.

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Yes, having a mandatory in-person exam for an online course is a reasonable and recommended practice by at least some experts in online teaching. For example, consider this work:

Ko, Susan, and Steve Rossen. Teaching online: A practical guide. Routledge, 2017. This was used as the official text in an online-teaching certification for my university; note that this predates the COVID pandemic.

Ch. 5 presents sample syllabi for both online and blended-course (hybrid) options. The syllabus for the "fully online version" version includes a single, in-person, proctored exam for 25% of the course grade (p. 131):

  1. Proctored exam

There is a mandatory proctored exam that must be completed no later than April 23. To schedule your proctored exam with an approved proctor near you, see the classroom link for “Exam Appointments.”

Again, this is for the "fully online version" of the course. (The blended/hybrid syllabus that comes after expands to include required in-person meetings on alternate weeks.)

So it seems that the best-practice recommended by these online teaching experts is that at least one in-person proctored exam is necessary to maintain course integrity. I would suggest that with the rise of new cheating services in the last few years (e.g., Chegg, ChatGPT), this is likely more important than it was a few years ago.

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  • Down voted because In-person anything is not compatible with an online course. If you want a hybrid course, advertise it as such, but do not pretend it is online if you demand that your scholars must physically present themselves to one of your employees. If you have a problem with course integrity, that is the problem you need to deal with.
    – Paul Smith
    Feb 17, 2023 at 0:26
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    @PaulSmith It seems you have a specific definition of what a course can contain and keep the "online" modifier. Do you have similarly restrictive definitions for "in-person" or "hybrid" courses? Just to see if this works both ways: Would you say that a class advertised as "in-person" should not have any online/asynchronous content? While I am playing devil's advocate to a degree here, I am also honestly trying to figure out whether the "online" designation is seen as something special in a way that other modalities are not.
    – user138719
    Feb 17, 2023 at 16:50
  • @user138719 - A course that does not include any in-person interactions is clearly not an in-person course and equally, a course that can not be completed online is clearly not an online course. Any course can have additional optional elements, so an in-person course can have online components and an on-line course can have in-person tutorials, seminars, met-and-greets and so on, but make them mandatory and it stops being an online course.
    – Paul Smith
    Feb 17, 2023 at 17:22
  • @PaulSmith "A course that does not include any in-person interactions is clearly not an in-person course and equally, a course that can not be completed online is clearly not an online course." -- I read in this that they are treated differently: "If in-person, then course contains some in-person interactions" and "If online, then course can be completed completely online". That is totally fine, but it seems like online is treated as special in a way that face-to-face is not.
    – user138719
    Feb 17, 2023 at 17:42
  • Is it an in-person course if it can be completed without in-person interaction?
    – Paul Smith
    Feb 18, 2023 at 13:50
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Let me give the purely cynical answer to this question.

If you require an in person final you will have fewer students. For a typical US institution (i.e. not a private non-profite with a huge endowment), if you have fewer students, your university will have less money, either directly in terms of tuition, or indirectly because government subsidies are in part based on your number of students. If you have less money, you will be able to hire fewer faculty and may even have to lay off some, or not replace them when they leave. Furthermore, having less money means your working conditions will be worse in various ways.

Requiring an in person final reduces students in two ways:

  1. Some students will find it inconvenient to actually come to campus for the final. They will be able to get a degree from somewhere else that allows them to stay at home for their final; it makes sense for them to choose this option.

  2. Because they do not have the option of cheating, more students will fail, and hence fewer students will continue to take further classes towards their degree. Note that most universities have no reputation to speak of, so unless cheating becomes widespread enough that it becomes widely known in society at large, the cheating itself has no impact on the reputation of the university or its ability to attract students.

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    Just to address your second point... You can design online exams in such a way that "cheating" isn't really an issue Feb 15, 2023 at 15:04
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    @ScottishTapWater Odd that at least in the UK this has proved to be impossible during Covid. We couldn't even require students to turn on their camera, because some of them had no private working area and we ran into all kinds of privacy issues. Feb 15, 2023 at 15:30
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    @ScottishTapWater - In a university exam hall, it's possible (and is frequently done) to require and check IDs. Also, hiring someone to take your exam in an exam hall is much harder and more expensive than outsourcing your exam online, since online gives you access to a much larger and cheaper labor market, and online "tutoring" services facilitate this market. Yes, similar cheating is also possible in person, but it's harder and much more expensive, so more rare. Feb 15, 2023 at 16:26
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    @ScottishTapWater: It might be easy to tell, but can you prove it? Many universities now require their instructors to prove cheating before assigning penalties. I'm also not saying that people intend to cheat - rather someone who passes by cheating pays tuition for another semester rather than dropping out. (Note US universities have exams at the end of each module (which we call courses or classes), but no exams for the degree as a whole.) Feb 15, 2023 at 18:37
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    @ScottishTapWater Well, QMUL had exams very similar to this, and guess what ? They showed up on Chegg. Also agree with Alexander Woo, even if the student's performance strongly suggests cheating, that isn't necessarily proof. Feb 15, 2023 at 21:07
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When I was involved (which is many years ago, using a snail-mail format) we had different subjects in the course handled differently. So no student could complete the qualification without supervision, but could complete elements of the course without supervision.

And although I wasn't involved in other programs, there were other programs where other kinds of requirements were in place for prior or subsequent qualification. So it would be reasonable, for example, to have no supervision for a 'certificate', but require supervision for a 'diploma', with a simple conversion exam.

That's all in the far past, but taking it as a template, it would be reasonable to offer some of your exams online, or to offer all of your exams online without conferring a headline qualification.

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Not a direct answer, but a better more viable solution to the underlying question is too simply write more thoughtful and original exams. They don't have to be completely original questions, but changing the wording and a few numbers in each question on an old exam will go a long way to prevent cheaters from Googling the answers. You could even distribute different versions of each exam with similarly worded, but different questions to prevent classmates from sharing answers. This is a better solution as it requires a minimal time commitment from both the professors and students and is less invasive than proctoring software.

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    "...prevent cheaters from Googling the answers" Unfortunately, this has not been the case with online exams. I (and others) give randomized exams so every student gets a different version of each problem, and cheating still persists. The worry is not (primarily) about students sharing answers, but the ease with which students can post screen shots to Chegg, et al. I've posted online exams at 6am and seen all of the problems posted-and-solved on Chegg by 7:15. Randomization is the only tool I have, and I use it, but it's not really a deterrent.
    – user138719
    Feb 13, 2023 at 21:37
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    Plus, randomizing questions for each student is not a reasonable solution in terms of extra workload for the teacher and having comparable exams for each student. Not every question can be easily adjusted by changing numbers! Yes, changing questions between years is reasonable but then all students will still have the same exam and many students will form a WhatsApp, FB, Instagram, WhateverApp chat group to trade solutions. Feb 13, 2023 at 21:52
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    Sorry but this does not work. It’s too easy to post questions on Chegg, and all questions can be uploaded there at a rate of 2 questions per minutes or more. Thus, for a 10-question exam, everything will be on Chegg within 5 minutes of opening the exam, irrespective of the effort invested in changing questions. Feb 13, 2023 at 22:07
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    It’s not just this, but there are tools that allow screenshot detection. Universities need to think forward, not backward. I am coming as a student who is well versed in tech and chasing a psychology degree and has (limited) exposure to the academia underbelly through a previous non-faculty job. Biggest issue though is why are students cheating? My gripe as a non-trad student is how much university isn’t about learning but getting points. No surprise students then optimize that. Make them all oral exams over video and you have your problem solved.
    – Tami
    Feb 14, 2023 at 14:08
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    @Tami I don't think there is going to be a technical solution to this problem. In essence it's virtually impossible to close the analogue hole with an online exam.
    – Chuu
    Feb 14, 2023 at 14:55

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