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Professors should have open-note exams during the pandemic.

Cheating is easier than ever thanks to online classes.

Some students have always cheated and continue to do so. Some choose not to cheat because of their moral objections. And now, those who refrained from cheating for fear of being caught have started, feeling more confident in their chances of getting off scot-free. Professors should recognize the reality of this situation and change the way they assess students accordingly.

Professors have made some creative efforts to keep students from cheating online. These efforts range from reading and signing the honor code before test taking to the use of Proctorio, which requires students to show a video of their surroundings prior to a test and then tracks eye movement and keystrokes for the duration of the test.

There are clear issues with these cheating prevention methods. Many students see Proctorio as extreme and an infringement of privacy rights. Additionally, it heightens their stress and anxiety about test taking and distracts them from the task at hand. On the flip side, most other preventative measures are futile.

Many professors have saved themselves from this headache by embracing open-note exams. 

Professor Michael Trocchia started giving open-note assignments to his classes for the first time this semester. Trocchia said that he’s always been of the mind that there’s going to be a certain amount of cheating, and when he teaches a section of 80 students, there’s only so much he can control. 

“I feel like it’s a losing battle to try and prevent them from using their notes,” Trocchia said.

Trocchia said that he hopes open-note assignments will encourage his students to attend their online classes, take better notes and then learn them inside out.

“I thought it was more useful to pour my resources into making the class better and more interesting — giving the students a reason not to cheat because they want to do well,” Trocchia said.

As an additional measure, Trocchia sets time limits on his assessments so that students must be familiar with their material in order to finish on time — if they were dependent on their notes and referenced them for every question, they wouldn’t finish an exam on time. 

With the serious risk of an honor code violation “virtually” off the table given the ease of online cheating, students who cheat online face very little risk of punishment. Not allowing the class to use resources like notes during exams will only make the exams harder for those who choose not to cheat, while those who do choose to cheat will have a very small chance of being found out and will be rewarded with better grades for their dishonesty and lesser efforts.

Now that students have returned to campus, some professors are offering a choice between in-person and online classes. In-person instruction yields many benefits: students are able to connect with their professors and classmates, the environment’s more active and engaging, and there’s no risk of suddenly being booted out of class due to a network failure. Still, given this choice, many students will opt for the online classes over in person so that they can cheat more easily.

To encourage students to participate in person, professors should ensure that those who attend classes online don't have an unfair advantage over their in-person counterparts. This can be accomplished by making all assignments open note and allowing for more collaboration amongst peers.

It’s a common argument against any student’s plea for something that they feel would benefit them — such as an extension for an assignment or a curve on an exam — that such a benefit would never fly in the “real world.” In this case, the changes which I urge professors to make would actually be a closer reflection of the type of work students will receive in the quote-unquote “real world.”

Realistically, every graduate who goes into the workforce will have at least one computer at their disposal at all times. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to ask students to memorize equations they could find in seconds after a few taps on their phones. Furthermore, students could be expected to learn and do more if they weren’t made to memorize so many things, which will be forgotten as soon as their semester ends.

With COVID-19 pushing classes online comes the need for professors to evaluate the new reality and adjust their assignments accordingly. Students should be tasked with assignments that require them to do more than memorize terms or equations because assignments of this nature can and will be cheated on in an online forum. Beyond the issue of cheating, these assignments are a disservice to students since they encourage them to cram to remember pieces of information rather than teaching students how to apply information in more meaningful ways.

At a time when cheating has never been easier, it falls on the professors to change the way they assess students. Students will cheat if they can, so level the playing field with open notes and challenge students with application problems over those which rely only on memorization. 

Alex Davis is a freshman business management major. Contact Alex at davis8aj@dukes.jmu.edu.