Could textbook design curb student online cheating?

Is student online cheating dependent on the right kinds of assignments and digital textbooks?

A Not-So-Great History

eCampus News has been reporting on the rise of student online cheating since 2013, when online learning and digital textbooks began to take hold in colleges and universities across the country.

Examples of student online cheating were plentiful amidst the relatively new incorporation of online learning on a diverse array of campuses; including: hacking of online assessment systems, using Google Docs with friends to simultaneously confer with friends for answers, accessing cheating chatrooms, and much more.

In order to combat student online cheating, college and university faculty, often with the help of the campus IT department, began implementing tech-based solutions to curb these actions; including: keystroke monitoring software, creating multiple exam forms online, browser lockdown solutions, and authentication of test takers using biometrics.

Yet, even as online cheating solutions became prevalent, notorious instances of cheating were prevalent.

Could the Answer be in the Design?

However, Researchers from the University of California at Riverside and zyBooks found in their recent survey that most college students make a legitimate attempt to answer questions in homework assignments, even when a short-cut to the answer is available to them through the click of a button. This evidence of integrity in study habits is promising, say the researchers, as an increasing number of instructors use online learning materials, many of which include built-in questions and solutions.

“With the right interactive material, we see that many students are interested in truly learning, rather than simply doing whatever it takes to get their grade,” said Dr. Alex Edgcomb, University of California at Riverside research specialist, zyBooks senior software engineer, and co-author of the study, in a statement. “The study also addresses the question of whether digital textbooks can aid learning—and the answer is a resounding yes.”

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The study analyzed data from 550 students enrolled in a fall 2014 Introduction to Programming course in four classes: one at a four-year public research university, one at a four-year public teaching college, and two at community colleges. Students completed short-answer homework questions using interactive digital textbooks that offer a “Check” button to submit an answer, and a “Show Answer” button to reveal the correct response without any grade penalty. 84 percent of students responded on their own without, or before, revealing the correct answer. Nearly 90 percent of students earnestly attempted 60 to 100 percent of questions. Only one percent of students “blatantly cheated the system” by attempting less than 20 percent of questions.

Experts were also able to compare response data to the makeup of the questions themselves to determine which types of questions are most effective, how much time is required to answer, and the value of building in and accepting alternative correct answers. The paper also discusses teaching practices that can have a negative impact on honesty such as assigning excessive work.

“We created the material under the assumption that, fundamentally, students want to learn,” added Dr. Frank Vahid, University of California at Riverside Computer Science & Engineering professor, and co-founder of zyBooks, in a statement. “We believed they would challenge themselves to answer questions if those questions really help them learn. We were delighted that the study confirmed our assumption. Such data not only guides us in creating and improving learning material, but can really change how teachers view and interact with students.”

Dr. Edgcomb, Dr. Vahid and Joshua Yuen (Computer Science & Engineering, University of California at Riverside) presented these findings at the New Orleans Convention Center on June 29 as part of the ASEE Annual Conference. The study was supported in part by the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program and a Google faculty research award.

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