Beyond the Blue Book

A new center at Penn State could redefine testing for students used to filling in bubbles (or blanks). For extra credit, it could also curb cheating.
October 17, 2007

Pennsylvania State University may not have a bigger cheating problem than any other major public institution, but it does have a lot of big classes that wind up eating into professors' instruction time and frequently forcing students to take exams in the evening. The university has arrived at a possible solution to the latter problem that could also deal with cheating: an on-campus, high-tech testing center.

The layout will be familiar to anyone who's ever taken the GRE at a private testing facility: It features 161 computer stations, monitored 24 hours a day by security cameras and open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Educators at the university hope the center, which opens this spring, will lead professors to embrace computer-based testing while at the same time acting as a major cheating deterrent. Students will have to swipe their ID cards and allow staff to match their faces with a photo on file. Each test taker will get a specific computer assignment, and the person they're sitting next to might not even be from the same class.

So, for example, a professor who decides to make use of the facility might decide to allow students to come in anytime during a particular week, rather than lock them in to an exam given at a specific time and place.

The unusual arrangement is part of a movement to improve assessment with technology, allowing instructors to track which questions tend to stump their students and test their knowledge more frequently, with questions beyond multiple choice. As an added bonus, the ability to randomize questions, other security features and a dedicated proctoring staff promise to keep cheating to a minimum.

"Computer-based testing just allows us to move beyond the multiple-choice question type into a place where one question can actually measure two or three items in a student learning environment," said Will Kerr, manager of testing and scanning services at the facility.

That could mean anything from video to audio to an interactive periodic table requiring students to drag and drop each element into its corresponding place on the chart, he said.

"One of the advantages [of the testing center] is that it allows faculty to use questions on their exams that are more higher-order; by that I mean you can embed Flash and animation and those kinds of things," said Jill Lane, a research associate and program manager at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State who specializes in technology and assessment. That way, she added, students are forced to manipulate the computer program to arrive at the answer. Or they can watch an animated feature demonstrating a particular experiment before answering related questions.

"I think it’s probably going to be a growing trend," Lane said, especially for students with learning disabilities who could now take tests without having to secure separate arrangements.

Putting the Brakes on Cheating

Donald L. McCabe, an expert on college cheating at Rutgers University's business school, said he thought the model at Penn State was "somewhat unusual" but likened it to a 600-station facility long in operation at Brigham Young University. "I think when it started it was more for the convenience of the faculty members," he said, because they could turn over the duties of administering tests to the center's staff.

The effect, he said, was to cut down on cheating: "There’s nobody sitting next to you that has the same exam."

Kerr said his team met with Brigham Young officials during the planning stage. While that university's center is paper-based, Kerr was still able to discuss the ability to counter cheating. "Really, we don’t have the opinion that it’s happening a lot, but we feared that it was better to discourage the cheating than try to deal with it directly [after the fact]," he said.

Still, after major academic fraud scandals at Duke University and elsewhere, some wonder whether technology or eroding ethical considerations have led to an actual shift in what students deem acceptable as not cheating.

"It’s become somewhat more of a problem, but not dramatically. It appears that things keep on deteriorating a little bit each year," McCabe said. "I think the really worrisome thing is how easily students can justify some of the things they do that clearly are cheating."

Often, such rationalizations are some variation on "Everyone else is doing it" -- but that's where a controlled environment might make a difference, suggested Linda Treviño, the Franklin H. Cook Fellow in Business Ethics at Penn State's Smeal College of Business.

"I think that being very careful and also having safeguards in place also sends a message," she said, that there's integrity in the process and that everyone is starting off at the same level.

Added McCabe: "Assuming [university officials] haven’t gone overboard, I think many students will view it favorably."


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