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Rates of cheating in online examinations have hit a record high, according to proctoring data that show one in 14 students was caught breaking the rules last year.

Times Higher Education logoA global analysis of data on three million tests that used the ProctorU proctoring platform found that “confirmed breaches” of test regulations—incidents where there was clear evidence of misconduct—were recorded in 6.6 percent of all cases.

This is nearly 14 times higher than the 0.5 percent misconduct rate detected in the 15 months prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which triggered the widespread adoption of online assessments and, with this, a surge in the use of online proctoring services such as ProctorU.

But it also represents a steep increase over 2020, when breaches were confirmed in 3.9 percent of tests—indicating that the problem is getting worse as students become more accustomed to online tests.

The data are based on tests conducted in about 1,000 centers across the world, mostly in the U.S., Britain and Australia. The confirmed breach rate for higher education assessments only, excluding professional exams, was even higher than the overall average, at 7.2 percent.

ProctorU founder Jarrod Morgan, who is now chief strategy officer of Alabama-based parent company Meazure Learning, said he was concerned that the rate of cheating was so high even though students knew they were being watched.

Confirmed breaches included candidates looking at papers or books they should not have had, other people being present in the room during an assessment, or a student attempting to take a test on behalf of a classmate.

Morgan said rates of cheating would likely be even higher at universities that did not use online proctoring, and he expressed concern that such high levels of rule breaking could devalue students’ qualifications.

“It doesn’t take long before the whole thing starts to collapse; the value of a degree or grade comes from society agreeing that if you get it from such a place, it means something,” he said.

“If we start to think it doesn’t mean as much because we know people have cheated their way through the courses, the whole thing starts to get shaky.”

A report from ProctorU also details misconduct that did not amount to a definite breach of the rules. Nearly two-thirds of higher education students (64.4 percent) arrived at exams last year with “unpermitted resources” such as textbooks or mobile phones, while exam supervisors had to intervene to clarify or enforce rules to prevent potential cheating in nearly one in five cases (19.1 percent).

Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow and expert in academic integrity at Imperial College London, said that while it has been well documented that misconduct has risen during the pandemic, it was surprising to see such an increase among students being monitored online via a process that has been criticized as being “more invasive than face-to-face proctoring.”

“That suggests to me that students feel under so much pressure that they have been forced to resort to unfair means in this situation,” Lancaster said.

Some researchers have raised concern about the lack of independent evidence that supports the idea that online proctoring can reduce cheating, while students have criticized the invasion of privacy that comes with a proctor accessing their screen and webcam.

Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) at the University of New South Wales Sydney, said the findings should prompt “educators to reassess whether tests and exams really are the best way to measure and assure student learning.”

She added that although there will likely always be a need for some proctored exams, there are at “least some circumstances where there are almost certainly better ways to have students demonstrate their learning achievement.”

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