Academics devise cheat-busting ‘unique data’ tool for online exams

A programme capable of producing hundreds of unique datasets could enable examiners to set students one-of-a-kind exams and coursework projects

Academics at the University of Exeter have devised a way to deter students from cheating during online exams with a tool capable of producing one-of-a-kind datasets for each candidate.

The new programme allows examiners to send STEM students unique, realistic data – and markers the corresponding answers and results – for online assessments. It means students would be unable to confer or share results if completing the same exams or project outside of an exam hall.

The researchers hope that the method will guarantee easy-to-replicate, “fair and robust” online assessments in any data-based subject. 

The findings were published in the Journal of Chemical Education. 

The new technique was created by Professor Nicholas Harmer, co-author of the report, who wrote a programming script that models lab equipment to generate data with a degree of randomness to each set. 

“Our method allows us to create assessments that are fair and robust at a scale that would be impossible if each dataset had to be created individually,” said Prof Harmer. 

This approach could be applied to any assessment where you want the student to go through a logical process of analysing information
– Professor Nicholas Harmer

The programme also creates answers and workings so, if a candidate makes a mistake, markers can spot where they went wrong. 

Co-author Dr Alison Hill, from the University of Exeter, said: “We want to protect our students who take their exams ethically, especially online. This new technique gives students confidence that there is little incentive to collude, and so they will not be disadvantaged compared to those who might otherwise share answers.”

Researchers observed no difference in student performance with previous years.

The programme gives students access to bespoke lab videos for laboratory training and ‘smart worksheets’ that support instantaneous feedback. 

The programme may even have applications in the humanities, researchers say, because it can create unique images and send students different pre-loaded sources. “This approach could be applied to any assessment where you want the student to go through a logical process of analysing information,” said Harmer. 

The research was funded by the Exeter Education Incubator. The open-access paper is entitled: ‘Unique data sets and bespoke laboratory videos: Teaching and assessing of experimental methods and data analysis in a pandemic‘.


Read more: Jisc: the value of ‘e-proctoring’ as exams move online

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