Teachers look for increased security as students share online exam answers


Blackboard, Access Plus, Course planning and the directory are common online resources students use. 

Stephanie Schubert

It’s easy to do. It might also be easy to fix.

It’s not surprising to hear that students cheat on exams. What isn’t always apparent is the ways in which people cheat, as well as the toll cheating has on those who wish to achieve their grades honestly.

One student, who wished not to be named because he fears backlash from his peers, said many of his peers at Iowa State have been known to cheat through Blackboard. He said it’s a common occurrence in his large lecture hall classes.

He first noticed people cheating during his sophomore year. Someone was passing around previous exams in biochemistry 301, a 200-person lecture hall class that requires students to take exams in the testing centers.

“I think I figured it out around exam number two,” the student said. “I was in such a hole at that point, that I was considering using them. They were obviously helping.”

The student spoke with Robert Thornburg, professor of the class, who had mentioned he noticed a discrepancy in scores among exams one, two and three.

“[Exams] one and two were extraordinarily high, and then three was very low,” the student said. “And it was assumed that it was because of the fact that these exams were being passed around.”

The student said for the first two exams, there was a matching previous exam passed around. For the third exam, there was no test file and grades went down, Thornburg said. For the fourth exam, there was a test file and grades went up again. Exam number three had been an eye opener.

“I distinctly remember — I was relieved when I got like, a 55 percent,” the student said. “That is what the rest of the class got on exam three because (before), everybody was getting Bs and high Cs while I’m getting Ds on these exams and I was freaking out.”

Thornburg also recognized the trend.

“Some students who had good grades on the first two exams did not have good grades on the third exam,” he said.

The fluctuation in grades was enough for Thornburg to rewrite the exams for his biochemistry class, which takes time.

“To write an exam question is five to 10 minutes of work,” he said. “Multiply that by 50.”

Thornburg said this situation is frustrating because it’s important for him to guard against cheating.

“If people can do that, I would like to know how,” he said. “I want everything to be fair for everybody and I really try hard to make it that way.”

Thornburg has been teaching this class for two years now. He said he has never given a test back. His understanding was that Blackboard was highly secure, which is one of the reasons the university invested in it.

So how is cheating done?

“It’s easy,” the student said.

He had received a test file through an email from another student for Thornburg’s class. In fact, he continued to receive them last semester for another class.

He said after taking an exam in the testing center, the test can be pulled up again through Blackboard on any computer, allowing students to see the exam score. However, what some professors may not know is that by pressing the link that connects to the grade, it brings up the whole test, answers and all.

This came partly as a surprise to Edward Braun, professor of microbiology, when he learned of the situation. This is the second class the student took in which cheating was rampant.

“I do open the tests up so they can see their scores,” Braun said.

When he was told there was a test file for every exam he had that semester, he said he assumed someone was keeping a batch of them. He looked over a copy of a previous test and found about 60 percent of it matched the current test, pretty much word for word.

“That’s why I put sample exams that have a lot of the same questions as the test bank questions,” Braun said.

There are also other ways he said he works to ensure fairness.

“It’s important that I do a handful of new questions on each exam,” he said. “The ball’s in my court to change questions and change exams.”

But even in light of knowledge that students were cheating, there hadn’t been a fluctuation of grades in his class to make him worry.

“The scores this semester are not very good,” he said.

It didn’t bother him as much as it would if students were able to cheat off the current semester’s test. But the student said yes, they can do that, too.

The same printing method is used regardless of which test is being compromised. Because Braun’s test was open for five days, it enabled a student to take the test early, print it out and pass it on for someone to take the next day. The student himself overheard a girl in Braun’s class offering her test to someone else. He said most people in his large lecture hall classes knew about the emails, and biochemistry can contain up to 200 people.

Doug Bull, director of the testing center at Iowa State, sees the game going even further.

“Students will take turns being the sacrificial lamb. They take turns taking the test first because sometimes a professor will throw out the worst exam,” he said.

Bull has seen this issue come up in different departments of the university. Although the loophole is easy to exploit, he said the solution is simple. The problem, he said, is that the exam settings are not clear for Blackboard. He gave an example of an instructor who took over a class for another professor, who also ended up inheriting the same Blackboard exam settings. Cheating ensued and it took a while to fix.

Bull is not sure how this instructor finally got word of the exam loophole. Another case included a student who was writing down the test answers in the testing center. Bull talked to the instructor and again the issue was with the settings.

The feedback section of the settings framework in Blackboard is where the confusion lies. A professor can choose to check a box that says “score,” so a student can see their percentage. But if they check the box, “it makes the professor believe that the student will only see the score,” Bull said. In reality, that choice allows the student to see the whole test. If the professor does not click “score,” the students only see the score.

There are also settings to restrict when a student is allowed to view test information. One choice called “end date” allows for test information when the test ends, when students can immediately see their scores. One choice called “due date” gives students test information after the test has closed for everyone.

After learning about this obstacle in preparing tests, Thornburg said he would be interested in investigating these setting options. Braun has already met with the people at Center for Excellence and Learning, changing the settings to block the possibility of printing out tests. He also asked the staff to focus on the issue when the center holds workshops for faculty members.

Last semester, Braun spoke to his microbiology class, alerting students they are playing with fire when they decide to cheat, even though it may seem innocent to them.