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Rethinking Assessment, Equity and Academic Integrity

Earlier this summer, Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine dropped charges against students accused of using online materials to cheat on close-booked exams. The decision came after hundreds of students and other observers criticized the college’s original investigation, which was carried out by secretly tracking students’ activity on the college’s learning management system. Dartmouth is one of several institutions to be embroiled in cheating scandals in recent months, raising questions about academic dishonesty in online courses and how colleges and universities should respond.

Concerns about academic integrity have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic -- as have institution’s reliance on software tracking and monitoring students’ activity for signs of cheating. Within months of the nationwide shift to remote learning, 54 percent of colleges and universities were using online proctoring and surveillance tools. Alarming stories quickly emerged on social media of honest students failing exams after surveillance tools erroneously identified them as cheaters because their eyes wandered too frequently across the computer screen. Parents and students began demanding schools stop using such tools due to an array of privacy worries, concerns about racial bias, and accusations of ableism.

This potential increase in academic dishonesty and some institutions’ overly zealous -- and frequently invasive -- response is all an outgrowth of our outdated approach to learning and assessment. In an era where students have access to course material and study websites and where the answers to many exam questions are just a Google query away, our understanding of cheating and academic integrity is woefully behind the curve. So is our over-reliance on traditional assessments and tests. We created this world. Our students are just living in it. 

For many students, earning a good grade is often simply more important than learning. There is a lot riding on grades. If a student fails a high-stakes exam, they are not only in danger of retaking the course and delaying their graduation, but losing crucial financial aid and dropping out. This concern has proven especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. One study last year found that more than 20 percent of Pell Grant recipients were at risk of losing their aid after failing to make satisfactory academic progress during the pandemic. The pressure to cheat can be immense.Dr. Jessica Rowland WilliamsDr. Jessica Rowland Williams

The way we codify our approach to academic integrity in policy also raises important questions about equity. The rapid growth and expansion of online, digital, and hybrid learning also raises profound questions around the accessibility of instruction and assessment. And yet, we largely still rely on the same uniform kinds of assessments like traditional midterms and final exams to determine whether learners are actually learning. 

Educators are capable of finding better ways for students to demonstrate mastery, from authentic assessments focused on skills that can be applied outside of the classroom, to formative assessments that frequently measure learning throughout a course rather than at the end. We need to differentiate assessment and instruction in ways that meet the emerging majority of students. 

As University of Texas historian Steve Mintz wrote in a literature review on academic integrity: “A growing number of faculty are seeing the value of authentic, project-, inquiry-, challenge-, and problem-based assignments to assess mastery of essential skills and knowledge. They are dividing projects into clearly delineated stages, which helps students focus on activities that emphasize skills development. Finally, faculty have a responsibility to provide prompt, personalized feedback to keep students engaged throughout the learning process.”

Research shows that students learn better when they are not focused on their final grades, but on shorter-term, more tangible parts of a course. We can replace infrequent and high-stakes exams with frequent, low-stakes assessments, allow students to do difficult work with the help of faculty and peers, and increase opportunities for oral expressions of learning. Institutions can provide students with individualized, on-demand support using adaptive learning courseware.

Of course, this shift can not happen overnight, and it would be unwise to suddenly toss out the testing status quo of the last fifty years. But faculty seem primed to explore these approaches. According to a study of 3,500 faculty members last fall, more than 60 percent of faculty updated their courses’ learning objectives and assessments in response to the shift to remote learning, and nearly one-third of instructors increased the frequency of their assessments. 

The future of student learning will not be found down the path of increased surveillance. Research shows the proctoring tools used by many institutions do very little to curb cheating. They do, however, increase students’ anxiety and, ironically, can lead to lower test scores. Instead, we must restore trust -- between faculty and students, and students and assessments. Historic approaches to teaching, and learning need not—and should not—preordain the future of the assessment experience. We must expand our understanding of both academic integrity and how we measure learning, building a system that is in tune with the dynamic and shifting needs of today’s students and the connected world they are living in right now. 

Dr. Jessica Rowland Williams is the Director of Every Learner Everywhere, a network of organizations with a mission to help institutions use new technology to innovate teaching and learning and better serve Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, poverty-affected students, and first-generation students.

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