PEI

UPEI prof develops 'plagiarism-resistant' online exams

A professor at the University of Prince Edward Island has developed a method to help curtail plagiarism, which he says has become more problematic after universities were forced to pivot abruptly to online learning and exams during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yingwei Wang says plagiarism has been a growing concern after universities shifted to online exams

Online exams are more susceptible to plagiarism, says a UPEI prof. (Shutterstock)

A professor at the University of Prince Edward Island has developed a method to help curtail plagiarism, which he says has become more problematic after universities were forced to pivot abruptly to online learning and exams during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yingwei Wang, an associate professor of computer science, said he found five of his students guilty of plagiarism after marking online exams last spring. When questioned, he said the students admitted to the plagiarism and received lower marks.

"After the exams, I heard various kinds of stories. A student told me about what happened and some students just got higher marks, much higher, than they should get, and so on. As a professor, I just thought this was not right."

Wang said plagiarism is a "frustration" shared by many professors, and last summer he worked on a method to do something about it.

Yingwei Wang, an associate professor of computer science at UPEI, says he hopes his new method will be beneficial to other instructors. (UPEI)

He said online exams are more susceptible to plagiarism than in-class exams, where proctors are present to monitor students who may be tempted to look over their classmates' shoulders or peek on their device.

Online, however, he said students could commit plagiarism by messaging answers to each other, or simply by searching the question online or in a textbook. He said some students may live together in the same apartment, or take exams at the same location, and easily share answers.

"Some students put a lot of effort to study and some not as hard. And they try to get answers by checking online, by checking books, and they got similar marks, so that will make the exams not fair and not meaningful. So it's a problem."

Wang's new testing method is called TSINC, an acronym for its five attributes:

  • Time-pressed: Students are given a short time to answer each question, removing the temptation to spend extra time with "plagiarism activities."
  • Sequential: Students are not allowed to go back to the previous question. So if a student finds the answer subsequently, through whatever means, he or she cannot go back and insert it.
  • Individualized: Every student is given a unique exam in terms of question order and variation. This is not a new concept, but Wang said it is more effective in conjunction with the other attributes.
  • Not searchable: The questions are worded in a way that makes it difficult to cut and paste into a browser and have the answer come up directly. Searching would still be possible, but forcing them to dig deeper would make the extra time and effort a deterrent.
  • Calibration: The marks should be "calibrated" after the exam, so harsh requirements introduced by the previous attributes are compensated for. Wang acknowledges that these methods will make exams more difficult even for "honest" students, and result in lower marks, so an adjustment would be necessary to reflect the normal average of the entire class.

Wang began using his new method for exams in October and December. He said the marks were more consistent with pre-COVID exams, and there were no allegations of plagiarism.

'Fair and meaningful' exams

"It's because of this COVID situation, I want the exams to be fair and meaningful for my classes, so I devised this mechanism."

He said he hopes the method, in whole or in part, will be beneficial to other instructors, as well. 

"They may say this one works for it, this one doesn't work for me, doesn't work for my area. That is all understandable. I think the key point is this method at least shows it is possible to control plagiarism in an online environment without a proctor."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shane Ross is a former newspaper and TV journalist in Halifax, Ottawa and Charlottetown. He joined CBC P.E.I.'s web team in 2016.

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