Steps Towards Assuring Academic Integrity

Article by Nathan Kraftcheck.

A common initial concern I often hear when meeting with new distance education instructors is how to prevent cheating and plagiarism. How can they ensure the rigor of their assessments? Although there is not a 100% successful strategy that one can adopt, neither is there a 100% successful strategy for eliminating cheating during in-person assessments (Watson & Sottile, 2010). However, we still strive to limit academic dishonesty to the best of our abilities. I’ve provided some practices below that you may find useful in both reducing the opportunity for students to commit academic misconduct, and their motivation to do so in your class.

Quiz and exam building strategies to save time and reduce cheating

One way in which online instructors reduce time spent grading is through online quizzes and exams. Systems like Canvas have allowed for automatic grading of certain question types for many years (open-ended manually graded questions are also available). Depending on an instructor’s goals, course objectives, and discipline, automatically scored online quizzes and exams can be a useful tool.

  • As a formative learning activity in itself—a way for students to check their own learning in low-stakes assessment.
  • As a replacement for other low-stakes work. This can be useful in offloading discussion board fatigue that many students cited over the Fall of 2020.
  • As a method to assess foundational knowledge that is necessary for future work in the major or program.
  • As a manageable way to assess a large number of students.

Decorative icon of a stopwatchWhen including online quizzes and exams in a course, the ability for students to look up the answer is always a concern. Instructors may be tempted to direct students to not use external materials when taking their assessment. Unfortunately, just asking students not to use such material is unlikely to find much success. A more common, practical approach is to design the quiz or exam around the fact that many students will use external resources when possible.

  • Allow multiple attempts.
  • Consider drawing questions from a pool of possible questions. This can allow the students to engage with the same concept, framed differently, helping them work on the underlying concept instead of mastering a specific question’s language.
  • Let students see the correct answer after the quiz or exam is no longer available. This can help if you'd like to allow your students to use their quiz or exam as a study guide.
  • Draw questions from a pool of possible questions—each student will have a randomized experience this way and depending on how large the pool is, some students may not see the exact same version of the questions (assuming different wording across questions that measure the same concept).
  • Shuffle the order of possible answers.
  • Limit how long the quiz or exam is open if you want to mimic a closed-book assessment—don't allow students time to look up all the answers.
  • Let students see the correct answer after the quiz or exam is no longer available. This can help if you'd like to allow your students to use their quiz or exam as a study guide.
  • Only show one question at a time—this can limit a student's ability to look up multiple questions at once and also limit their ability to share the questions with a friend.
  • Set availability and due dates for your quizzes or exams.
  • Modify your questions slightly from semester to semester. Do this for 100% of your publisher-provided questions—assume copies of publisher questions and their answers are available online for students to look up.

For more detailed information on these items, please look at this page for guidance.

Less high-stakes assessment and more low-stakes assessment

It’s fairly common for teaching and learning centers to promote an increase in the use of lower-stakes assessments and a decrease in the higher-stakes assessments. This might seem counterintuitive because more assessments could mean a greater opportunity to cheat, right? It may also seem like additional work since students would be required to take assessments more frequently. However, there is good reason to advocate for more frequent, smaller assessments.

  • Students have a better understanding of how well they grasp discrete topics.
  • Students will know earlier if they’re not doing well, instead of at the first midterm.
  • Students learn from recalling information—a quiz can be more effective than just studying.
  • Students learn more through repeated assessment in comparison to one assessment (Brame & Biel, 2015; Roediger & Butler, 2011).

“Done” / “not done” grading

For low-stakes formative student assignments, consider adopting a done/not done approach. This could take the form of any assignment you could quickly assess for completion, for instance, a brief reflective or open-ended written assignment submission or discussion post. By keeping the activity brief and focused, you’ll be able to quickly assess whether it was done correctly while allowing students to re-engage with class topics by making meaning from what they’ve learned.

From the University of Waterloo:

  • What new insights did I develop as a result of doing this work?
  • How has my perspective changed after doing this assignment?
  • What challenges to my current thinking did this work present?
  • How does work in this course connect with work in another course?
  • What concepts do I still need to study more? Where are the disconnects in my learning?

Working up to larger projects and papers

Decorative icon of an increasing chart.For larger, summative projects that by their nature dictate a large influence on final course grades, consider breaking up the project into smaller steps (Ahmad & Sheikh, 2016).

For a written paper assignment, an instructor could:

  • Start by asking students to select a topic based on a parameter you provide and find source material to support their topic.
  • Students submit their topic description and source material as an assignment. Grade as complete/incomplete and provide guidance if necessary on topic and/or sources.
  • Ask students to create an annotated bibliography.
  • Students submit an annotated bibliography to an assignment. Grade as complete/incomplete.
  • Create a discussion in Canvas where students can talk about their topics (assuming they're all somewhat related). Grade as complete/incomplete.
  • Ask students to create a rough draft. Utilize peer grading in Canvas to off-load grading and include student-to-student communication and collaboration.
  • Students submit a second draft or final draft. Grade with a rubric.

By asking students to select their topic and work through the writing process on a step-by-step basis, the instructor can see the process the student takes through the paper’s development, and students are not able to procrastinate and thus won’t feel pressured to plagiarize someone else’s work (Elias, 2020) as they’re already doing most of the work anyway. This process also discourages plagiarism as there is not as much of an emphasis on the finished product, as the possible score is distributed across multiple activities (Carnegie Mellon University).

Built-in flexibility

Dropping lowest scores

Another way to reduce the appeal of cheating in courses is to offer some flexibility in grading (Ostafichuk, Frank & Jaeger). This can take many forms, of course, but one common to classes using a learning management system like Canvas is to drop the lowest score in a grouping of similar activities. As an example, an online instructor might have a Canvas Assignment Group containing all of their graded quizzes. The instructor can then create a rule for that Assignment Group which will tell Canvas how to calculate scores of the activities inside. For example, the instructor might set the Assignment Group to exclude each student’s lowest score in that group when calculating the final grade. The quiz score that is dropped varies from student to student, but each would have their lowest score dropped.

Student options

Building off the concept of dropping the lowest score students achieve from a group of assignments, you can also use this functionality to build in student choice. For example, if you have more than two discussion activities in your class that meet the same learning objective, consider letting students select the one that they want to participate in and then “drop” the other.

Late work leeway

Another option for flexibility is to set the “due” dates for your graded activities but leave the “available to” date empty or make it the absolute last date and time you would accept submissions. This will allow your students to submit their work beyond the due date and have it flagged as “late”, but also reduce the likelihood of a student cheating on an assignment if they’ve procrastinated or otherwise fallen behind in their coursework. You can also create late work grading policies within Canvas that automatically deduct a percentage of possible points on a daily or weekly basis.

Make use of rubrics

Decorative icon of a rubric.  Research has shown that rubrics are effective tools in shining light on the most important elements of an assignment, setting student expectations for quality and depth of submitted work, and simplifying the grading process for instructors (Kearns). By making a rubric available ahead of time, students have another opportunity to see how their work will be graded and what crucial elements they should include. They can also address equity issues between students, leveling the field between students whose education has prepared them to succeed in college versus those who have not (Stevens & Levi, 2006). Some instructors have found that using rubrics reduces their time spent grading, possibly because of the focused nature of what is being assessed (Cornell University; Duquesne University).

Canvas has built-in rubrics that can be attached to any graded activity. Rubrics are used mostly in Canvas Assignments and Discussions. They can be added to quizzes but aren’t used in the actual grading process for quizzes and would be used as guidance for students only. To learn more about rubrics, take a look at this rubrics guide by Boston College. There’s also a more task-oriented guide from Canvas, available here.

What do you think?

What techniques have you found useful in limiting academic misconduct in your classes? Let us know by dropping a comment below!

So You Want to Be Flexible: Canvas Can Help

Article by Luke Konkol

In a time when students might require extra flexibility, it’s important to remember that it should not come at the expense of instructor bandwidth. Providing extensions on student work, alternative assignments, or dropping work can have a positive impact on students, but how can we best find the sweet spot between an inflexible structure and ‘anything goes’? Some answers lie in Canvas features. In this post, I’ll share a few ideas of how you might set up Canvas for your own benefit, in addition to students’.

“I Just Need a Little More Time.”

By default when you make a Canvas assignment, it’s assigned to every student and the due dates apply accordingly. However, you can also get specific and assign different dates to individual students. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of emails asking for extensions, and masses of sticky notes and spreadsheets suggest that no method of tracking them has been totally effective. By updating the assignment dates for each student who gets an extension, Canvas will track this for you and the student alike.

Some instructors also don’t realize how late work shows up on the student side. When work is late, Canvas is overly clear, marking it with a big red “LATE”. This can be off-putting to otherwise achieving students—especially when the work is not actually late. Adjusting a student’s individual due date means their work will only be marked as late if it is submitted past their specific due date.

A Usable Gradebook

An indication of ‘late’ work also shows up in your gradebook. Unfortunately, Canvas doesn’t make their cacophony of symbols and highlights transparent anywhere within the gradebook itself, so those individual cells just turn into noise. This is less true if you can use these features of the gradebook to their full potential. One first step is using individual due dates as described above; when you do, the highlight for “late” work starts to mean something.

Excusing and Dropping

Canvas grading is also not as “all or nothing” as it first appears. What seems like a flaw can work to our advantage: anything un-graded does not count against students in the way a zero would. But it’s sometimes difficult for students (and the future you) to interpret this lack of data. Canvas has thought this one through. You can make it explicit which assignments will not be counted towards a student’s final grade by marking such assignment as “excused”.

Excusing work is a good option if the dropped score doesn’t apply to everyone, but what if you want to discount a graded item for the entire class? You can tell Canvas to drop certain assignments, such as the lowest in an assignment group, by setting up assignment group rules. The thing to remember is to enter those zeroes for missing assignments—otherwise Canvas will drop the lowest scored assignment instead.

Assignment Groups

In fact, there are several tricks you can use so the Canvas gradebook tracks scores but assignments ‘count’ differently. For example, some instructors prefer to manually assign scores elsewhere but still want Canvas to serve as the interface for student work. A rather extreme example (using labor-based grading) can be found here. Whenever you use unconventional grading methods, the key is to be transparent with students about what Canvas (and you) are doing. This guide on group weights is enough to get you started on this advanced topic, but we recommend setting up a CATL consultation if this is something you’d be interested in exploring further.

The Learning is in the Doing “So Far”

These tips demonstrate the way in which, at first blush, Canvas seems to focus its flexibility on the student side of the equation. This is to say, instructor errors (like forgetting to enter a zero) seem to unduly benefit the student. But these effects are just symptoms of a wider philosophy underlying the way Canvas works. Like any learning management system, Canvas is based on the idea that a certain transaction is taking place, but instead of focusing on a raw accumulation of points (like other LMSs) Canvas’s approach to scoring is a reflection of how students are doing “so far”. If a student only does one of ten assignments but does it well, Canvas tracks this as success.

What does this do for us? For me, it clues us into a different way to think about student progress—and one that speaks directly to students achieving objectives. If we want students to be able to X, why have a dozen assignments asking them to do so if they succeed in doing it in two or three? Despite a distaste for ‘busy work’ shared by instructors and students alike, it tends to creep into the online environment. The silver lining is that the boost in remote learning (where the necessity that we clearly articulate the work we expect from students is highlighted) has revealed the craving we all seem to have for objective-centered student work.

A Note on Objectives

So, you want a student’s grade to reflect their meeting objectives instead of a raw accumulation of points. Now what? That’s a good question—and the answer is bigger than we’ve got the space to address here. My temporary answer is a cop-out: keep your objectives in mind as the driving factor for using the techniques I’ve provided above.

But give it some further thought. If this idea of objectives-based grading is intriguing to you, consider that Canvas has a spot for you to create outcomes and that you can then attach these outcomes to assignments.

As if this weren’t enough, Canvas even has an alternative gradebook based on what they call “learning mastery” which tracks this very thing using benchmarks for mastery you set. I didn’t advertise this above because the focus of this post is on practical action you can take now to save yourself some work, but if this is something you’d like to explore further, please don’t hesitate to schedule a consultation!

What Do You Think?

How do you manage flexibility in your courses? What Canvas (or other) ‘hacks’ do you have to share with your colleagues? Let us know below! I’ve also been thinking a bit lately about how some of these practices (e.g. objective-based grading) might be worth keeping around even once things “go back to normal”. I’m curious to hear from you on this. How have your grading practices changed? Is there anything you’ve started doing that you plan on keeping going forward?