How Cengage-WebAssign Implemented an “Anti-cheating” Initiative

Cheating has always been an issue with students, causing educators to create unique strategies to try and outsmart them. Creating different versions of homework assignments, using cover sheets, and separating desks are some of the ways teachers discourage cheating in the classroom. But the advent of the online classroom has definitely complicated things. Modern search engines and online resources are making it quite challenging to address the problem of cheating. Cengage found that students were able to easily find answers to WebAssign problems and enter them in homework assignments without actually “doing the work”. Cengage had to take action and devise an anti-cheating plan.

Past Efforts to Discourage Cheating

The WebAssign platform was already using algorithms to provide each student with a slight variation of the problem, so the answers were not static numbers. This eliminated the basic printed “cheat sheets”. However,  the answer could still be written in terms of the variables in the problem. Although, a certain percentage of the problems were changed with every textbook revision, something that happened every few years, it was not enough, allowing the sites that were providing answers to keep up with these changes. Another drawback was that the printed textbook was often released a few months before the WebAssign course went live. So new versions of the problems were solved and ready for students on their very first day of the course.

A Two-Pronged Approach to Solve the Problem

Under the leadership of Michael Jacobs, Learning Designer at Cengage, the SMEs and assessment coding team worked together to come up with solutions. They realized that the problem had to be addressed from two different perspectives.

1. Making it harder to find the correct answers online

This was achieved by taking half of the problems from the printed book and making them available only online. Proper nouns, distinctive phrases and word combinations that make it easy to search for an answer by simply copying and pasting the problem in a search engine, were removed. To achieve “anti-search engine optimization,” contextual randomizations were used in addition to the numerical randomizations. This approach dilutes the search results and also provides students with additional questions to solve. Adjustments made to these problems would be accessible to students only after they were assigned the new content. Because the content is only available online, it gives WebAssign the ability to change the content immediately should it become compromised.

2. Eliminating the need to cheat

Students don’t intend to cheat but end up turning to the internet for answers when they are confused and have difficulty solving the problem. When students get the answer wrong, a red “X” appears near the incorrect response. This is largely unhelpful, because the student may not intuitively know what they did wrong. To address this, the SMEs created targeted feedback responses that are provided to students when they make common mistakes or assumptions on their homework assignments. The feedback explains what the error is and gives the students additional inputs that point them in the right direction. This helps students stay on the WebAssign platform instead of turning to paid external sites to fill in the gaps and help them stay competitive.

The first set of feedback responses come from SMEs but might be incomplete in itself. The plan is to collect and analyze students’ incorrect responses and create additional feedback based on incorrect responses that the SMEs hadn’t thought of.

SMEs also created student focused solutions which can be made available to students after the due date or immediately for practice problem sets. The solutions are set up to be dynamic and change with the specific context and randomization for each student.

“This effort grew out of a much larger initiative dubbed alternatively ‘NPH’ or ‘PETE’ whose full implementation was predicated on a number of platform changes and enhancements.   What we did here was take the content elements of that larger effort that could be accomplished with ‘on-the-truck’ capabilities and apply them to the new revision,” said Michael Jacobs.

The fact that the SMEs and assessment teams are in-house and working closely together made this project successful. The team ensured that coding questions with these new guidelines would still be easy when using the available authoring tools.

In the long run, Cengage-WebAssign intends to take a look at the existing capabilities of the platform and analyze how they can be used in new ways or on a much larger scale. It would also be a good idea to optimize the other half of the problems from the textbook for consistency.

With all these checks and an effective feedback process in place, students may not give in to the temptation to cheat and look for answers online. And if they do, Michael and his team have a process in place to continuously improve the platform and its capabilities!

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