How to Give Tests in Online Courses

Colleges and universities face new challenges administering tests for online courses.

GUEST COLUMN | by Don Kassner

CREDIT ProctorUThe popularity of online education is growing. Attracted by the flexibility and convenience, students are enrolling in online courses in greater numbers. The Babson Survey Research Group’s Survey of Online Learning reports there are more than 7.1 million students taking at least one online course. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of Hong Kong. The growth of online education has caused many shifts in colleges and universities across the country – and the world – including new approaches to testing students enrolled in these classes.

In today’s BYOD classrooms, moving testing online means institutions have to be ready for students to want to take the test from a variety of devices. 

When it comes to offering a test for an online course, colleges and universities have a few options. The first – and, historically the most common – is to require students to travel to a regional testing center to take the exam in person. But for students who live in remote areas or who have to balance school with a full-time job or other responsibilities, traveling to a regional testing center can be inconvenient.

To make online education more accessible, more and more institutions are employing one of two options in web-based proctoring: recorded or live proctoring. Recorded proctoring offers the option to record the student taking the exam and then have the recording viewed by trained proctors. By comparison, live proctoring uses a live person to monitor the student in real-time via webcam. Either option can present several challenges that are different than classroom-based testing.

The biggest and most obvious concern is cheating. Questions abound in regards to how students might cheat. What if a student has a piece of paper taped behind her computer? What if someone else is in the room? What if the student is not who he says he is? While these questions may seem daunting, many of the solutions are fairly straightforward.

The first step is to verify the identity of the student. Colleges and universities can use video monitoring and an authentication process such as visual verification (e.g., a webcam plus government issue or student ID), personal questions or biometrics (e.g., keystroke authentication) to confirm the student’s identity.

The second step is to verify what the student is doing. Is he glancing to the side too often? What is visible on her screen? Fortunately, webcams and other software have made it possible to monitor a student taking a test, even if the student is hundreds of miles away. With these types of technologies, there are issues of protecting privacy and security. Schools undertaking this approach should train proctors to exercise the highest of ethical standards, use technologies that make it clear to a student when they are being monitored and when they are not, and ensure any external partner applies the same measures.

But cheating is not the only challenge. In today’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) classrooms, moving testing online means institutions have to be ready for students to want to take the test from a variety of devices. This means creating adaptive testing platforms that display the same across devices as well as providing technical support. This can mean partnering with an outside provider or further investment in an institution’s current IT infrastructure and department.

It’s also prudent for institutions to note that while there are many conveniences in creating an online test – such as being able to build bigger banks of test questions and the ease of duplicating tests for students – not all types of tests are created equally.

For example, open resource testing can often compromise the integrity of an exam because it becomes more complicated to tell if someone is cheating.

Additionally, it can be difficult to resist the power these technologies offer faculty members to customize testing scenarios. Defining different parameters for each student or allowing too many variations, such as allowing bonus points for students who do not use textbook materials during an open resource exam, can ultimately skew results for the class as well as increase the opportunities for students to find loopholes in the system and cheat.

Moving to Internet-based testing can be a big shift for colleges and universities. But, as more students demand online courses, institutions will need to be ready to evolve and make the parallel adjustments to testing.

Don Kassner is the President of ProctorU, a company that helps higher education securely identify and test students anywhere. To find out how online proctoring works contact Don at


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