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Universities are grappling with a record surge in examination cheating attributed to online assessments, made common during the COVID-19 pandemic, but most NSW institutions are not returning to widespread pen-and-paper tests.
University of NSW reported 402 detections, a 79 per cent increase in students caught cheating on exams in 2022 compared with 2021. At the University of Sydney, exam misconduct detections more than tripled in the same period, with 2588 cases investigated in 2022 compared with 831 the previous year.
UNSW students collaborated on Discord to discuss engineering exam questions as the exam was taking place.Credit: UNSW
Whistle-blowers have helped catch students who completed exams together, at the one location or through online platforms including Facebook, WeChat and Discord, UNSW’s latest academic integrity report says.
“The [chief information officer] expects that significant exam misconduct remains undetected, given the extensive access to private chat platforms where exam questions can be discussed in real time,” it read.
Sydney University reverted to pen-and-paper exams for most students studying in Australia this year, following the large rise in detected cheating. The institution says it has so far recorded a 45 per cent drop in misconduct, with the reduction in online exams a significant factor. In the second semester 5.5 per cent of exams will be online, with international students required to be on campus.
Despite the rise in cheating and the end of social distancing requirements, UNSW has largely not returned to pen-and-paper tests. Some online tests are taken on campus under supervision.
UNSW deputy vice chancellor George Williams said the university was not planning a general return to in-person tests but was instead focused on how to design assessments to minimise misconduct.
“What we want is a good, fair assessment mix, and the answer isn’t just returning everything to in-person exams because frankly they’re often a very poor way of assessing students,” he said.
“They’re high stress and often not a good way of determining where students are at and getting a good sense of their progress.”
In one case of cheating uncovered at UNSW in 2022, 194 engineering students were online – during a 2½-hour exam – in a Discord server chat where each exam question was discussed. Messages included the comments “Les [sic] cheat, les go”.
The University of Wollongong said most exams were conducted online and the “overwhelming majority” of students conducted their studies honestly.
In 2022, the university had 232 reported incidents of academic misconduct in exams, compared with 190 in 2021, and 222 in 2020. Preliminary data shows a further increase in incidents this year.
The university said some online exams need to be supervised to meet accreditation requirements for that course. For those exams it uses an online invigilation tool.
At the University of Technology, main assessments include online invigilated end-of-semester exams and in-semester online quizzes. Students also complete on-campus tests that include oral, practical and clinical skills exams. A spokesperson said no increase in exam cheating had been detected.
University of Western Australia academic integrity expert Guy Curtis said some universities liked online exams for reasons including their marking efficiency, lack of need for physical venues and an ability to avoid paying or organising people to supervise.
Curtis, whose own university has returned to mostly in-person exams, said any online examinations had to be designed under the assumption students would cheat.
“To simply tell students ‘you’re doing an online test, you can’t collaborate’ is completely naive,” he said.
“I think a lot of students will become aware that many of their peers are looking things up and they will feel disadvantaged if they’re not doing it.”
Academic cheating expert at Sydney University Cath Ellis said pre-pandemic research showed in-person exams was the environment students reported engaging in cheating most often.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think that going back to that is going back to a perfectly secure environment,” she said.
Despite the surge in cheating detections, overall findings of academic misconduct at UNSW declined in 2022.
Among the worst cheating uncovered at UNSW was a student with 22 substantiated allegations of paying others to do their assessments. They were consequently expelled.
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A previous version of this story stated the University of Sydney recorded a 45 per cent drop in exam misconduct. It should have stated a 45 per cent drop in misconduct. 
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