Assessment, Academic Integrity, and Community Online (Distance Learning)


One of the most difficult tasks the online instructor has is to assess student performance. Magennis and Farrell (2005) define teaching as a set of activities that makes learning possible. Assessment strategies should not only measure the degree to which learning has occurred, but should be learning activities in and of themselves (Gaytan, 2002). Tests and quizzes are most often used to assess learning, but are not necessarily the best way to assess discussion-based courses or even skill-based courses as they generally measure the amount of information retained rather than the degree to which learning has occurred. Angelo and Cross (1993) note that the outcomes of assessments are often a disappointment to the instructor as they do not provide feedback on how well teaching activities promoted learning. This may be especially true in the online environment, where instructors are separated from students by time and space, increasing concern about academic integrity along with concern about assessment outcomes. How, then, does the instructor who wants to move away from the use of tests and quizzes develop assessment techniques that measure student learning? How can the use of varied assessment techniques and the development of a supportive online learning community increase the academic integrity of online courses? The following is a discussion of assessment techniques that work well online, and concerns about academic integrity that are often expressed by instructors regarding online learning. Finally, the development of an online learning community is explored as a means by which to reduce these concerns and increase the level of academic integrity online.


Assessing the Online Learner

Early efforts at online teaching often touted moving content directly from the traditional face-to-face classroom into the online classroom and often resulted in unsatisfying and even unsuccessful learning experiences (Palloff & Pratt, 2007). Traditional means of conducting student assessment often accompanied attempts at delivering instruction through the use of lecture and other faculty-focused activities. However, as instructors have entered the online environment to teach, many have noted the difficulty of using traditional assessments, such as tests and quizzes, as effective assessment measures of student learning. Although the use of tests and quizzes can be seen as a time-saver for faculty, they are not necessarily the best measure of student learning online. Replicating assessments that are used in the face-to-face classroom without modification for online use is likely to cause frustration for learners and instructors alike (Milam, Voorhees, & Bedard-Voorhees, 2004). Regardless of the setting, however, good assessment is seen as an important element of teaching that can reduce the gap between what was taught and what was learned (Morgan 1999).

As online learning develops increasing sophistication both in terms of the technology in use as well as pedagogical technique, instructors are exploring other means by which the task of assessment can be conducted. Dunn, Morgan, and Parry (2004) note that alternative and authentic assessments, such as projects, papers, and artifacts that integrate course concepts are more effective means by which to assess student learning online. The use of self-reflections, peer assessments, and clearly designed rubrics designating good projects and papers may align more closely with the objectives of an online course and will flow more easily into course content (Palloff & Pratt, 2008).

Angelo and Cross (1993) support the notion that in order for assessment to be effective, it must be embedded in and aligned with the design of the course. They note a number of characteristics of effective classroom assessment: It is learner-centered, teacher-directed, mutually beneficial, formative, context-specific, ongoing, and firmly rooted in good practice. Although they are discussing assessment techniques for the face-to-face classroom, these same principles can be effectively applied to the online classroom. Morgan (1999) believe that if an online course is designed with clear guidelines and objectives, tasks and assignments that are relevant not only to the subject matter, but to students lives as well, and students understand what is expected of them, assessment will be in alignment with the course as a whole and will not be seen as a separate and cumbersome task.

Academic integrity online

Regardless of how assessment is carried out, the topic of assessing online learners often brings with it concerns about plagiarism and cheating. Dick et al (2003) report on the results of 12 studies of college student cheating, in which an average of 75% of students reported cheating at some point in their college career. Cizek (1999) also reports that cheating increased significantly in the second half of the twentieth century and that cheating increases with the age of the student up through age 25. This research notes that cheating is not limited to those considered to be “poorer” students, but is a practice that is widespread and not necessarily detected or confronted by instructors. The website for the Initiative to End Grade Inflation (n.d.) notes that although instructors may suspect cheating, they rarely confront students about it, leading to grade inflation. Consequently, students who cheat are likely to shrug it off, as it does not negatively impact the grades they receive.

Plagiarism occurs in both face-to-face and online classes alike. Some believe that this is because cheating is now considered to be socially acceptable behavior (Rowe, 2004; Varvel, 2005). McNett (2002) suggests that “deadline-driven desperation” is a common and significant reason for plagiarism and cheating. Surveys conducted at numerous universities around the country indicate that plagiarism occurs regularly in both face-to-face and online classes and the majority of students know another student who has plagiarized an assignment (McCabe, et al, 2001). The majority of students who have plagiarized or know another student who has believe that the plagiarism was accidental and due to the lack of knowledge about how to properly cite reference material (Harris, 2002; Varvel, 2005).

Although many believe that the incidence of plagiarism and cheating increase when students take online courses, some anecdotal evidence (Kaczmarczyk, 2001) suggests students today cheat less in distance learning than with traditional instruction, while other studies indicate that the incidence is about equal (Kellogg, 2002). This may be, according to Rowe (2004), because new technologies typically first attract smarter and more motivated users with less reason to cheat. Morgan (1999) note that concerns about plagiarism and cheating emerge from a mindset that students are “born cheats.” They believe that this is not so and that many online learners, who are predominantly older, non-traditional learners, are not interested in taking the work of another.

The online Learning community and assessment

Recent research has shown that the construction of a learning community, with the instructor participating as an equal member, is the key to successful online course outcomes and is the vehicle through which online education is best delivered (Garrison, n.d.; Palloff & Pratt, 2007; Rovai, 2002; Rovai & Jordan, 2004; Shea, Swan, & Pickett, 2004; and Wenger, 1999). Rovai (2002) summarized the essential elements of community to be mutual interdependence among members, a sense of belonging, connectedness, spirit, trust, interactivity, common expectations, shared values and goals, and overlapping histories among members. In online learning communities, members share a specific purpose, which is to gain knowledge, understanding, enrichment, and course completion. Promoting mutual support to do so is an important component of online teaching which can be utilized in the development of collaborative course activities, including collaborative assessment activities (Palloff & Pratt, 2005).

The ability to develop and sustain a learning community, then, becomes an important competency for online instructors and a skill to be taught to learners. Fink (2003) describes the necessity to teach learners how to learn. He describes three aspects to this task – teaching students to become better learners, teaching students how to inquire and construct knowledge, and teaching students to become self-directed. The outcome of this endeavor, according to Fink, is that students are encouraged to continue to learn and to do so with greater effectiveness. Derrick (2003) concurs and notes that when learners are able to understand their own capacities for learning, they are fundamentally changed with regard to their personal view of their capabilities and competence. This, then, reinforces beliefs and efficacious behaviors that promote lifelong and sustained learning. Research indicates that when collaborative instructional practices and the development of a learning community are the focus in an online class, student participation and satisfaction increases and the likelihood that students will plagiarize or cheat decreases (Palloff & Pratt 2007; Rovai, 2002; Rovai & Jordan, 2004). The development of an online learning community, then, can support effective student assessment and can be used as an important strategy in promoting academic integrity online.


Effective Student Assessment Online

Authors writing about assessment note that a variety of assessment techniques should be employed to effectively assess student performance online and lessen concern about plagiarism and cheating (Angelo & Cross, 1993, Dunn, Morgan, Parry, 2004; Morgan). Keeping this principle in mind should also promote the use of assessments that move beyond exercises in rote memorization and the use of tests and quizzes. Although tests and quizzes are useful in assessing some aspects of online work, they should not be the main means of assessment. When tests and quizzes are used for assessment, it has been noted that the use of practice exams and self-quizzes based on homework align well in courses that use exams for grading as students develop understanding of what will be expected in terms of types of questions and how to use the technology for the test, resulting in improved student performance (Michigan State University, 2005). Additionally, instructors are cautioned that exams and quizzes delivered online should be considered “open book” type exams, as the expectation that students will not look up answers is unreasonable (Gaytan, 2005). Gaytan also notes that in the work world, students will not be expected to reject using resource material in favor of memorized information when attempting to solve problems. Therefore, using the text in response to a test or quiz is a reasonable approach.

Weimer (2002) supports the notion of providing learner-centered instruction and notes that a key characteristic of learner-focused teaching as focusing attention squarely on the learning process. Additionally, Weimer emphasizes the importance of empowering learners in both the learning and assessment processes. In the online environment, empowerment takes the form of responsibility for learning activities such as discussions and participation in collaborative activities, all of which should be assessed, as well as the inclusion of self-reflection as an important mode of assessment.

Gaytan (2005) suggests a number of effective techniques that can be used to create assessments that work well in the online environment including: the provision of regular, ongoing communication with and feedback to students as a means by which to embed assessment in the course itself; the inclusion of dynamic interaction, defined by the use of group work, collaboration, and a high level of interaction through discussion; the modification of traditional assessment tools such as essays, discussion question responses, and projects that require demonstration of skill acquisition and problem-solving ability; and the use of alternative assessments such as performance-based assessments, authentic assessments, and the use of e-portfolios. All of these should be accompanied by well-developed rubrics which help to take the guesswork out of grading alternative assignments (Palloff & Pratt, 2008). A study conducted by Gaytan and McEwan (2007) found that both students and instructors value the use of rubrics as a means of assessment and as a way of providing meaningful and rapid feedback to learners. Rubrics help to define the characteristics of a high quality assignment and assist the student in understanding assignment and assessment expectations. Rubrics also provide a range of performance by establishing categories that span the range of possible outcomes, from basic to exceptional performance on a task.

One of the keys to good assessment of student work conducted online is that it be clear, easy to understand, and easy to carry out. Rubrics help provide a realistic picture of how a student interacted with course material and their peers and reduce the possibilities of grade inflation, dissatisfaction, and grade appeals through provision of evaluative material that is more objective and quantifiable (Palloff & Pratt, 2008).

Reducing the incidence of plagiarism and cheating

Many of the strategies for assessment in online courses – especially providing varied and multiple means of assessment – have the added benefit of reducing the likelihood or possibility of cheating. Additionally, the use of performance-based or authentic assessments reduces the possibility of plagiarism – when writing assignments are related to real-life situations known only to the learner, it is difficult to plagiarize or purchase a paper from a paper mill. Also, asking students to submit sections of the work as it is developed, rather than waiting until the end, can help to detect plagiarism early and hopefully provide an opportunity through which the student can be educated about appropriate use of sources.

The use of randomization in tests and quizzes as well as designing exams as open-book, take-home exams can help to reduce concerns about cheating when tests and quizzes are employed for assessment purposes online. However, there are other concerns that arise online including how we know that the student participating in the assessment is the one taking the course, how to deal with plagiarism, and whether the student actually wrote the paper he or she turned in for the course. The Illinois Online Network (n.d.) suggests that although a student might be able to get someone to help him or her with one assessment by taking the test in the enrolled student’s stead, getting such help throughout an entire course or program is unlikely. They suggest that by having several short assessments embedded in the activities of the online course, this likelihood can be avoided.

By asking students to submit components of a paper throughout the term, students are not only better able to manage their time on a final project, but this also allows the instructor to become more familiar with the student’s writing style. Any sudden changes would become a red flag for potential plagiarism, allowing the instructor to intervene.

Varvel (2005) offers some tips for spotting papers that might have been produced by another student or purchased from a paper mill. First, he suggests that copied or purchased papers rarely have quotes. This may be due to poor citation skills or because the use of citations can be a trigger if search engines are being used to track plagiarism. Another hint is the inclusion of old or anachronistic material. One of us received a paper on current approaches to addiction treatment that contained citations that were approximately 20 years old. The use of plagiarism detection software flagged the paper as a purchased paper. Finally, Varvel suggests that a student may use topic diversion – in other words, at the end of the term, the student may turn in a paper that is close but not exactly what the assignment called for. This may be an indicator that the student used an old paper or found one that was close enough to avoid detection. Asking students to submit pieces of the paper (such as a topic statement, annotated reference list, and an outline) or early drafts, assigning topics that require students to apply the material to their lives or work, requiring analysis and synthesis as part of the assignment, and requiring the incorporation of unique resources can help to deter plagiarism, the use of purchased papers, and the re-use of old papers.

A course that is designed with information or links to information about how source material is appropriately used can help. Many institutions use plagiarism detection software as another safeguard. Rather than using the tools punitively, having students run their own work through the software and then using the report generated as a teaching tool helps maintain a learner-centered focus while teaching students about paraphrasing and proper use of references.

Finally, collaborative activity and collaborative assessments, including peer reviews, not only incorporate a learning community approach to online teaching and learning but also increases academic integrity by promoting mutual responsibility for work. When students are asked to submit their writing to the course website for peer review, they are more likely to take the time to produce a higher quality product and are less likely to submit something open to scrutiny regarding academic honesty (Palloff & Pratt, 2005). Additionally, asking students to become actively involved in assessment moves them in the direction of increased self-direction and responsibility for their own learning.

future trends

Advances in the technology involved in delivering online courses is likely to bring with it advances in the ways in which assessment is conducted, increased ease in creating and sustaining online learning communities, and less concern with academic integrity as a result. A study of5 62 members of various organizations involved with online teaching and learning conducted by Kim and Bonk (2006) indicates that those involved with online learning believe that its quality will significantly increase in future years. The improvements cited included technological advances as well as the growth of online and blended learning opportunities. However, it also included a belief that outcomes will continue to improve along with the ability for students to become more self-directed. The authors note that in order for these improvements to take hold, instructors must move away from traditional assessments and activities in online courses and move toward collaborative, case-based, and problem-based learning methods. Given that they further note that there is a gap in the preferred and actual methods by which online learning is being conducted, increased levels of instructor training to prepare them for effective online teaching using a learning-community based approach is necessary. Part of the training needs to include realistic discussion of the time involved with the development and delivery of alternative and authentic assessments. Although there is more time investment up front in the development phase, the payoff in terms of learning greatly outweighs the expenditure of time. The involvement of learners in the development of assessments is one way to reduce the time burden for the instructor in terms of assessment development as well as a way to increase community development in online courses. As a result, institutional leadership and support is a critical factor in making this future a reality.


Through the development of learning activities that promote self-direction, such as collaborative assignments and self-assessments, along with the use of multiple means to assess learner performance, learners can be taught the skills that will move them toward greater ability to be involved in the development of assessments in the online classroom and will reduce the likelihood that learners will be tempted to cheat or plagiarize. Asking learners to become involved in the development of a learning community and the assessment process utilized creates a cycle of learning that is supportive of their growth as learners.

Involvement of learners in the assessment process is based on the belief that students can be the experts when it comes to their own learning and that the promotion of self-direction is important. The more we engage our students in a process of ongoing assessment of their own performance, the more meaningful the online course will be to them. The more we engage them in working with one another both in collaborative activity and in collaborative assessment, the more likely they are to engage in a learning community that will sustain them beyond the end of the course. The more meaningful the course, the more likely it is that they will develop into empowered and lifelong learners. In such an environment, students hold the concern for academic integrity and, as a result, plagiarism and cheating should abate. Such is the value of building a strong online learning community to support assessment and learning activities online.

key terms

Academic Integrity: McCabe and Pavela (n.d.) describe academic integrity as the pursuit of truth in education. A commitment to academic integrity is supported by the establishment of academic standards, mutual respect between faculty and students, fair assessment, and punitive action when dishonesty occurs.

Authentic Assessment: Authentic assessments are application activities that provide real-world challenges to learners that encourage them to apply skills learned and knowledge gained in a course.

Blended Learning: Courses that integrate face-to-face and online learning.

Deadline-Driven Desperation: Panic on the part of students causing a desperate need to perform that is driven by class deadlines, often resulting in a tendency to cheat on or plagiarize assignments. Asking students to submit assignments in manageable pieces throughout the term tends to reduce the level of anxiety, thus reducing the tendency to cheat.

Good Practices: Chickering and Gamson (1985) published a monograph putting forth seven principles considered to be good practice in undergraduate education. They are:

• Encourages contact between student and faculty

• Develops reciprocity and cooperation between students

• Gives prompt feedback

• Emphasizes time on task

• Communicates high expectations

• Respects diverse talents and ways of learning

In addition to other outcomes, these practices promote student responsibility for learning.

Online Learning Communities: Groups of students and faculty connected solely via technology. All interactions begin and occur over the Internet, through conference calls, via videoconferencing, and so forth. Online learning communities are comprised of people brought together with a definite purpose, generally the completion of a course and/or program, and guided by processes that involve interaction, collaboration, and social construction of knowledge and meaning (Palloff & Pratt, 2007).

Plagiarism: Plagiarism is the use of material written by another, but presented as if it is one’s own. Plagiarism can occur with published or unpublished sources. Forms of plagiarism in online courses include students copying the work of another student posted to an online discussion board, purchasing a term paper written by another, or utilizing uncited material from published sources.

Rubrics: Rubrics are a means by which student performance on an assessment activity can be appraised. Often presented in grid format, rubrics establish the gradable criteria for the assignment and define categories of performance from basic accomplishment of the task to exceptional performance.

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