Six ways employees cheat on tests, and how to deal with it

Assessments (tests, quizzes and corporate exams) play an essential role in keeping organizations healthy; they ensure employees are ready for the job at hand, help companies keep an audit trail for compliance purposes, and they can even be used to develop your workforce and improve business performance.

But there is one commonplace problem that undermines the power of assessments, and that’s cheating. Employees who cheat in exams are often unprepared for the job at hand, leading to poor performance and even regulatory fines in some industries. Cheating also demonstrates a lack of integrity in your workforce, which can be particularly damaging. It’s impossible to trust that someone willing to bend the rules on a test won’t bend the rules in other areas of your business.

There are six main methods of cheating, each with unique challenges and solutions. Here is a quick summary.

1. Proxy test takers. The first cheating technique is using a proxy test taker, also known as contract cheating, where the employee sends someone in their place. This happens more often in certification testing than in testing within the workforce.

Proxy cheating can be mitigated through proctoring, which involves monitoring someone either digitally or in-person, to verify their identity. Proxy cheating is also significantly reduced by more frequent testing, as this makes it more difficult to organize a proxy test taker. Another effective solution is asking personal verification questions, or using a single sign-on to make it less likely that someone else takes over.

2. Unauthorized test aids. Another popular cheating method is the use of unauthorized test aids. These often take the form of cheat sheets, guides, calculators, or searching for the answers on a mobile phone or computer.

Cheat sheets and similar techniques can be discouraged by asking higher-level evaluative, analytical, or situational judgement type questions, and by using secure browser technology to prevent access to outside web addresses during the test. Proctoring also helps.

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3. Copying answers. This type of cheating involves a candidate copying answers from another test-taker. This may take the form of simply looking at the next person’s screen, or more organized attempts at sharing answers.

Fortunately, preventing copying is straightforward. Simply separate workstations and randomize the test order. If the test questions and multiple-choice answers are presented in random order, or drawn at random from an item bank, it makes it much more difficult to copy from someone else’s screen.

4. Expert help. Another form of cheating is receiving expert help during the test, often via mobile phone or instant messaging. This classification of cheating also includes managers or proctors helping the test taker.

Preventing expert help can be done by quality proctoring, and the use of a secure browser for online tests. If there are concerns about the in-person proctors, it’s always possible to use online or video proctoring where the distance makes expert-candidate collusion harder.

5. Pre-knowledge. This method involves accessing test material before assessment takes place. This includes instances where candidates use technical vulnerabilities to access the item bank before test day, and when candidates share questions with each other.

Fighting this can be challenging because there are so many opportunities for breaches. However, there are defenses you should employ. Using a secure cloud service makes it harder for would-be cheaters to access the material, as do standard security best practices. Good HR practices with the test authors, such as training and confidentiality agreements, also help.

6. Results tampering. Finally, cheaters can tamper with answer sheets or stored test results. This means that they’re exploiting a vulnerability in the test delivery or storage system to change individual scores, or even invalidate the whole exam.

The best defense against results tampering is a robust assessment platform which adheres to ISO 27001 or similar security standards. Similarly, off-site storage of the test material and results in an online cloud system, segregation of access permissions, and a robust audit trail are all excellent defenses.

Some people will always choose to try to cheat, but the more robust the system, the better the chance of catching them. Ultimately, organizations should aim to prevent rather than to cure. Focus on building a strong company culture, remove incentives to cheat, and encourage candidates to be honest and seek to pass tests fairly. You’ll build a workforce with integrity, leading to better organizational performance and happier employees.

John Kleeman

John Kleeman
John Kleeman is executive director and founder of Questionmark.

John Kleeman

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