Doing Our Part to Ensure Educational Integrity

Mike Wright is the head of the College Department at W. W. Norton & Company. He is at the forefront of Norton’s efforts to support the success of educators and students in various ways, including overseeing the creation of equity-minded course materials, ensuring the educational integrity of those materials, and providing them at affordable prices. As part of this, Norton is looking for instructor feedback on our educational equity initiatives. If you would like to learn more and give your input, you can do so here.

Image Credit: Mike Wright

The proliferation of online teaching and learning in the wake of the pandemic has cast a fresh light on the problem of cheating, but academic dishonesty is not a new problem. As a partner to tens of thousands of educators striving to teach millions of students through formative low-stakes assessment as well as high-stakes summative testing, Norton has long taken seriously its role in creating assessment tools that work in all kinds of learning environments. We know that cheating is a barrier to learning, so when creating questions for our assessment platforms, we strive to uphold instructors’ learning goals by protecting the integrity of our content. 

It often comes as a surprise to our educators that we revise around 50 test banks per a year, at an average annual cost of $550,000—a large proportion of which goes to pay authors to write new questions. Further resources for editorial work and peer reviewing help ensure we get the questions right. Revisions to our textbooks, driven by advances in disciplinary and pedagogical research, demand that our test banks stay current. But another driving factor is that new questions make it harder to cheat, and when students can’t easily cheat, they’re more likely to learn the material.  

The onset of the pandemic also happened to coincide with the release of Norton Testmaker, a product we built to protect the integrity of test banks, largely in response to educator feedback and to our own observations. For years, we have heard legitimate and serious concerns from educators across the disciplines about students cheating on tests by looking up answers on popular sites. We had also observed a growing trend of test bank files leaking on the Web, further undermining the trust that educators should be able to count on for the testing materials that Norton publishes. The impact of these trends on educational integrity became more severe with hybrid and online courses taking off. While students are accessing their course content and assessments online, it’s not a huge leap for them to Google a question to quickly find the answer. Given the stressors of the pandemic, students who otherwise wouldn’t consider cheating may now be tempted to if doing so is easy and saves them time and cognitive load. Norton Testmaker helps improve security and prevent cheating by making sure that only verified instructors have access to test bank questions and to the assessments they create. Of course, we do everything in our power to prevent leaks from happening in the first place, but we hope that by more rigorously controlling access to these materials in Norton Testmaker, we can offer a net benefit for educators—in confidence and peace of mind. 

Norton’s assessment products also offer built-in tools to curb cheating in online environments. InQuizitive, Norton’s formative learning tool, personalizes individual students’ learning paths so they receive more questions on topics they’re struggling with—an effective barrier to cheating. The various assignment settings and question types available in Smartwork online assessment support the same goal. Many Smartwork courses include algorithmic questions, which automatically change numerical values in problems and prevent the easy sharing of answers. Smartwork also supports question pooling, allowing instructors to choose a pool of questions that could potentially show up in an assignment. This means that students could randomly receive one of a number of questions in the question pool, making it difficult for them to share answers with each other. Smartwork also allows instructors to place time limits on assignments and offers randomization features to ensure that students are not answering questions in the same order.  

One could get the impression from all of the above that preventing cheating is all that we have in mind when creating test questions and other assessments, but that is not the case. Norton uses evidence-based models to deliver high-quality and pedagogically effective quizzes and testing materials. The framework to develop our test banks, quizzes, and support materials is the result of a collaboration with leading academic researchers and advisers. In each discipline we serve, instructors who teach the relevant course use this framework to author assessments. Questions based on textbook content are written with cohesion in mind, ensuring students encounter consistent terminology, content, and approach across our text and assessment materials. 

Unfortunately, the problem of cheating and academic dishonesty is not going away, which is why we are committed to helping our educator partners do everything they can to combat it. In the long run we believe the solution may be to lean more on low-stakes assessments and build more transparency into assignments to help students see the value and purpose in the assignments they are completing, but as long as higher stakes assessments like testing remain an important part of the educational equation, we will continue adapting—and investing—to deliver them. 

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