Should I change my take-home exam policy because of one suspected cheater?



This is just the third semester I've been teaching, but I've been tutoring for many years. At the moment I'm teaching to community college students a "Business Calculus" course whose curriculum is attempting to cram an entire semester of calculus into eleven four-hour sessions. I've always had problems taking timed exams myself and find the anxiety crippling, so for this reason, coupled with the brevity and density of the course, I prefer to administer take-home exams. They seem to go over well with the students, and they don't take precious time away from class. And usually people do not perform "unexplainedly better" on my take-homes versus in-class.

However I've run into a snag. One of my students handed in his take-home exam based on the algebra review in the beginning of the course, and did fairly well on it. But his homework is atrocious. Tonight I helped him through a basic problem in front of the class, and I realized as I watched him cluelessly push the marker around the board that he has no idea what he is doing even on a rudimentary level. And I suspect that he had a great deal of help from someone on that initial test. Disappointing to say the least. 

Then my question is this: do I need to switch to in-class exams because of this one guy? The take-homes work for everyone else and I much prefer them; they allow for longer, more comprehensive testing of the material, and they don't take time out of a class into which I'm struggling desperately to fit the entire curriculum. Can anything else be done?

Any words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

Edit: Thank you all so much for your consideration and thoughtful responses. They have definitely provided me with invaluable insight, and given me a lot to consider.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 320

34I do not trust students with takehome tests unless they are upperclassmen who have shown sustained and verified self-motivated interest in Math. Otherwise, they'll cheat. On occasion I give a takehome, but, always with permission to work together as to not punish the honest. All this said, I know some schools revel in takehomes, but, I wonder, how much student work is genuine. My pessimistic view is that you've just uncovered the tip of the iceberg with this kid. Anyway, it's good you ask the question, certainly appropriate for the site.The Chef 2017-07-27T03:41:40.313

2@JamesS.Cook Ugh. "Tip of the iceberg." That's exactly what I'm afraid of.bloomers 2017-07-27T03:52:15.697

2Do you have a course syllabus? Does it have a specific exam policy? In particular, does it say that all exams would be take-home?zipirovich 2017-07-27T04:28:38.907

1@zipirovich I do. And it does.bloomers 2017-07-27T04:37:08.007

2A compromise to consider is to mainly do a in-class exam, but also allow the students to get bonus points on the exam by completing homework, projects, online quizzes,...KarlKastor 2017-07-27T16:09:03.537

1The only thing a take-home test tests is how well you can do something to get something done.Mazura 2017-07-27T20:56:54.867

There is a meaningful definition of "cheating" that applies to take home exams?509-249-3447 2017-07-28T04:08:07.347

Why not "take home drug exams" at the Olympics? Provide whose ever urine you want.509-249-3447 2017-07-28T04:09:59.830

1"I've always had problems taking timed exams myself and find the anxiety crippling," just as well you chose to have a nice sheltered life in academia, then. You wouldn't have held down a job for long in the real world if you couldn't handle time pressure and anxiety! But unless all your students are planning to become academics, you are not doing them any favours by wrapping them in the same comfort blanket that you used yourself.alephzero 2017-07-28T18:36:05.317

4@alephzero I'm not sure why one would assume that because I teach a course part-time that such is my career (Also, I'm not sure how one qualifies teaching a part-time night class at a community college as a "sheltered life of academia"). I'm well-versed with pressure and the constraints of deadlines in the workplace. But the stress of a demanding occupation is not even comparable to that of timed test-taking for many. I excel at my occupation, but I've never experienced a situation at work or in life that agonizing through a timed exam has helped me to be better prepared for.bloomers 2017-07-29T04:44:48.957

2I strongly recommend to avoid statements that can be seen as personal attacks and/or as demeaning towards a particular profession. I leave your comment up for now @alephzero as in combination with the reply I feel it in a way adds something.quid 2017-07-29T10:39:42.173

3I was a part-time prof teaching ALG 1 once. I had a semester made shorter by holidays once and made all 4 of my exams take-home. one student had four 100%s. There was a mandatory, departmental, final exam. The best my 400 percenter did was to spell his name correctly. I had to fail him. His mother protested. I lost my job.Steven Gregory 2017-07-29T14:57:00.537

@StevenGregory THAT is useful information. I definitely did not even consider that as an potential outcome. I'm sorry that happened to you, but thank you for sharing that.bloomers 2017-07-29T15:06:57.163

@StevenGregory are you kidding me? How long ago was this? This is the type of thing I worry about.. I teach part-time at a CC also and sometimes I wonder if the department would have my back if I were in a situation similar to yours.tilper 2017-07-29T20:37:54.750

@tilper - It's been a while. Maybe 10 to 15 years ago.Steven Gregory 2017-07-29T20:52:13.180

@StevenGregory, interesting. I'd expect those kinds of shenanigans these days for sure, but I would think even 10-15 years ago departments were much more supportive of their instructors. I guess every place is different. (Unrelated fun fact - I see you went to UNLV. I grew up in Vegas and took a couple math classes there before I moved away.)tilper 2017-07-29T20:57:56.593

@ I was a part-time instructor. I did it for fun. Back then we were called "P99s". I have no idea why. I really wish you hadn't mentioned UNLV and Las Vegas.Steven Gregory 2017-07-30T02:52:51.170



My opinion here is that 44hrs is plenty of time for the course to be taught (based on most higher academic institution course lengths), but you are doing them a favour based on your experience, and unfortunately sometimes one person can ruin it for everyone.

****Putting that aside...

The only other option you'd have (instead of changing to in-class exams), is to pull the student aside and say something like:

"I noticed that you did very well on the exam, but I find the drastically increased grade suspicious based on your homework before the exam and your performance since the exam. I don't mean to discourage you; if you truly completed the exam without cheating, that is terrific and is an accomplishment to be proud of. However, if this cannot be explained to my satisfaction, I will have to take steps forward in [the institution's name]'s academic dishonesty policy."

After saying this tell the student you are available to help them if they need it, but emphasize that cheating is not to be taken lightly, and has significant repercussions. Also emphasize that you are not targeting that student, but you have an obligation to ensure each student earns their grades and responsibility to prevent academic dishonesty.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 146

2I did make up my mind to do just that. Thank you for the suggestion. Also, I have to take issue with 44 hours being enough time. I don't believe four hours of learning calculus in one evening is comparable to four hours spread our over a week and a half. I truly feel this kind of material (especially to students that are not necessarily coming from any kind of math/ science background) takes time to digest. The other night I went from limits to critical values in a single class, whose audience is largely comprised of students that cannot readily add fractions.bloomers 2017-07-29T03:38:14.240

2@bloomers I feel your pain. I'm teaching an "engineering math" night course at my local CC. It's basically almost all of Calc 2 plus part of Calc 3 and after this experience I'm never teaching over the summer there again. My dept. actually has a policy forbidding take-home exams and our schedule is so crammed that I'm having to give full exams and lectures on the same day. Nobody wants that. And like you I also have several students who need me to explain basic precalculus concepts like adding fractions and how $2^{n+1}/2^n = 2$. Every time.tilper 2017-07-29T20:47:26.997


It's not just one student. As mentioned in comments, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Various studies gauge the percent of college students who cheat at somewhere between 75% and 98%.

I would recommend that you have in-class, proctored exams. That's the only way to ensure that one's math course is not, essentially, a fraud. You may even want to check photo IDs at exams, since sending in "ringers" in place of registered students is also a known strategy.

The community college where I teach has an Accessibility office which can specially proctor tests for students who demonstrate documented reasons why they may need more time on exams. Hopefully yours does, too.

Daniel R. Collins

Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 11 601

15Note: you really shouldn't do this without comment mid-semester if you've told everyone that the exams will all be take-home in the syllabus-- that's extremely unfair to the students, who have a right to expect that your syllabus will be followed (in some cases, even a legally protected right). If you must change mid-semester explain to the class why and that the change is happening, and offer to make accommodations for anybody who was relying on the exams being take home for whatever reason. Picking a class that fits your needs only to have it suddenly not is sucky.the dark wanderer 2017-07-27T11:00:28.803

8@thedarkwanderer agreed. This particular semester he probably just needs to stay the course, but, in future, change is wise.The Chef 2017-07-27T13:28:50.987

1I agree that the syllabus dictates procedure for the current semester. My advice is intended for future semesters.Daniel R. Collins 2017-07-27T20:05:17.047

1That is unsettling, but I suppose a good lesson to learn on my part.bloomers 2017-07-29T03:40:03.697

@thedarkwanderer: All the honest and hardworking students will not mind the lecturer suddenly changing from take-home to in-class assessment. In fact, they would usually be happier with it because they know they won't be disadvantaged by cheaters.user21820 2017-07-29T17:17:02.123

1The change from syllabus is a problem, but so is cheating and the ethical obligation to prevent it. Those are also bear legal weight, as a rule, and quite possibly more.The Nate 2017-07-31T04:48:17.317

@TheNate Nope. You can't use 'I have a legal obligation to do X thing easily accomplished by breaking my contract' as legal justification for violating contract law except in very limited circumstances in most jurisdictions. Just sit out the semester and then change it, if you're unwilling to make reasonable accommodations for those relying on the syllabus. "What should I do when I wanna break my syllabus agreements to reduce cheating?" Could easily be its own question, though.the dark wanderer 2017-08-02T07:23:46.553

1A syllabus is not a contract so don't assume you are discussing contract law here. The closest applicable sort of law would be covenants, and then only if the syllabus qualifies. (Some jurisdictions might declare that, I suppose, but I haven't heard of any) Furthermore, the gross violation of the terms is a valid reason to change procedure. This situation behooves the OP to find out school policy and applicable state law on the matter. That is true. Any sane university has legal council available to answer such questions.The Nate 2017-08-02T13:34:32.043


My own experience is to not give any high-stakes take-home exam-like content (I'm not speaking of a paper, of course) in a lower-level course. There is too much incentive for even well-meaning students to cheat, and not in such egregious ways as you are mentioning. It's key to note that many students who do this either do not recognize it as cheating or self-justify without ill intent, so it is partly up to us to create an environment with fewer incentives to cheat. That's not right, but it's reality.

With an upper-level class you know well that might not be an issue, and I have a lot of take-home material in those. Also, James M. Lang has an entertaining and useful book called Cheating Lessons which has a lot of practical tips and historical context on this issue.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 2 989

1+1 for Lang's book. I revised a lot of my personal opinions and syllabus policies based on reading it.Brendan W. Sullivan 2017-07-27T20:26:08.993

If you liked that, you may enjoy his first book, "On the Tenure Track" which is both hilarious and poignant at various times.kcrisman 2017-07-29T03:11:44.873


As a student currently taking college Programming Fundamentals II and Pre-Calculus II, but having the experience of the world (33 years old, 8 year army vet), I can say that a student has significant incentives to cheat, if provided an opportunity. To fail and retake a course would be costly, due to the additional work, the tuition, and the books. I find that at my college books range from \$100 to \$250. To make that worse, just because you retake the "same class" doesn't mean you'll get the same teacher, which means you might need a different book. If I sucked at math and my teacher was giving me take homes, and I knew that I didn't need math for my degree like others do....I would certainly take that test home and Symbolab and google the crap out of it.

Basically I'm saying that if you allow students to take home a test, you should expect some cheaters. The point of a test is to check their understanding, and if you allow them to utilize their understanding of Google instead of their understanding of math then I feel you are failing your students academically. Online classes have proctored tests for a reason.

Jesse B.

Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 101

A very good, candid, real-life refresher! :) (Thx for the army service, btw. Hard work, at best.)paul garrett 2017-07-28T00:06:06.717

Good food for thought.bloomers 2017-07-29T03:51:11.027


My school math teacher was very smart and I'll tell about his solution of (any) cheating problem. If anybody is suspected in cheating just call him to the desk and ask about doing same(or very similar) exercises. If one fails to do something, one has already done, it's cheating and if not, there is no reason to punish the person, because the one has got the knowledge that is required.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 169

3There is a difference with university-level teaching, though. At the K-12 levels, the teacher has broad latitude to assign a grade. At the university level, the instructor will often have to deal with some heavy procedure to prove that academic misconduct has occurred. There may be paperwork, deans, and hearings involved.200_success 2017-07-27T14:23:37.273

@200_success By punishment i don't mean changing the grade. At my place there was a rule "Not caught, no a thief" at math lessons, but after suspection and asking additional questions a pupal could have got 2(lowest grade) right near his well cheated grade, so that was the punishment absolutely in terms of educational rules.fixerlt 2017-07-27T14:29:05.620


Some students will cheat. (So do some grownups.) In my experience it's not a large fraction, despite the studies that seem to say otherwise. I think I caught most of what went on in my classes.

I was unwilling to forego the educational benefit of take home exams, group work and well thought out projects that could be honed and reassigned just to catch the few cheaters. You seem to understand that. So my answer to your explicit question

do I need to switch to in-class exams because of this one guy?

would be "no".

Of course you need some checks, some in class work. It helps if there's school policy, and an administrative structure to back you up if you want to bring a case.

Here's the handout I've given my students over the years:

Ethan Bolker

Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 351

I absolutely love the citation on the comic in your handout about citing others' work.Chris Cunningham 2017-07-27T15:30:24.410


I think timed exams are a better way of assessing mastery of material than take homes. If you can't do it fast, under pressure, and with limited assistance*, than you don't really know the stuff the way you should.

*And take homes are fraught with all kinds of aspects of outside assistance.

P.s. And you ruin their nights and weekends by giving take homes.

P.s.s. Drill (and testing is EXCELLENT drill) is a much more valuable use of time than lecture. So I go totally the opposite on the question of "sparing the time, so more lecture can be done". And really you are eating more into the students outside time also. Not efficient for them.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 317

I'd like to elaborate on this, if possible. When this answerer says that drill is a more valuable use of class time than lecture, I believe this is in reference to the fact that students retain more when they're asked to reproduce information from memory (e.g. recall practice.)Opal E 2017-07-27T20:08:48.477

Ugh, no. Skip the high pressure.Wildcard 2017-07-27T21:24:20.090

I do like the thought of drill as reinforcement. The issue I have with that in my current situation is that the curriculum for this course is so dense that I'm lucky to even introduce some concepts, let alone drill over them. But your answer does inspire some ideas. Thank you for that.bloomers 2017-07-29T03:27:53.590


What if a day or two after the take-home test was turned in you gave a short in-class test that covered some of the same subject matter (very similar questions). You could use this to weight the take-home test.

For example, you could say that you get the lesser of the grade on the take home and in-class tests.

I suppose to be fair you might further say that if they missed similar answers on both tests causing the in-class to have a lower percentage score then they could still use the overall take-home score since you're really only trying to penalize cases where they get the answer at home but can't duplicate the work in the class.

The idea of this would be to give more than enough time to answer the few questions in class but still cover the subject material adequately.

Bill K

Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 141


I agree with much of what's already been said here already, but looking at the question from a different angle, you said:

I've always had problems taking timed exams myself and find the anxiety crippling, so for this reason...

Do you not think that this is a really good reason to get the students used to operating under these conditions? The "real" exams presumably will be so they should get used to it and practice on ones which are arguably less important.

You wouldn't teach someone to drive on an empty airfield, without any experience on a real, busy road and then suddenly tell them to take the real test in a scary situation that they have never experienced before.

For the above reasons, regardless of the possible cheating (which others have commented on), I'd 100% swap at this point in time. It might be a little "unfair" on the students who have been honest and were expecting exams at home, but life it not fair and things out of your control change - this is another good lesson for the students to learn.

Luke Cousins

Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 131

"life isn't fair, anyone who says otherwise is selling something". To give the appearance of fairness, I always put a blanket disclaimer at the end of my syllabus which gives me the right to change the terms and conditions in the interest of "benefiting" the students. I don't usually have to invoke it, but, on ocassion it's nice to have it there. You can write nearly anything in a syllabus anyways, they don't read them.The Chef 2017-07-27T15:32:10.257

2"this is a really good reason to get the students used to operating under these conditions" -- even if so, the questioner explicitly wants to maximise the class time spent teaching calculus. Of course, every teacher wants to do that, so the questioner might not have the justification they think they do for choosing not to reduce this course curriculum. But if this class is explicitly designed as an accelerated study, it's probably not the best choice, among all those students' classes, in which to spend class time learning general exam skills.Steve Jessop 2017-07-27T16:42:22.243

1I'm not sure what "real exams" you were referring to but there's a fundamental problem with this position. The purpose of an assessment is to evaluate a student's understanding of the material. Things that get in the way of that, e.g. test anxiety, interfere with our ability to get an accurate measurement of the student's knowledge and are therefore things that we should look for ways to minimize.G. Allen 2017-07-28T02:19:44.517

How does a student even get admitted to college, without having already "taken real tests in a scary situation?" If the entire education system in the OP's country is so badly administered as to allow that, the OP isn't going to make any significant impact on the situation whatever he/she does!alephzero 2017-07-28T18:32:00.917


I had a professor who had dealt with a similar situation, although in computer science, and dealt with it like this. The assigned homework was considerably more difficult than the tests, and group work was permitted for the homework. The tests were fairly trivial compared to the homework, not testing much more than "can you do the absolute bare minimum". The professor would then look for students with very high homework grades and very low exam grades, and decide if they believed those students were cheating, or simply very bad at test, or etc. and handled those students on a case by case basis.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 131


In my Business Calculus classes, I have three standard in-class tests and four to five projects that they have one week to complete. The projects test the kind of more creative thinking that I think you feel you can better assess with your take home tests and the in-class tests evaluate more procedural, textbook-type questions. There's always the possibility of cheating on any "home" assignment but this is an issue that every subject faces. I try to always grade the projects in one sitting so that any similarities between papers stand out and I regularly search the Internet for key phrases from the assignments so that I can see if they're on any "homework help" websites. Having a combination of in and out of class assignments helps to mitigate the affects of cheating and still lets me evaluate both of the types of skills that I think are important.

G. Allen

Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 471


This is quite a simplistic approach to the one individual so forgive me if its too simple to be workable - but how about calling him in and putting the exact same exam paper in front of him and asking him to re do it?

In general though, from a uni student's perspective, I recently received a take home exam from our online portal and although I didn't cheat myself (what's the point, Tutors and Examiners have seen it all before) I do know a fair few people who did and I was a bit taken back that this was even allowed really.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 21

You may want to expand upon this, or at least phrase it as a suggestion, instead of responding to a question with another question. This feels more like a comment on OP than an answer.Brendan W. Sullivan 2017-07-27T20:28:15.280

@brendansullivan07 Done :-)DomLip 2017-07-27T20:33:26.667


One course I took on University had a simple approach on this: Everyone had to explain one of their answers in front of the class, and failure to do that appropriately resulted in the student loosing twice the points awarded for the question (thus a question omitted or only half-answered meant less points to be potentially lost, rewarding honesty). Of course this was a small group and it concerned weekly tasks such that statistically speaking it wouldn't be unfair.

Tobias Kienzler

Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 121


Most in-class exams I have seen are indeed too long and, as it happens, essentially highly redundant. So, how about giving shorter exams which require a bit of thinking ---as opposed to "example duplication". The downside, of course, is that the instructor her/himself must not ... duplicate examples while teaching and that in fact the whole approach requires what Hestenes called "restructuring contents".

Note to commentators: I am speaking of the real world, not of, e.g. the world of twenty pounds textbooks.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 641


I'm a very firm believer of the idea that everybody needs to do his or her own work, whether it be homework, tests, exams or anything else.

Let's start talking about homework:
Nowadays many teachers are giving homework exercises, which students can "make" at home by filling in something using their computer.
Yeah, right!

When using such a system, you risk very smart students actually making the homework, and other students only need to push on three buttons (Ctr+C and Ctrl+V, copy/paste, you see?).

I admit, when you give homework in writing, they can still copy from the smartest students, but at least they will need to write everything themselves, which is already a bigger effort than a simple copy/paste.

Now about the exams:
You are saying that you let students take their exam home and you hope they will nicely make it themselves, without any form of cheating, and you really believe that only one of them is cheating? Did you already consider the fact that some of your students might be gathering together and make the exercises in group? It's not as bad as copy/paste, but it also does not check the problem solving capabilities of the students (which is in essence the reason behind mathematics classes, isn't it?).

Therefore I'm advising you not to let students make their exams at home, but don't stop this for the sake of just one cheating student, but for the sake of all possible cheating students you might not have discovered yet.


Posted 2017-07-27T02:40:02.737

Reputation: 513