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Online Courses Should Always Include Proctored Finals, Economist Warns

Online economics students do not absorb much material from homework and chapter tests during the semester—perhaps because they expect to be able to cheat their way through the final exam. That is the lesson from a study that Cheryl J. Wachenheim, an associate professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University, will present in July at the annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.

Ms. Wachenheim is no enemy of distance education. As The Chronicle reported in 2009, she continued to teach her online courses even during a National Guard deployment to Iraq. But she has noticed that her online students perform much worse than their classroom-taught counterparts when they are required to take a proctored, closed-book exam at the end of the semester.

In her study—a previous version of which appeared in the Review of Agricultural Economics—Ms. Wachenheim looked at the performance of students in six sections of introductory-economics courses at North Dakota State. In online sections whose final exam was unproctored and open book, students’ exam grades were roughly the same as those of classroom-based students who took proctored, closed-book finals. But online sections that were asked to take proctored, closed-book final exams performed at least 15 points worse on a 100-point scale.

Ms. Wachenheim fears that students in those unproctored online sections really weren’t learning much, even though their grades were fine. In self-paced courses, many students appeared to cram most of the homework and chapter exams into the final week of the semester. Few of them bothered to do the ungraded practice problems offered by the online publisher.

Then there is the question of cheating. Ms. Wachenheim’s study did not gather any direct evidence, but she reports anecdotally that students have told her how they work in groups to compile huge caches of the publishers’ test-bank questions. She quotes one student as saying, “We may not learn the material, but we are guaranteed an A.”

Ms. Wachenheim’s findings parallel those of a 2008 study in the Journal of Economic Education. That study found indirect evidence that students cheat on unproctored online tests, because their performance on proctored exams was much more consistent with predictions based on their class ranks and their overall grade-point averages.

Ms. Wachenheim ends her paper with several suggestions for improving learning in online settings. Those include insisting on a proctored final exam and reminding students of that exam “early, often, and broadly, so students are ever-conscious that they will be responsible for the material in an unaided environment.”

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