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Academic Integrity and Online Physics Homework: 5 Strategies to Combat Cheating

Higher education is constantly evolving through the use of the World Wide Web.  A classroom is no longer limited to a physical location.  In the same way, homework is no longer limited to a piece of paper.  There are countless advantages to internet technology aiding the teaching and learning processes, but there are also challenges as a result.  One of biggest challenges deals with academic integrity.  For students assigned online physics homework, there are many public-facing websites where textbook solutions are freely shared and available.  Most of these sites will pay for ad placement targeting students on Facebook and social media sites.  Sites like Chegg.com have optimized search engines to act as a catalog for all printed textbook questions, so it only takes a student a few seconds to find a solution to their homework problem.  This becomes a distraction at the detriment of the student who no longer gets the practice they need to be successful.

Is it possible to materially reduce homework cheating in a world that is increasingly going online? We say it is.  Expert TA has become the online homework leader when it comes to the battle against academic integrity issues.  We have found five specific strategies instructors can use to reduce online cheating.

What’s interesting is, as discussed in another recent post by the Expert TA, the nature of cheating has changed as technology has progressed. Therefore, instructors need new safeguards in order to preserve academic integrity. In fact, eCampus News cites a study that a large majority of college campuses have adopted academic integrity policies for their courses.  Many campuses, like our friends at MIT, are implementing targeted practices in all of their classrooms to identify and stop cheating rather than letting this continue without any deterrence.

From our work with more than 300 universities and high schools across the country, we have found the following practices can be invaluable for instructors wanting to take a proactive approach to stop cheating before it starts.


  1. Randomize numbers. Not just a portion, but all of them. The Expert TA system goes beyond the industry norm for number variation and randomizes 100% of numbers (other than constants). This adds a layer of difficulty for any students trying to compare answers.
  2. Randomize phrases. While one student receives a problem about pushing a cart of groceries, for example, another student works a problem about shoving a loaded wheelbarrow full of vegetables. They are learning the same concept but with a slightly different version of the problem statement. If a student shares one version online, the other dozen or so variations are still preserved.
  3. Use problems that aren’t in print (i.e. problem masking). Once a problem’s solution is in the back of a textbook, it can be indexed online by problem number. Online systems can alleviate this. For example, a professor assigning Expert TA homework will know she is assigning problems 4.3-4.5, but the student will just see #1, #2 and #3.
  4. Actively search the web for your problems. When a student sets out to cheat, they will often use a search engine to find a solution. In most competitor systems, students can copy and paste a problem number or problem statement into Google where a resulting solution is yielded from websites like Chegg.com or Yahoo Answers. Expert TA is the only company that routinely checks these sites for our solutions in order to remove access to all variations of our problems before students have an opportunity to access them. This involves proprietary steps taken to accomplish these efforts.
  5. Use question pools. If a homework assignment consists of five problems, and each problem has a pool of four potential questions students will be given at random, the chances of any two students having exactly the same homework assignment is minimized.

These strategies may seem nice in theory, but for us the proof is in the data. We have seen so many professors switch from different homework environments where solutions were readily available over to Expert TA and having success in combating cheating almost immediately. Instead of seeing high homework grades that have no correlation to a student’s exam score, our professors (like Dr. Stuart Loch at Auburn University) report homework grades that are evenly distributed and directly associates to a student’s test performance. Each and every time this happens, we celebrate—not because fewer students are cheating, but because more students are learning. 

While the ideas outlined in this post are great for addressing cheating online, the digital landscape has evolved and more proactive approaches to promoting academic honesty are necessary moving forward. Read more about the latest in innovative features available to address cheating online.

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