Administering Secure Exams in Expert TA

In the spring semester we were all thrust into an online-only mode of instruction, and this proved to be a challenge for many of us regarding exam security. For the coming fall semester many instructors are still thinking about how to best administer online exams so that they can have confidence in the outcomes.

Expert TA has a platform that allows you to offer your own exam questions delivered via our secure testing environment.

Supported Subjects: Expert TA’s broad range of question types allow us to support online exams for almost any subject.

Price: Administer exams using your own content in Expert TA for $25 per student/semester. Delivery of exams and development of custom content is included for users of Expert TA Physics, Biology, American Government, and Astronomy.

Free Offer: Expert TA has developed a free offline tool that allows instructors to create unique questions for each student in their class. If you are interested in this tool, please use the form to the right to contact us and select “Free Randomization Tool”.

Webinar Recording: Exam Security, Problem Authoring, and Tracking Academic Dishonesty

On March 16th, 2021 Expert TA and OpenStax offered a presentation about how to administer remote exams in a way that lets instructors trust more in the outcomes. The recording here has been edited for time.

How Students Cheat on Assessments

The first step in offering a secure online exam, is understanding what students are doing in order to cheat on them. The following is an abbreviated list of issues instructors need to be aware of.

  • Answer Sharing Websites: There are a number of places on the web where students can post problems to be solved, and where answers to those problems are posted so quickly that these sites can be used during timed assessments.
  • Collaboration: Students will work in groups, each approaching one problem on the exam and then share the answers with the group in order to “game” the system.
  • Common Misconceptions:
    1. Assumption – If I author my own questions, students can’t use sites like to get answers.
      Reality – Students can take a picture of a problem whether it is assigned via an LMS system or on paper, post the image, and a solution is provided within minutes.
    2. Assumption – Once problems make their way to answer sharing websites, there is nothing I can do.
      Reality – These websites are actually responsive to reports of copyright infringement. We can help with this – we have a long standing history with these sites and a web-crawler that actively monitors the posting of both our content, as well as the custom content of any of our users.
    3. Assumption – Academic Integrity policies enforced by me, the instructor, and the institution will keep students from utilizing answer sharing sites during exams.
      Reality – We know from experience that many institutions were frustrated during the Spring 2020 semester. Even when visual watermarks and notices were included, both students and answer-sharing websites ignored the messaging. Students still posted problems to be solved, and answer-sharing websites still supplied answers.

How Instructors can Guard Against Academic Dishonesty

The following features can be used in combination so you can have confidence in the final outcome of your exams.

   Honor Code and Class Policies Page
In Expert TA, you can present students with a customized honor code and terms-of-service prior to each time they open an assignment. Amazingly, studies show that many students simply do not view the act of getting a solution online as ‘cheating’. They view it as getting help. Just as you could specify that a take-home test is supposed to be closed book and to be done individually, you can specify what resources should and should not be used as they do homework or tests in Expert TA.

   Question Pools
When creating assignments, instructors have the option to add problems into question pools (a group of problems from which one will be randomly chosen for students to work on in a given assignment). This means that instead of all students receiving assignments with identical problem ordering, each student will get a slightly different version through the random selection of problems from one or more problem pools.


   In Assignment Deterrents
Within the problem area, personally identifiable information is displayed. This includes both the student user name as well as a tracking code specific to that particular problem. A student cannot simply post the problem without taking extra steps of blacking out that information. On a timed assignment this extra step is an obstacle.
   Digital Tracking Mechanisms
In addition to the visible deterrents mentioned above, we have a number of digital tracking mechanisms, including invisible watermarks that are present throughout the problem area. The watermark is not visible to the naked eye but can be revealed from screen-captures that have been posted to the web. This information is specific to each student and allows us to track back to the individual violator.
   *Randomization as a Tracking Tool (your most powerful tool)
Most systems are able to deliver randomized numbers. Expert TA goes a step further and also provides a way to randomize words and phrases in a problem. The goal is to have a unique problem statement for each student, so that any posting of that problem to the web to be solved can lead back to a specific individual who made the post. Important – Instructors need to fully explain this process to students, which then serves as a powerful deterrent. Students need to understand that when they post a problem to be solved online, that their post is visible to others and that instructors can find these posts easily by searching for the problem statement. For the question/problem to be answered/solved, the posting needs to include all of the wording and numbers. This information however is unique to each student and can lead back to the student making the post. If a student removes the numbers in order to conceal their identity, a full solution of the problem can’t be provided.

   Assignment Settings Designed for Security
Controls within the system that allow instructors to mirror a written exam. For example, delayed automatic grading restricts students from accessing the correct answer and conceals if their submission is correct or incorrect during the exam.

   LockDown Browser
Lock down the testing environment within the platform using Respondus. This built-in tool restricts students from accessing other applications, websites, messaging, and screen-sharing services on their device during the exam.

Some students will break the rules and post problems to the web to be solved. Our webcrawler looks for all problems in our system, including your exam questions. When we find your problems we can contact the offending website to have the problems removed, and using Tracking Tools we can identify the offending student.


Your Custom Content

As a part of our services, we’re able to help develop your exam questions. Our broad range of automatically graded questions types can be utilized effectively for any subject. Question types such as Multiple Choice, Multiple Select, and True/False are of course staples of standardized testing. Our advanced graphical questions allow for the design of assessments such as: fill-in-the-blank reading exercises, ranking tasks, sorting/classification, drag-and-drop labeling of charts/schematics, etc.

For Physics, Biology, and Astronomy, in addition to custom content, we have comprehensive collections of materials to draw from.

   Entry of Your Own Problems
Instructors can provide their exam questions to us in a variety of formats. We can help standardize the effort for quicker processing. The bulk of the import effort will be handled by the Expert TA content development team. These problems can consist of different question types and multiple problem parts.

Instructors can meet with an Expert TA account manager for a quick orientation so you will be comfortable using the class management and assignment features when giving exams.

An Example of These Tools in Use

In spring 2020 many schools used Expert TA for both regular and final exams. Below is a breakdown of how Expert TA was utilized to successfully administer high-stakes assessments.

  • A clear warning was delivered to students letting them know that answer-sharing websites were being monitored.
  • Schools that saw the least amount of posting to the web delivered a custom video message to students in Expert TA reinforcing the honor code and class policies.
  • Instructors took advantage of Expert TA’s data entry team to assign and enhance their own exam questions inside of the Expert TA system.
  • Students were made aware that each of their exams contained different numbers, phrases, and other subtle differences that were trackable by the instructor and Expert TA.
  • Instructors used customizable grade settings to limit the time of the exam, conceal the correct answer from students, and hide if the student’s submission was correct or incorrect.
  • Instructors utilized Question Pools to ensure there were many different variations of exams being taken.
  • Violators were identified through the use of in-assignment deterrents, digital tracking tools, and unique numbers and phrases.
  • As harsh penalties were handed out, word spread among students, and instructors saw a reduction in the number of students posting questions in subsequent exams.