Why Do We Need Test Proctors?

I’m sitting here looking at 55 students who would rather be anywhere else.

They are about 30 minutes into their Accounting 1 final (I apologize if this brings back bad memories for some of you), which I volunteered to help proctor.

For many students, this will likely be their least favorite, and most difficult, course as a business major (hopefully not for those who plan to major in Accounting or Finance).

The students have up to two and a half hours to complete the exam, so I thought I would use the time alternating back and forth between between writing this blog and scanning the room, looking for wandering eyes.

So far, there’s only been one student I’ve had to keep a close eye on; the student seems to spend just a little bit too long glancing at the tests of the students on either side of her. But at this point, there’s no firm evidence of any wrongdoing. Our eyes have met a couple times, and I tried to do my best Zoolander, but I don’t think it has any effect.

When I look around the room, I see several students with bottled water, some with water bottles, a few coffees, and a couple of Gatorades. From what I can tell, no one is drinking soda; no wonder the soda companies are panicking!

Two guys are wearing baseball caps, one of them backwards. And one female student is wearing both a baseball cap with her hoodie on top of it, I know some faculty ban students from wearing a hat in class, but I really don’t care. Besides, these aren’t even my students (although I recognize several of them from my Intro to Business course last year).

I also notice a lot of students staring blankly into space, either hoping the answer will come to them, or perhaps questioning why they opted to study business and not classical literature. Or maybe they’re just thinking about what they are going to have for dinner once the exam is finished.

There’s also a lot pf pencil chewing, head scratching, and hair twirling.

I have to admit, it’s a lot nicer being on this side of the desk when it’s test time!

But this time I’m spending with a captive audience (I guess I’m part of that audience as well), has given me a chance to reflect on why we even have proctors.

I often think about the University of Virginia and its honor code.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

The University of Virginia’s Honor System…exists for a single purpose: to uphold and support the Community Trust. We believe that students, faculty, and administrators are not passive recipients of culture, but rather are active agents in creating and maintaining the ideals of our community.

An Honor Offense is defined as a Significant Act of Lying, Cheating or Stealing, which Act is committed with Knowledge. Three criteria determine whether or not an Honor Offense has occurred:

  • Act: Was an act of lying, cheating or stealing committed?
  • Knowledge: Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was Lying, Cheating, or Stealing?
  • Significance: Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?

There is also section on how faculty can utilize U.Va.’s community of trust in their classroom, and offers the following suggestions:

  • Give take home exams.
  • Give unproctored exams.
  • Believe a student when he gives you an excuse unless you have some reason to believe otherwise.
  • Encourage students to write and sign the pledge on all graded assignments.

UVa is not alone. Here are some other examples of colleges that do not use proctors during exams, with wording directly from the school’s web site:

Naval Academy: It is not necessary for a proctor to be present continuously in the examination room.

Middlebury: professors are prohibited from being in the exam room without permission from the dean (although two years ago, the economics department was authorized to proctor exams in six core courses and one elective. It’s the first time in the honor code’s 49-year history that a department has taken such a measure).

Stanford: proctoring is not permitted

Princeton: faculty must leave the room

Haverford – as it proudly states on its web site, the honor code was established in 1897, there are over 2,40 words in the Honor Code, and there are 0 proctors at exams.

At Villanova, there’s a bit of discrepancy:

Villanova Law School: no proctors

Villanova undergrad: Faculty members should attend the administration of the final examination in order to answer any questions and ensure high standards of academic integrity. When they are unable to do so, department chairs are to see that sufficient proctors are provided for each examination room. Where there is a shortage in any department, assistance should be requested from other departments.

It seems odd that some schools have an honor code that specifically bans proctors from the exam room, while others, such as East Stroudsburg, Carnege-Mellon, Drexel, and Montgomery County Community College (my alma maters), have proctors in the room during a test.

Since that was the model I grew up with, I didn’t think twice about it until I started hearing about these other colleges that do not use proctors. I am sure there is no fundamental difference between the students at any of these colleges in terms of their level of honesty; I would venture to say (with no evidence to back this), that cheaters are evenly dispersed across all universities, and that the number is a really tiny percentage.

I’m in favor of having such a system. I tell my students that I trust them, unless they do something that violates that trust. In 30 plus years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt that trust violated.

But maybe I’m naive.

An interesting essay in the New York Times a couple of years ago noted that Middlebury College has started to allow faculty to proctor some exams. The reason for the change was based on a survey taken by a student in the 2012-13 academic year.  His findings shook the campus;  of 377 student respondents, 35 percent admitted to violating the honor code at least once in the 2012-13 academic year.

The president of Middlebury noted that “the whole idea of an honor code is very honorable, quite evidently. But there’s an issue of it being actually implemented. I think there are a lot of reasons, both internal and external to Middlebury, why it’s problematic to assume that such an honor code has a degree of credibility.”

Most honor codes rely on students to report witnessed cheating;  But the students who are supposed to be proctoring one another aren’t. In a February student-government survey at Middlebury, 63 percent of students said they would feel neutral about, or not report, witnessed exam cheating. And about three-quarters didn’t object to professors proctoring exams and believed it would thwart cheating.

The essay compares Middlebury’s approach to that of UVA, where it is one strike and you’re expelled. But the author suggests that this kind of policy punishes, rather than teaches, with an expulsion penalty so severe it might discourage witnesses from coming forward. It’s a system designed to purge an institution of cheaters rather than to change or enlighten them.

The honor code at Hamilton College mandates that if you see cheating, you tap your pencil on your desk to warn the cheater and communicate to the room that, right now, we are all being cheated.

At Haverford College, punishments for those who violate the honor code emphasize community. One student who had been found guilty sent a campuswide apology email, a punishment that is a mix of shame, reflection and painful confrontation with one’s own bad decision. That email reminded students that one person’s dishonesty violates the entire community.

The student writing the essay questions the lack of concern for the honor code at Middlebury:

The honor code is a model of a world I wish to live in: one of honesty, personal responsibility, learning for the right reason, choosing right in a moment of temptation. These are the very deepest and most literal things we ask a school to teach us.

Anyway, getting back to my proctoring, there’s about 30 minutes left. And I did have to finally confront the student mentioned earlier. I walked up to the student and told the student to keep their eyes on their own paper. The student looked at me and said “I am.”, to which I replied “OK”, and walked away.

I really hope we implement proctorless exams; I’m not very good at confrontation.

And it represents the kind of world I want to live in.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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