Cheating on tests can be a problem in online classes, and several educational technology companies have devised ways to monitor students remotely. To me, however, cheating is not a surveillance problem –  it’s a teaching problem.

The solution is not intrusive technology; it’s better pedagogy. And the critical players are not online proctors working for a tech company, but faculty members taking charge of their virtual classrooms.

Without anyone to watch students take a test, though, how can anyone ensure students don’t succumb to temptation?

The battle against cheating has many fronts, but faculty can push back in how they design assignments, how they plan courses, and how they formulate program curriculum.

The most vulnerable point in an online class is a multiple-choice test. One option might be to avoid multiple choice tests and offer written assignments only. However, papers are susceptible to their own honesty problems and the time commitment to grading written work can be overwhelming in a class of 50, let alone 500.

Fortunately, tests can be constructed in any number of ways to combat cheating.

Fortunately, tests can be constructed in any number of ways to combat cheating.

Running a test for only a short period, allowing a short amount of time to complete a test, randomizing questions and answer choices, and drawing questions from a larger pool of potential questions are all easily done in most learning-management systems. These techniques make it harder for students to collaborate.

Students looking online for answers takes more effort to frustrate, but it can be done. A question that asks for simple recall begs to be Googled. Questions that ask for analysis are tougher for a cheater to crack, especially if operating under a time crunch.

I’m a history professor, and students often expect to be quizzed on names and dates. Looking up names and dates is easy to do on Wikipedia so I avoid that when I can.

Sometimes, I do ask simple recall questions—like, say, “What was the Whiskey Rebellion a protest against?”

More often, though, I’ll ask something such as: “In which of the following ways was the Whiskey Rebellion different from Shays’ Rebellion?”

Sure, a student could Google an answer, but they’d have to look up two items, figure out how they were similar, and compose an answer. Do that too often and the student will run out of time.

I also like to make up scenarios with invented people to get at some mentality that was common in the past.

For example, I’ll use a question like this to check understanding of what motivated New England soldiers during the American Revolution: “Colonel Hezekiah Smith, the officer in charge of a company from Connecticut, has just received an order from General Washington to attack the British line during a Revolutionary War battle. What will the officer’s response likely be?”

Good luck searching for Colonel Smith! He’s not real. But the idea tested is: New England soldiers fought for liberty, but they thought of “liberty” as governing themselves via consensus.

One of the best compliments I’ve received on a course evaluation was a complaint from a student who moaned that tests were unfair because he couldn’t find the answers anywhere on Google.

One of the best compliments I’ve received on a course evaluation was a complaint from a student who moaned that tests were unfair because he couldn’t find the answers anywhere on Google.

Beyond test questions, course design helps limit cheating, too.

A course with only a midterm, final, and maybe a paper might encourate students to cheat because so much rides on each test.

Spreading the overall course grade across many different assignments lessens the impact of any individual one.

Yet, the penalty stays the same: failing the course, possibly with a marker for academic dishonesty attached to the transcript. Who wants that for taking a shortcut on one small quiz?

A well-designed curriculum also curbs cheating, again by lessening high-stakes tests and changing the incentives.

Maybe some programs need high-stakes tests and gatekeeping courses to weed out weak students. I certainly want my doctor to know biochemistry and it’s probably a good idea for engineers to know their math. History is not quite the same. A grade of C in one of my classes won’t derail anyone’s dream of being a pediatrician.

Still, many fields could design their programs so that students show their abilities over a long arc of coursework and across many different assignments so that no one test determines a student’s fate.

Whether online or face-to-face, teaching is ultimately about the relationship between a particular instructor and a particular group of students gathered for a particular time and purpose. Reducing the temptation to cheat is ultimately a side benefit of well-designed curriculum, courses and assignments.

Such planning fosters the unique relationships between teacher and student and encourages learning.

And that’s more important than any test.

David Head is a lecturer in the UCF Department of History.