TROY, N.Y. (WTEN) — In an era of remote learning due to COVID-19, educators are concerned about an increase in cheating among their students, as discussed by the Washington Post.

With concerns on the rise, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute created a solution that also maintains student privacy.

In research published Monday in npj Science of Learning, engineers from RPI demonstrate how a testing strategy they call “distanced online testing” can effectively reduce a student’s ability to receive help from others while testing outside of the classroom.

“Often in remote online exams, students can talk over the phone or internet to discuss answers,” said Ge Wang, an endowed chair professor of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer and the corresponding author on this paper. “The key idea of our method is to minimize this chance via discrete optimization aided by knowledge of a student’s competencies.”

When a distanced online test is performed, students receive the same questions, but at varying times depending on their skill level. For instance, students of the “highest mastery levels” receive each question after other groups of students have already answered those questions.

This approach, Wang said, reduces the incentive for students to receive help from those who have a better grasp of the material. In order to determine the order of each student’s questions, their competence levels are estimated using their grade point averages, SAT scores or midterm scores, depending on what is available at a specific point in the semester.

According to statistical tests and post-exam surveys, this method reduced the points gained through “collusion” of students in comparison to more traditional testing. As an added benefit, Wang said, when students knew collusion would not be possible, they were more motivated to study class material.

Wang and his collaborators hope to share this pedagogical innovation beyond the Rensselaer campus.