1. About
  2. Features
  3. Explore

This past term, I was teaching in a collaborative classroom where students sit together at round tables. This works well for in-class activities and peer learning, but is the not exactly the best configuration on the day of a midterm or final.

Concerned that some students might have wandering eyes – either inadvertently, or perhaps even intentionally – I came up with something that might help. Several of the exam questions required some basic arithmetic, so I made three different copies of the exam, where the numbers in the word problems varied a little bit. (Each version's problem was solved the same way, but the end result would be different.)

Later, I was talking with my daughter about what I had done. She asked me if I told the students that not everyone was getting the exact same test. (I had not.) She told me about some classes she had taken where the instructor had done this same thing, but announced it ahead of time (saying something like, "There's no sense trying to copy an answer from a neighbor, because the problems vary.") She also said that one instructor had gone so far as to print the exams on different colored sheets of paper. (My daughter assumed that all the orange tests were the same, all the blue tests were the same, etc., but that was just conjecture.)

If this makes any difference, there was already one cheating incident (or a class project) earlier in the term.

Also, I realize that it's often the "Show your work" part of an exam question that is the most important part, but that's not the case for this particular course. It's an introductory programming course, and I give small snippets of code, asking, "What does the output of this program look like?" So, for some of these questions, it would be very easy to copy an answer from another student's exam.

This made me wonder:

  • Am I under any obligation to share with my students the fact that there are multiple versions of the exam? Or is it okay to remain silent about the issue?
  • Is there any good reason for doing it one way or the other?

1 Answer 1

At some point you need to tell the students. You do not want students leaving the exam and then talking about the answers and being totally confused. For example, it is not uncommon to hear a student ask after an exam, did you get 1 kg for problem 2. If the problems are different, this is going to make the discussions confusing and prevent the students from learning after the exam. Telling them on the way out of the exam room is often not feasible, so telling them in advance is probably better.

I would also suggest instead of slightly changing the questions, is probably not the best idea. It can lead to complaints that one exam was easier/harder than another. Further, if you provide solutions, it is much more difficult since you need to pair the solution to the exact problem. An alternative for reducing cheating is to mix up the order of the questions such that one student might get 1-2-3-4-5 and another gets 5-4-3-2-1. Then students can talk about the "train problem" and the "coin flipping problem" and not question 1 or question 2.