The Science of Learning vs. Proctoring Software

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the ethical implications of faculty utilizing proctoring software like Proctorio and ProcotorU to give remote exams to students in online courses. Most of these software “solutions” track a student’s movement and behaviors while taking the exam, and they force students to focus on what their bodies and eyes are doing at the same time as they are trying to complete their academic work.

Both mainstream publications and social media have been ablaze condemning the use of these tools out of compassion for our students who are already juggling so very much during this pandemic (but, honestly, they are ALWAYS juggling a lot–compassion is a must at all times).

I completely agree with this argument about kindness, empathy, and our ethical obligation as teachers, and I use it as the foundation for my own response to the idea of proctoring software.

However.

I’ve been around the block enough times to know that there are some faculty who will never be swayed by an argument rooted in compassion. There will always be those who have planted their flags of resistance firmly on the hills of rigor and standards. These are not bad things in and of themselves–I believe in having standards for our students and helping them to meet those standards–but when they conflict with students’ ability to do their best work or even serve as an obstacle to students’ emotional wellbeing, then we need to look closely at why the commitment to rigor and standards is so rigid.

Those who are not persuaded by the ethical and empathetic position should know that proctoring software fails miserably when checked against the science of learning too.

First, no matter how it is utilized, proctoring software adds significantly to a student’s cognitive load–particularly a type referred to as extraneous cognitive load, which is called “extraneous” because it has nothing to do with the actual academic work the student is tackling. In addition to taking the test, students have to deal with the extra cognitive burden of thinking about questions like “Are my eyes looking in the right place?” “I didn’t move my head too much, did I?” “I’m not cheating but will the instructor think I am?” etc.

This takes up resources that the student *could* be using to demonstrate learning. It edges out the capacity to do the high level work you are expecting of them. How does it make sense to inflict these completely irrelevant demands on them that prevent them from doing their best?

Furthermore, proctoring software can increase the nervousness or, in many cases, the anxiety that students already feel about exams. Every bit of evidence we have shows us that as these negative emotions increase, our cognitive abilities decrease. See my chapter on emotions in How Humans Learn for more information about this biological phenomenon.

Again, isn’t this counterproductive? In the end, when you use proctoring software, you are measuring a student’s ability to manage cognitive load and to regulate negative emotions just as much (maybe more?) as their knowledge/understanding/ideas.

We can do so much better. We must.

3 thoughts on “The Science of Learning vs. Proctoring Software

  1. Hi Joshua,

    I have been thinking about this a lot over the past few years, as my college (like so many others) spends more and more money on online proctoring services. We used ProctorU a few years ago, and the student- and faculty-led outcry was so significant that the college cancelled their contract with the company the following term.

    I am fully behind most if these points. But how do we balance them with the completely warranted concerns with cheating and plagiarism. (There is so much of it, in online courses.) Is there a more practical approach than these services, which also keeps in mind the science of learning?

    -Jason

      • That is fair, and as an English Professor I do not typically assign exams regularly. However, there are many instances when regular exams are indispensable as ways for gauging how students are doing. For example, a professor might assign 5-10 question individual quizzes as a way of setting the stage for Team Based Learning (TBL). Then, the professor might give the same quizzes as a foundation for group discussion and team-building. This is a really helpful way to give quizzes that is 100% based on students doing their own work.

        It seems like cutting out quizzes altogether might be taking a shortcut. Often, they are terrible uses of students’ time. But not always.

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