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What are online test banks and what do they have to do with academic integrity?

Emerging trends series

In this blog, we dive into the world of online test banks and their effects on the integrity of student work, as well as how to lessen their impact on learning.

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell

In this blog series, we have explored emerging trends in academic misconduct, including the use of word spinners and electronic cheating devices. These trends are being seen worldwide and have been increasing in usage as many institutions transition to remote learning environments. In this post, we dive into the world of online test banks and highlight the ways in which they can negatively impact the academic integrity of student work, as well as ways to mitigate their effect on student learning.

1. What are online test banks?

Online test banks are used worldwide. They are prepackaged online resources meant for lecturers creating tests and sometimes provided through educational institutions. Online test banks are attractive because they are often created by the same publisher that produced the corresponding textbook for that course and thus centered around the main topics of that individual textbook. The test banks offer a diverse selection of questions and can include feedback on a specific answer given directly by students, often accompanied with exact page references to the textbook.

2. How do they manifest in student work?

The initial use for test banks was as a time-saving resource for instructors crafting tests for their courses. They evolved into tools for students preparing for an upcoming exam, offering a curated selection of questions directly related to the topic. These days, online test banks are no longer limited to questions chosen by a textbook publisher; they now include collections of actual exams uploaded to the internet.

One such example was Fratfolder.com, which started in 2007. At that point, it was somewhat common practice amongst sorority and fraternity houses in university settings across North America to share exams as a study tool. Alex Baldwin thought making the exam content more easily accessible to students beyond the fraternity and sorority scene was a type of “public service, leveling the academic playing field by giving non-Greeks access to the same test banks while providing students insight into how individual professors structure their exams.”

Fratfolder is no longer accessible online, but many other sites are, begging the question: how does an instructor know when/if a student has used an online test bank? They may manifest in student work in a variety of ways:

  • Answers to an exam from a group of students that are all exactly alike, hinting at the shared use of an online test bank.
  • Answers to an exam that are exactly the same as or highly similar to answers given by students in semesters/years past, alluding to the access of an actual test from previous terms.
  • Surprisingly detailed answers to questions related to material that was only lightly covered in the course, which may show that the student(s) had a chance to look at a specific course’s exams in a series, anticipating what material would be covered next.
3. How do they impact academic integrity?

With such a focused study tool, students may feel that the time they spend preparing for the exam is not only efficient, but convenient, with everything they need in one place. Online test bank material is often marketed as “study material” and an “additional resource” for students with busy schedules. What is also true is that sometimes instructors themselves will choose to hand out previous exams as a study resource for their students. One professor from Wichita State University stated: “If this is something that I want my students to learn, why won’t I give them as much practice information as I can?”

Unfortunately, an online collection of previous tests blurs the line between copyright law and academic integrity. Exams or test questions that are uploaded without an instructor’s consent means that they did not willingly share their course’s content, nor their original exam material. Most educators are up in arms about the increased use of online test banks because it means their tests— truly, their intellectual property—are available online without their permission.

Furthermore, if a student or set of students simply memorizes answers to a previous test, are they actually exhibiting knowledge, applying learned concepts to a new setting? Professors may not see that a student or an entire class needs additional support or coverage on a challenging topic because the exams do not accurately reflect their learning. And if exams are simply passed from one student to the next, then the deep value of attending the course, absorbing the information, engaging in class discussions, and asking questions, are all lost.

4. Ways to mitigate online test banks

Luckily, there are several ways to reduce the negative impact of online test banks on student learning.

  • Establish a policy. First and foremost, instructors and institutions should have a specific and written rule around the use of online test banks in the syllabus, the Honor Code, and/or the institution’s academic integrity policy. If there is no clarity from the top level, then there is wiggle room at the student level to utilize tools unproductively or dishonestly.
  • Change test questions frequently. This ensures that even if previous exams are somehow accessed and viewed, that the unique questions on the upcoming exam will demand independent thought from the test-taker.
  • Embrace item analysis. You can evaluate the quality of your exams with item analysis, which means analyzing students’ responses to individual exam questions. This process allows for a deep look at exam efficacy and keeps exams up-to-date.
  • Apply thoughtful assessment design. Assessment design should provide variety in assessment formats to address different learning styles and measure different facets of learning. It can uphold integrity when done purposefully and can lessen the impact of online test banks on student learning.
  • Limit time for test-taking. A good way to ensure that students are applying their own knowledge to exams and not repurposing others’ answers is to offer the exact amount of time needed to complete a test. Unless discussed beforehand by the student and instructor for official reasons, additional time can sometimes provide the opportunity for a student to utilize a non-approved resource.

In the end, talking to students openly about online test banks may be the perfect deterrent for the misuse of this resource. And while most situations involving study materials are likely honest endeavors, knowing the evolution of online test banks and how they are being used will help everyone to ground themselves in the importance of academics and assessment with integrity.