Top-down view of a desk with a laptop, cup of coffee, and person writing on a notepad

Approximately 8 years ago, I built and launched an online College Algebra course for undergraduate students at a regional SEC University.  As I’ve continued to teach, modify, re-write, and re-design the course over the past 8 years, I’ve come to realize that promoting and maintaining high standards of academic integrity in online courses is a bit different than in my traditional in-person courses.

While it has been stated that academic integrity violations are probabilistically higher for student with lower GPA’s,  this is not absolute, and ‘good students’ cheat too (Cullen).  A 2019 study found that primarily adult students were no more likely to engage in most forms of cheating than traditional-age students in residential institutions (Harris, et al.).  For me, this evidence suggests that the single most important factor impacting my course is not the audience to which it will be addressed, but the content and design of the course itself.

For a mathematics course, students are expected to competently describe the mathematical concepts using proper vocabulary, solve problems using graphical and algebraic techniques, and be able to sufficiently defend their answers.  I have come to realize that the only time I am really interested in assessing student ability to do the aforementioned solely and completely on their own, is on exams.

First, and most importantly in my course design process, I wrote the final exam.  It contains a selection of what my state, college, department, colleagues, and myself deem to be the most essential concepts for which students should demonstrate mastery.   I, then, wrote smaller, more focused exams that pieced those final exam questions into groupings by concept.  Then I created a set of quizzes and homework assignments.  These demarked the ‘lessons’ for the course.  Lastly, I worked on how to ‘teach’ each lesson.  If you’re interested in learning more about backward design, check out Understanding By Design.

Exams serve as my focus for assessing student abilities, and my focus for maintaining academic integrity.  Everything else in the course is grouped into the ‘learning is messy’ category.  Students are encouraged to work together on everything else.  They are allowed multiple attempts on homework problems and quizzes.  These activities are where the learning happens.

In my course, there are three unit exams and then a comprehensive final exam.  The first exam in the course is completely open-book, open-notes.  I tell my students that the first exam is their opportunity to “see” and “feel” what an exam “is” in this course, with the safety net of having their notes available to them.  This releases some fear, and gives a bit of confidence heading into that first exam.  Subsequent exams and the final are not open-book, open-notes; so I encourage them to reflect upon that first testing experience and develop plans for how to continue (or start) being successful on future exams.  I should also mention, it is mathematically impossible to pass the course with only the homework, quizzes, and first exam.  Students are required to demonstrate their abilities on the more heavily weighted exams 2, 3, and final…which are proctored.

Deciding to proctor exam 2, 3, and final was an easy decision.  Teclehaimanot, You, Franz, Xiao, and Hochberg  Ensuring Academic Integrity in Online Courses (2018) studied 3 non-proctored testing scenarios to determine their effectiveness.  Their research concluded no statistical differences between the methods, while noting that these testing environments function as a substitute “if human proctored testing is not feasible”(p.52).  In my case, human proctored testing is feasible: ProctorU.  While not a perfect solution, it’s the closest thing to proctoring in an online class that I have been able to find. 

The final piece of my course design focused on academic integrity, is as simple as telling students about academic integrity.  They need to know where the ‘line’ is in order to stay on the correct side of said line.  A previous blog post Lesson From TikTok on Academic Integrity (Nov 2021) encouraged “creating academic communities where students are responsible for and take pride in [that community] while also holding others to a standard of accountability is the goal of academic integrity”.  To this end, documentation about academic integrity at my institution is included in my course.  It’s in the syllabus (my contract with students), it’s hyperlinked in my LMS, I mention it in my “welcome to the course” video and email, and it’s in a low-stakes course entry quiz that students complete on the opening day of the course. 

We all want our students to learn, that’s why we [and they] are here!  I want my students to know that learning is messy, and very often not an individual endeavor.  My course design reinforces that while individual demonstration of mastery is expected on exams, collaboration is allowed, and encouraged. 


Bowen, R. S.  (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [todaysdate] from

Cullen, C. (2022, January 11). Good Students Cheat, Too. ICAI.

Harris, L., Harrison, D., McNally, D., & Ford, C. (2019). Academic integrity in an online culture: Do McCabe’s findings hold true for online, adult learners? Journal of Academic Ethics, , 1-16. Retrieved from

Parnther, C. (2021, November 8). Lessons from TikTok on Academic Integrity. ICAI.

Teclehaimanot, B., You, J., Franz, D. R., Xiao, M., & Hochberg, S. A. (2018). ENSURING ACADEMIC INTEGRITY IN ONLINE COURSES: A case analysis in three testing environments. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 19(1), 47-52,56-57. Retrieved from