How to prevent cheating in online assessment
When online psychometric testing was first introduced in the 1990s, it was estimated that 10% of job applicants attempted to cheat in their tests. That figure has since been greatly reduced as test providers and employers have taken direct measures to counter specific tactics such as:
1. Sharing the ‘answers’
Individuals can no longer take an employer’s tests and then share a ‘master solution’. Today’s tests feature randomly-generated questions from large ‘item banks’. Many are also adaptive, in that they respond to the applicant’s choices. As a result, candidates are unlikely to see the same test twice.
2. Asking someone else to take the test
Employers started to conduct verification tests at the interview stage, to deter applicants from asking others to sit their tests.
3. Gathering a group of friends, to go through a test together
Tests are now timed - and having multiple people arguing over the best solution is time-consuming and counterproductive. Studies show that individuals achieve better results in ability tests than groups.
4. Deliberately disconnecting the internet connection mid-way through a test, so the candidate can retake it, having seen some of the questions
Not only are the questions randomised but the tests now download onto your device, so candidates can still complete them, even if their internet connection breaks.
5. Trying to ‘fake’ the answers in a personality questionnaire
A well-designed personality questionnaire is difficult to fake because the applicant won’t necessarily know what the employer is looking for. If someone fakes or inflates their answers, the questionnaire will highlight their inconsistent responses.
Cheating in a psychometric test was akin to downloading pirated music. It was something done at home that people probably assumed didn’t do any real harm. After all, applying for a high-stakes job can be a daunting prospect and no one wants to be weeded out at the first hurdle. Some candidates possibly resented having to take the tests and saw cheating as a way of outwitting a tedious automated selection process.
A well-designed personality questionnaire is difficult to fake because the applicant won’t necessarily know what the employer is looking for.
Best practice steps
Fortunately, these attitudes are changing. This is partly because employers are now taking ten best practice steps to reduce the likelihood of cheating. These are:
1. Communicate why you’re using psychometric tests
Try to make your assessment process less daunting for candidates, by explaining why you are using tests and what information you’re aiming to obtain.
2. Explain that you are matching, not filtering
If you’ve done your preparatory work, you’ll know that the job will require certain skills, competencies and behaviours to be successful - and you’ll have chosen specific assessments to look for those precise qualities. Explain this and highlight that your assessments are designed to match the right person to the role.
In other words, they’ll actually help the candidate to find a job that they’ll enjoy. Anyone who cheats in psychometric tests runs the risk of getting a job that’s not suitable for them. For example, if a numerical reasoning test is used in the selection process, it might be because the employer wants someone who is meticulous and detail-orientated.
A candidate who cheats or misrepresents themselves to get the job might find that they hate the work involved. If you point this out, candidates will realise that cheating is not in their interests. Take the pressure off your applicants by highlighting that you’re looking for a certain type of person - and if they’re not selected, it’s not a judgement of them; it simply means they were not right for your particular role.
3. Offer practise tests
You can make your assessment process less daunting for applicants by encouraging them to take practise tests. Practising improves test performance because candidates become more familiar with the format of each assessment and more comfortable with the process.
4. Ensure your tests are ‘face valid’. Your candidates should feel that the tests they take are relevant to the role, so use tests that measure specific, job-relevant aspects. If people perceive that your tests are appropriate, they’ll feel less inclined to think about cheating.
5. Use a Realistic Job Preview. Give your candidates an honest insight into what the job will involve. Ask how they’d behave in job-related situations and give them feedback, so they can decide for themselves whether or not they want the role.
A candidate who cheats or misrepresents themselves to get the job might find that they hate the work involved.
6. Create an ‘honesty contract’. Asking candidates to agree to some short statements, confirming that they’ll respond honestly in their assessments, can cut the likelihood of cheating. This also reassures your best candidates that you take this issue seriously.
7. Don’t use assessments in isolation. Always supplement your assessments with other selection options such as group exercises or competency-based interviews, to ensure that even if someone has cheated in their tests, you’re safeguarded by other aspects of the selection process.
8. Adjust your pass scores, if necessary. In some countries, such as China, there are businesses that offer to ‘systematically train’ individuals, to help them improve their scores in psychometric tests. If you’re recruiting in countries where this type of training is available, consider slightly increasing the pass scores of your ability tests to compensate for this.
9. Provide a positive candidate experience. If your tests are administered in a cold and brusque manner, it’s not surprising that people will treat them cynically or contemptuously. If you’re honest and forthcoming with candidates, they’re more likely to be honourable and cooperative in return.
10. Be sensitive when rejecting people. Don’t tell a candidate that you’ve excluded them from your selection process because you suspect that they’ve cheated. You may have your suspicions but it’s difficult to be certain about this. Best practice is to politely explain to any excluded applicants that they didn’t fit the role.
New technical possibilities
New ways of preventing cheating are constantly being developed. For example, valuable insights can now be obtained about ‘how’ a candidate completes an assessment, such as their response time, the options they choose and how often they correct themselves. Each of us responds differently in assessment tests, so test providers can now create a ‘psychometric fingerprint’ for each candidate.
As an employer, this means that you could quickly tell whether or not the same individual completed your different assessment tests - and how much ‘training’ they’ve undertaken.
Webcams - and the cameras on tablets and smartphones - open up another option for monitoring who is taking your tests.
Some universities use facial recognition to confirm the identity of students sitting online exams - and they ask individuals to show a 360-degree view of the room they’re in. However, you should be cautious about replicating these stringent measures in your assessment process.
Your assessment tests will be one of the first ‘points of contact’ that you’ll have with your applicants. You don’t want to start the relationship with a lack of trust.
Your candidates will be assessing you as much as you’re examining them. If your assessment process comes across as paranoid and overbearing, it paints an unattractive picture of your culture - and that can put off good candidates. There’s a fine balance between trusting people and thwarting unscrupulous practice.
Cheating is declining in online assessment, because of the measures outlined here and a growing awareness amongst candidates that it’s simply not worth it.
By communicating effectively - and by always treating your candidates with care and consideration - you can help to safeguard your organisation and ensure that you always recruit the right people to the right roles.
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I am Product Development Director at international talent measurement and assessment specialist cut-e, an Aon company. I hold a master degree in work and organisational psychology and specialise in psychometrics and online-based psychometric assessments. My work synthesises research and work practice with organisational psychology,...