Is cheating a major problem for digital exams?

Digital exams offer a convenient way to assess students’ knowledge and skills. They enable easy collaboration among exam administrators, flexible delivery of exams, quicker, better feedback to candidates and detailed analysis driving better exams over time. If they are held remotely, they may also save time and money for candidates who do not need to travel to exam centres to sit them.

However, there have been some recent articles highlighting cheating in digital and specifically online exams[i], with some institutions reportedly looking at returning to paper-based exams.  This blog aims to address these concerns by taking an in-depth look at the following:

  1. How candidates cheat in digital exams
  2. Is cheating unique to digital exams?
  3. How can any risks be minimised?

How candidates cheat in digital exams

Some of the common ways that students cheat in digital exams are:

  • Using unauthorised devices or resources, such as cell phones, calculators, textbooks, notes, or websites, to look up answers or solutions during the exam.
  • Recently there have been reports of candidates using ChatGPT during digital exams.  It is worth mentioning here that if they are using ChatGPT on the same device as their exam, it would suggest that their device has not been locked down and prevented from accessing browsers, which a good exam management system will do.
  • Asking someone else to take the exam for them or collaborating with other students during the exam.
  • Using voice assistants, such as Siri or Google Assistant, to ask for answers or solutions during the exam.

Is cheating unique to digital exams?

Cheating is not unique to digital exams and determined candidates have always found ways to cheat! Many of the ways candidates cheat also apply to paper- based exams, depending how they are invigilated.

If paper-based exams are taken remotely, candidates may cheat in very similar ways – looking up answers in textbooks, online etc.

If paper-based exams are sat in exam centres where they are invigilated, it is of course harder to cheat – but then this applies to digital exams too.

How can cheating in digital exams be minimised?

In an Exam centre

The biggest deterrent to cheating is invigilation – and this applies to both digital and paper-based exams. If an exam is held in an exam centre and invigilated in person, whether that exam be digital or paper-based then cheating will be reduced. 

If sophisticated exam software such as Maxexam is used to deliver digital exams, it will lock down the candidate’s device preventing the candidate from accessing the internet or other tabs. Additionally, the option to present questions in a random order, makes cheating by trying to communicate with or copy other candidates extremely difficult.

In conclusion, if exams are invigilated in person, there is no reason that digital exams are any more prone to cheating than paper exams, and potentially less so if question order randomisation is utilised.

Remote digital exams

If the exams are being held remotely then there are a number of measures that can be put in place to reduce cheating:

  1. Remote invigilation (also known as proctoring) such as offered by Maxexam’s Active Invigilation Module – AIM.  Knowing they are being invigilated will act as a deterrent to all but the most determined of cheats! You can read more about AIM here.
  2. Insisting candidates use a second device logged into a video call (e.g., on Zoom/Microsoft Teams), to check the room beforehand and record the candidate from a different angle throughout the exam.
  3. Ensuring the device the candidate is using to sit the exam on is ‘locked down’ and cannot access a browser or other tabs – sophisticated exam software such as Maxexam will enable this.
  4. Creating questions that require higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis and evaluation, rather than simple recall or comprehension. This makes it harder for candidates to find answers online or in their textbooks and will require them to demonstrate their understanding of the course content.
  5. Reminding students both throughout the course and in advance of the exam of the academic integrity policy and the consequences of cheating. If cheating is discovered, then cheats need to be treated appropriately so other candidates understand that the penalties are real.

Are there advantages of digital exams when it comes to combating cheating?

However good the set-up of the exams, any exam sat off-site is going to be at greater risk of determined cheats succeeding than if the exams are held in an exam centre.

Where digital exams have an advantage over paper-based exams completed remotely, is in both cheat prevention options such as remote question randomisation and forward only, and in cheat detection.

Some of the cheat detection tools built into Maxexam include:

  • Remote invigilation via AIM:  AIM utilises the computer’s webcam and uses both human and AI review to identify suspicious behaviour and thereby help exam administrators to spot issues that would otherwise be missed. This information is then presented in a very efficient way allowing exam administrators to perform a preliminary check in seconds.
  • Timestamps: which help markers to identify if candidates are at the same question at the same time.
  • IP addresses: indicating if students are sat in close proximity of one another.
  • Logging of activity by the exam application including tracing keystrokes, user interaction etc.
  • Maxexam also provides the ability to pair candidates with most suspicious behaviour according to the Harpp & Hogan index.  This identifies the number of similarities in both answering correctly, and incorrectly between students – it is then possible to compare timestamped activity between any two given students and identify suspicious behaviour between the two.


A small proportion of candidates have always tried to cheat in exams. The biggest preventor of and therefore deterrent is in-person invigilated exams, and this applies to both digital and paper exams.

If a decision is made to hold exams remotely, then while it is impossible to prevent all cheating, it is possible to make it really, really hard.  In the case of digital exams, cheat detection tools in exam software such as Maxexam mean the chances of catching cheats are much improved Vs paper-based exams.  When determining their strategy, examining organisations need to weigh up the benefits of remote exams Vs the increased risk of cheating which can be greatly reduced by the deployment of a highly secure digital examination system.

Referring to the original question posed, we would suggest that it isn’t the fact that exams are sat digitally that increases the risk of cheating, but rather whether or not they are held remotely and if so, how they are conducted.  Stories of universities moving back to paper-based exams would in our view indicate they have not really looked at what is driving any increase in cheating in exams, and how they could prevent it. With proper strategies in place, holding digital exams remotely can be very successful, and is for many of our clients. 

We would add here that assignments are a different question, as these would usually not be invigilated or completed on an exam management system, meaning the use of AI such as ChatGPT is easier and therefore more tempting for students completing assignments online.

If you would like to know more about how Maxexam can help you run successful digital exams, please give us a call on +44 (0)117 428 0550 or send us an email on