Posted by Liz Yata Liz Yata

When is Open Too OpenBy Liz Yata

One of the more popular aspects of CCCOER is our community of practice email list. With over 1,400 members it is a great resource for all things OER. Recently there was a discussion about test banks. The initial poster asked whether test banks associated with OER are “too open,” but the discussion quickly turned into a discussion on how easy it is to find test banks for all textbooks – traditional and OER – and ways to deal with this issue.

Ahoy! Test Bank Pirates Ahead!
The discussion started when an OER Librarian posted that a professor had come to her with concerns that students may have accessed the test banks for OpenStax’ Psychology book. While an account is needed to get access to OpenStax instructor resources, a quick internet search for “OpenStax psychology test bank” showed that the test bank was out there, which made the professor wonder if some OER is “too open” and whether access to Cengage resources would be more restrictive. Others on the email list quickly pointed out that this isn’t just an issue with OER, and that the test bank for Cengage’s Psychology textbook is just as easy to find online. Indeed, a quick Google search for “Cengage psychology test bank” returns 1.97 million results and a link to the test bank is available on the first page of results.

Nicole Finkbeiner, Director of Institutional Relations at OpenStax, Rice University added:
OpenStax test banks actually aren’t open. We do not openly-license our instructor solution manuals or the test banks so that we do have some legal recourse in these types of instances. We do regular scans for our test banks and solution manuals and issue take down notices. We are also implementing new ways to try to hunt them down, even when students and faculty think they are somewhere ‘hidden.’”

Caught Red-Handed
It turns out this is a widespread issue. One instructor shared an instance of blatant cheating – the instructor version of a textbook contained the answers to all of the homework questions. While most questions have a clear answer, the teacher’s edition answer for one question was something like, “Student answers will vary.” A student was caught red-handed when their answer was, “Student answers will vary”!

Why do Students Cheat?
Students cheating isn’t isolated to classes using OER, and it is also not a problem created by the Internet. In Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013) author James Lang points out that academic dishonesty is not on the rise; studies conducted since 1963 show that about 75% of students have self-reported that they have cheated at least once during their college careers. He goes on to point out ways in which higher education is designed to encourage cheating and reduce learning:

  • High-stakes course or assessment If a student’s entire grade for a course is based on only a couple of tests/assignments then performing well on each one becomes more important. Students are also more likely to cheat in introductory courses or courses that are requirements that they must take before they can move on to the subjects they are actually interested in learning.
  • Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic motivation Students who are driven by extrinsic or external motivations are more likely to cheat. They seek external rewards such as praise, good grades, honors, and awards. Those driven by intrinsic or internal motivations are more interested in understanding the materials for its own sake and enjoy learning.

Rather than focusing on keeping test banks out of the hands of students, the solution to cheating could be to redesign courses to reduce these built-in incentives to cheat. Solutions include giving more frequent, low-stakes assessments, non-disposable assignments, and redesigning for open pedagogy. These approaches not only reduce cheating but also improving learning and long-term retention of course material.

Rethinking Test Banks
Since test bank piracy is clearly not an issue of open vs. traditional, the question then becomes, what do instructors do about it? The CCCOER Community of Practice had the following suggestions:

  • Nothing. You don’t do anything, students who memorize a test bank are still learning. Since students are clearly motivated to memorize answers that they know will be on the test, instead of trying (and probably failing) to keep test banks away from students give it to them. This solution also eliminates the equity issues created by the fact that many students either don’t know how to find test banks online, or will not seek them out because it is unethical.
  • Create larger test banks and give it to students. This ensures that students don’t know exactly what will be on the test and must study everything. Some instructors even randomize the questions so students don’t all get the same test.
  • Have students write test questions. This allows instructors to more easily curate large test banks (that they do not share with the community), and makes students think about the material more deeply.
  • Flip the Test. Have students write test questions, and provide the rationale for the answer, in a sense, recreating the publisher test bank as a way to demonstrate that they understand the material.
  • Move away from written tests (especially multiple choice, true false, etc.) and towards testing that is more like flight simulators and driving tests, but tailored to your field.

“Everything is potentially ‘out there’”
In the end the original poster came back and said that she shared the replies that her post had generated with the instructor, and felt victorious when the instructor replied, “I guess what I have to come to terms with is that everything is potentially ‘out there’ and we have to have ways to work around that… You can be sure I’ll be back with more queries as we move forward with OER!”

Featured image is from and is licensed for reuse

Find out More:

Sign up for the CCCOER Community of Practice email group and view the archives of past discussions on the email group on our Community Email page, located under the “Get Involved” tab located at the top of the page.

Cheating Lessons: find out more about the book and where to purchase it, visit James Lang’s website

Open Pedagogy: visit the open pedagogy section of our website on the Helpful Resources page in the “Learn” tab, or check out the recordings from the Open Pedagogy 2019 Webinar Series sponsored by SUNY Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology (FACT2) in partnership with the Open Education Consortium (OEC)

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