The fear of Big Brother: how test proctoring websites increase student’s anxiety

Some proctoring browsers require students to record themselves taking the test

Josie Santiago, DN Illustration
Josie Santiago, DN Illustration

Grayson Joslin is a second-year journalism major and writes “Soapbox” for The Daily News. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. 

The most stressful time of each school year during my time in elementary school was when we had to take the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress, more commonly known as ISTEP.

Inside the confines of our classrooms, we would set aside our schedule to prepare for this test. We didn’t know why we had to take it; we only knew we had to do well.

When these lofty expectations were placed on my shoulders for the first time in the third grade, it made me distressed. There were high stakes with this test; our teachers drilled in our heads how we weren’t allowed to talk or even go to the restroom until the designated breaks. 

This was the first time I got test anxiety.

Before and after this, I never felt too nervous about normal tests we would take in class. I always considered myself a good test taker; however, once standardized tests enter the equation, I get nervous.

Maybe it was the high stakes, or maybe it was the rigidity and the authoritativeness of the whole process. When I graduated from high school, after all the SATs, ISTEPs and AP exams I sat through, I figured the test anxiety was behind me.

It wasn’t.

In my first semester of my college, through my Introduction to Music class, I got introduced to test monitoring websites. The website used was Lockdown Browser, created by Respondus. This application will auto-lock the computer it is on, so it will not be able to access anything other than the browser.

This professor’s use of Lockdown Browser only did the bare minimum; as I would soon learn, professors can turn on more options for taking tests.

Last semester, one of my professors mandated our camera be on during our tests. This was another application created by Respondus, called Monitor. A simple lockdown browser was okay by me, but the camera made me uncomfortable. I was being watched while I was taking my exam.

“Ball State has been using the Lockdown Browser since at least 2012,” Andrew Walker, media strategy manager for Ball State, said. “The University started testing this system [Respondus Monitor] as an alternative to physical testing labs in 2018.”

When the pandemic sent us all home to isolate and quarantine, test proctoring websites shot up in popularity as instructors looked for ways to protect test integrity.

Ball State said the program “[p]revent[s] students from accessing external resources while taking quizzes in Canvas,” per their Division of Online and Strategic Learning. The use of Respondus and other test proctoring programs for online exams constitutes an unwelcome invasion of privacy and can cause test anxiety in students using the program.

Walker said that 183 faculty members use Respondus Monitor for testing purposes. Using the common data set of 1245 faculty members for the 2021-22 school year, this means 14.6% of faculty use the Monitor software.  

Tests and exams in college classes can be stressful enough, but when a camera looking for any detection of cheating in a Draconian manner is introduced, it can ramp up the stress level even higher than before. However, it doesn’t just record a video of you taking your tests. 

The Monitor feature also records the audio of the student taking the test. In the terms of use for Monitor it says, “The use of Respondus Monitor will require individual student activity to be recorded, both audibly and visually, during certain assessment sessions.” This means conversations can be heard by the system. 

I place a high value on my privacy; I rarely post on my Facebook, and I don’t share my location on Snapchat. So when I have to use this software to take tests that determine my grade and if I pass this class, I feel like my protection has been ripped off me with no input of my own.

I usually take my proctored tests in the lounge in my dorm. However, the problem is people often pass through, take phone calls, have conversations and watch movies in this same space. This extra sound could be picked up by the fully-automated system Respondus uses, and it could be flagged as cheating. This can make me anxious about my environment and not knowing if I’ve been flagged because someone was talking to their friend a decibel too loud.

Sometimes, I will take my exams in my dorm room as well. One of the various steps that must be followed before completing an exam with Respondus Monitor is to show the “testing environment.” A personal space, such as a dorm room or a bedroom, can be a private space for some people, and forcing a student to show the room can make them feel uncomfortable. 

Take a second to think about the students who do not have any access to a quiet place to take these proctored exams. This places these students at an automatic disadvantage by having a higher chance of being flagged by the system. Some students prefer reading out the questions out loud, and these students are in a perilous position as well. 

Per the Respondus website, “flagged events and proctoring results are available to the instructor for further review.” A professor could be understanding; if not, then a student’s academic standing could be in peril.

Taking an exam should not make people worry about their privacy and be anxious if one minor, insignificant thing they do gets flagged for cheating.

Walker said student concerns for Respondus systems have “mostly been limited to technical support issues.”

This anxiety could be worse for people with disabilities. Those with nystagmus, a condition of involuntary eye movements, and Tourette’s syndrome can be harmed by the system. The automated system Respondus uses could flag this as cheating, even if the person has no control over their actions and is not using any outside resources.

This brings up the question of equity in Respondus’ systems. Unfortunately, not everyone has the tools to be judged fairly in the eyes of Respondus Monitor. Not everyone has a stable and strong internet connection, not everyone has a quiet space to take a test and not everyone is able-bodied enough to take a proctored quiz without fear of an emotionless algorithm thinking they are cheating just because they cannot control their eyes.

Equity and inclusiveness should be a cornerstone of every single college’s mission to give their students the best education and experience possible. Inclusivity is one of Ball State’s “Enduring Values,” according to the University’s current strategic plan. Respondus Monitor does not fit in the mold of our university’s model to be inclusive for all, so why are we still using it to the detriment of our students? 

When asked if Ball State had alternatives for Respondus Monitor if student are uncomfortable using the software, Walker said “faculty members have multiple options to administer quizzes and tests beyond utilizing the Lockdown Browser and Respondus Monitor. These options include, but are not limited to, Canvas quizzes, in-class tests directly proctored by the faculty member, and take-home tests.”

Does test proctoring software work? A research study at the University of Twente in the Netherlands sought to answer that question. Using another popular test proctoring software, Proctorio, the study found that out of the 30 students in the experiment, including six instructed to cheat in various ways, none of them were flagged by the system. Even though this was an experimental survey and more research needs to be done with test monitoring software, this rate is very concerning for a program made to stop students cheating online.

Americans are now more concerned than ever about their privacy. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found 28 percent of respondents believe privacy to mean “other people and organizations not being able to access their possessions or private life.” Naturally, there is a discussion if test proctoring software like Respondus Lockdown Browser and Monitor invade someone’s privacy. In August 2022, a federal judge in the Northern District delivered a big blow to test proctoring; it was unconstitutional to scan a student’s room before taking a virtual test, citing the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable search and seizures.”  

What does Respondus do with the recordings? Per their terms of use, the recordings “are controlled by your Institution … Respondus Monitor may analyze the recordings through automated processes to generate additional data derived from the recordings.” This data is not saved on the cloud and cleared from the server no later than two days after the test. 

Some schools discouraged using these remote proctoring websites. In May 2022, Purdue University released a statement advising faculty to use “alternative assessment strategies,” noting some students may not have access to a webcam, and “requiring the purchase of additional materials not specified in the class description or original syllabus opens up a host of concerns.”

What should we do now in the world of post-in-person testing? There are many alternatives, however we must make testing accessible and switch to open-note exams. 

I propose an open-note exam where students can use research such as their notes and their class textbooks. By making the switch to open-note exams, we can decrease student’s test anxiety and encourage them to take notes that engage the student with the class content instead of blindly writing down words. A preliminary study in the Journal of Effective Teaching in 2016 found that open-book testing could be more useful than closed-book testing and enhancing student learning. The world is changing, and how we test students must change with the times as well.

I do not want to see a student be in a position where they could be considered to be cheating due to factors beyond their control. We must put test proctoring software in the past.

Contact Grayson Joslin with comments at or on Twitter @GraysonMJoslin.


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