Friday, August 31, 2012

I Thought Harvard People Were Supposed to be Smart

Breathless news reports today are informing us about a large-scale cheating scandal at the hallowed Harvard University. It seems that a significant percentage of students in a class of over 250 undergraduates are accused of collaborating with one another on a take-home exam this past spring. The administration is appropriately exercised about this betrayal of "trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends." Students, if found guilty, face punishments as potentially severe as being asked to leave the University for up to one year.

Serious stuff, indeed. But I have to ask: Aren't Harvard professors supposed to be, you know, kind of smart? Do they truly believe that on a take home final exam - a high-stakes test in an already high stakes environment, done during a time of year when students have several other such tests to take - that some students would not be looking for some extra help, or a shortcut, or some other advantage??? Yes, the students, if guilty, violated a universal academic code, but how can anyone be so naive as to be surprised about this?

As much as it runs counter to so many nice character traits and Rabbinic maxims of judging people favorably and all, I always assume that there will be someone who tries to take advantage of every system. We ask a lot of our students at every level of education. My students are in school from 8 until 4:40, then try to cram in homework, projects, studying, sports teams, dance practice, and untold hours of texting and web surfing - all while getting a decent night's sleep. Eventually something has to give, and if students feel that some of their work is mere busy work or that they cannot figure why they should be motivated to do their own work, you better believe that they are going to "collaborate."

I have found two antidotes to potential cheating- one technical and one substantive. The technical one is actually a technological one. As my students do more and more work online, I can now see when work was submitted and, in some cases such as work done on a Googledoc, I can track all of the edits. This avails me of much more knowledge about the students' progress and process than if I would simply ask them to hand something in, and the fact that they know what I know sometimes serves as a deterrent to the more blatant forms of cheating. Not perfect - I believe that every system can be gamed - but not a bad start.

The real antidote is in the type of work that I assign. The easier it is to simply spit back material, the easier it is to cheat without too much fear of being caught. However, as students are asked to be more creative, analytical, and original, they realize that their work is going to stand out and similarities to another's work will be painfully obvious. Can they still get around this system - yes, but it is much, much harder to do so.

So, yes, the Harvard cheating scandal is awful and horrible and all of that, but it should not be a surprise to anyone. The real question is what type of test the professor had given and what had he or she done to increase the chances that students would be more concerned with intellectual inquiry than with simply getting the work done and over with.

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