Friday, August 31, 2012

Harvard Says 125 Students May Have Cheated on a Final Exam. NYTimes.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard University revealed Thursday what could be its largest cheating scandal in memory, saying that about 125 students might have worked in groups on a take-home final exam despite being explicitly required to work alone.

The accusations, related to a single undergraduate class in the spring semester, deal with “academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism,” the administration said in a note sent to students.

Officials said that nearly half of the more than 250 students in the class were under investigation by the Harvard College Administrative Board and that if they were found to have cheated, they could be suspended for a year. The students have been notified that they are suspected and will be called to give their accounts in investigative hearings.

“This is unprecedented in its scope and magnitude,” said Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education.

FULL MISERY.

34 comments:

  1. A take home final exam and there is a question of cheating!

    Ya think this was the best way to conduct a final?

    What the Hell did they THINK was gonna happen?

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  3. Apparently part of the problem was at least one badly-written question, but that's no excuse (and could easily have been solved, with everyone getting the same additional oral guidance, in a proctored in-class exam).

    While I've given take-home exams on occasion (and, yes, had cheating problems; one has to construct them very carefully), I just don't see any excuse for doing so at Harvard. We're talking about a school with 99% residential, 99% full-time students. And the professor has TAs to proctor if he has another commitment (which he really shouldn't, but conferences are sometimes badly scheduled). Yes, it's nice not to have to decipher students' handwriting, but I'm sure there will be a way around that problem soon (probably some sort of computer exam room, with all internet resources except those peculiar to the exam blocked).

    Like Bob, I think the responsibility has to be shared here.

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    1. So then it's find who these 125 people are, collect them, then send the rats to slave forever in Siberia, along with the professor who concocted the test, the Dean, and the school mascot.

      When can we begin?

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    2. You'll need a crane for the school mascot; to the best of my knowledge, it's the multi-ton statue of John Harvard sitting in Harvard Yard.

      I'm not sure who the relevant Dean is, but please leave Drew Gilpin Faust alone. She's not perfect, but we need all the powerful university presidents who are actually practicing (and highly competent) humanists we can get right now. On the other hand, if you happen to accidentally include Lawrence Summers in the press-gang, you won't hear any complaints from me.

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    3. "You'll need a crane for the school mascot; to the best of my knowledge, it's the multi-ton statue of John Harvard sitting in Harvard Yard."

      Then we will hack it to pieces and rebuild it as a giant statue of Antonio Gramsci, like how Y. Belopolsky took the ruins of the Neue Reichskanzlerei and built from them the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park.

      Summers will be forged to carry a lead box with the remains of Ayn Rand. Happy now?

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    4. Sounds like a plan. I'd join you, but I'm busy running my own required-comp-course forced-labor camp (or so some of my students seem to think. I think it was that business of actually doing some work the first day of class).

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    5. "Summers will be forged to carry a lead box with the remains of Ayn Rand. Happy now?"

      Having attended a few funerals of late, I believe the neologism in current usage is "cremains."

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  4. Take-home exams, done properly, are not a lazy substitute for in-class exams: it's a completely different exercise, intended to test analytic skill and mastery of course concepts rather than information retention and rapid-fire-BS productivity.

    Take-home exams can be graded at a much higher standard, and are much more realistic as far as the kind of work people do in the world.

    Yes, cheating can be an issue, as with any essay assignment. As with essay assignments, questions that are particular to the sources and themes of the course, rather than general, and careful reading are enough to prevent most, and catch a lot of cheating.

    Mass cheating? That's social pathology.

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    1. Agreed. It sounds like this proffie was using 4 take-home exams as a lazy, rather than a carefully-thought-out, route to grading, presumably so he could spend his time publishing rather than perishing, though actually an assistant professor at Harvard should, realistically, be thinking ahead to what other equally or almost-equally prestigious institution he might work for after he doesn't get tenure at Harvard, since that's generally how it works.

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  5. While I am certain there is more cheating on take home exams, isn't the whole point of "integrity" or "honor" being that you do the right thing even when no one is looking? I went to school at a SLAC that had an Honor Code so there were never any proctors in the room during exams. The Prof was down the hall in his/her office if you needed to ask a question. I took it very seriously and yes, some people took advantage. Some research shows that there is actually less cheating at colleges with an Honor Code than at colleges with "forced" proctoring and no honor code.

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    1. I, too, have seen this work -- but several decades ago. Still, it's the model I prefer.

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    2. Harvard is not an "honor code" school. They've got the same quasi-legal CYA handbook everyone else does, plus several layers of judicial mumbo-jumbo to insulate income generating investments (aka "undergraduates") from consequences (and the university from students' parent's lawyers.)

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    3. Indeed. It also means they have proctored exams (with paid proctors, I'm pretty sure, so the prof really had no excuse). It's not my favorite system, but it does mean the professor had the option to administer a much more trustworthy exam. Of course, I'm also wondering why he didn't assign some actual papers, and who knows who would have actually written those. But the students who did write them would learn something from the experience, and I care about that as much as about preventing cheating. It just doesn't sound like a well-taught course, given the options and support he had available. But the students still shouldn't have cheated.

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  6. Shocking news, students cheat.
    I am exceedingly skeptical about honor codes. They may work in the sense of students snitching on each other, not really making anyone not cheat if the opportunity presents and he is sure he's not going to get caught.
    After a couple of bad experiences, I decided never to grade anything not done in front of me -- I do give credit for completion, thou. This reduces cheating and, most sweetly, marking. There is only so much that a student can write in the time of an exam.

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    1. Actually, I'd say that students take to following the code better themselves than they do to turning each other in. That seems to be the sticking point for many of them (even, in one case I encountered, a student whose work was stolen; she "didn't want to get anyone in trouble.")

      Your approach would be hard to follow in the upper-level writing classes I teach. But if somebody were to give me a reasonable load (rather than the 4/4 load I teach now), I might institute an on-campus final exam worth a decent percentage of the grade (and wait to release grades for the big final project until I'd had a chance to grade the exams, and double-check any final projects that didn't seem in line with exam results).

      On the other hand, even with a humane load, I'm just not sure it's my job to keep them from cheating themselves out of an education.

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  7. Doesn't an Honor Code only work if students have honor? How many students do we know who have what we would call real honor?

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    1. I suspect that a fairly high percentage of mine do, though some of them do stupid/dishonorable things when feeling overwhelmed, and they do tend to get/feel overwhelmed. An ever larger percentage are pragmatic enough to be afraid of being caught, so brandishing threats like plagiarism checkers (however primitive those may be) often helps prevent cheating.

      The next question, at least for me, is whom they're hurting when they act dishonorably, and whether we're responsible to those people. In most cases, the first victim is the student him/herself. As I said above, I do not hold myself responsible for keeping them from depriving themselves of the educations for which they and/or their parents have paid. They're adults; that's not my problem (I'll call 911 if it seems likely that they're about to thrown themselves off a building, but, in a system with 2nd and 3rd and 4th systems, there's really no such thing as academic suicide; it's more like academic self-injury, from which they'll have a chance to recover, and, I hope, learn). We also have a duty to other students and to the larger society, of course, but, since cheating, at least in my experience, rarely results in better-than-mediocre grades (usually work about as good as the student could have done if (s)he had buckled down and done it), I'm not sure that is a major consideration.

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    2. You're right: I get cynical about the few who outright lie and cheat with no regard for honor and then paint them all with the same shame-smeared brush. I do have a few students I'd deem honorable, but don't only deem "honesty" a characteristic that makes one honorable.

      I need to remember that when they cheat, they are really cheating themselves, and most likely, they aren't the top tier of students doing so. Thanks for the balanced perspective. I can always count on you for that and appreciate it.

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    3. Well, either I'm balanced and realistic about doing my best in a less-than-ideal situation, or I'm lazy, insufficiently dedicated to my students' educations and/or the general welfare of society, and skilled at coming up for justifications of same. My own opinion varies considerably over time.

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  8. Surely this could not have happened at Harvard, alma mater of the young woman who plagiarized a novel.

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  9. A couple of students cheating is something you can blame on the students. 125 students cheating is about something else; whether it is institutional attitudes, grade grubbing gone wild, or bad instructions from the prof.

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    1. I also put D, but I looked at Ahistoricality's paper to make sure it was right.

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  10. The students have begun giving interviews, discussing the wildly inconsistent exam instructions, variations from TA to Lecturer, and terrible question design.

    I agree that plagiarism needs to be openly rebuked, punished, and prevented whenever possible. But when about half your class is accused of plagiarism, there is something wrong with the instructions. Especially when the plagiarism comes from collaboration -- perhaps 10% of the class can be malicious in their attempts to cheat, but 125 kids? Out of a class of 279? That course was broken. I don't know who broke it, but it was broken.

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    1. I'm not a political scientist, so perhaps I'm not qualified to judge, but I read the exam (the Boston Globe has it, among others) and it looked like pseudoscientific crap from end to end, including several questions that seem to assume a certain faux-moderate political perspective and blithely unwarranted assumptions.

      I wonder how much of the "cheating" comes from students trying to ape back the language of the instructor and sources, in order to hit the obviously laid out marks.

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    2. @ahistoricality: Can you share a link to the exam? I didn't see it in the Globe.

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    3. Thanks.
      Now if I could just figure out how to save it as a .doc file. This would be a great exam to use in my Intro to Hamster Legislative Fur class next semester. That would save me a lot of time.

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    4. Can't help you with the file stuff. But you're saying that this is a legitimate, coherent set of questions for Intro to Congress or something similar? It makes sense? It looked pretty weak to me....

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    5. @ahistoricality: I was kidding.

      My favorite two sentences in the exam:
      "Please place your last name in the file name. For example, 'Platt Exam.docx'."

      I rolled my eyes when I saw that. I once did something like that and had lots of students submit exams that were labeled "Bubba Exam" instead of "Susie Q Exam." As if I don't know who I am.

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  11. Here's the thing I can't wrap my brain around: cheating is cheating is cheating. You can have a bad instructor, a bad exam, etc., but that doesn't excuse dishonesty. Why not go en masse to the department chair? And then, if you get no traction, the Dean? And then the media? Or a lawyer? Why not organize a class boycott of the exam? A lot of this smacks of excuse-making.

    The only way I can swallow this is if the students didn't cheat after all. But if they did, no amount of wrong on the instructor's or institution's part makes it right. It may be symptomatic of something, but it isn't right.

    Sorry to get all preachy, but I'm trying to raise a kid over here, and I keep repeating things like, "It doesn't matter if someone else does it first/someone has let you down/you are angry or feel wronged/it's an unfair situation -- you still need to do the right thing." It feels like shouting into the wind.

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    1. I *completely* agree.

      Plus, 125 students have been ACCUSED, not found guilty. Is this still accurate?

      And what exactly is "inappropriate collaboration" in this case? If they just discussed the questions with one another to see what the instructor meant, I would not count that as cheating. To me, cheating would entail similar answers, especially similar wrong answers. You know, WILDLY wrong in such a way that you suspect collaboration.

      It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

      And, sadly, I am not shocked to see certain members of the CM mob start accusing another proffie of being a bad teacher because obviously their shit doesn't stink. Let's be serious here... I am betting we've all pulled a few stinkers now and again. I am grateful mine didn't make the news.

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    2. The good news is that there's real (as in scientific) evidence to suggest that the kid is internalizing your voice as part of hir own conscience, no matter how improbable that may seem. As we all know from dealing with students whose political and/or religious beliefs are pretty extreme (and often quite different from our own), a surprising number even of late adolescents will, at least when their parents aren't in earshot, embrace and defend the values they learned at home.

      And thank you! If I ever have your kid in my class, that may help make up for the father who called me up at home to harangue and just-short-of-threaten me after I turned in his daughter for plagiarism. No, I no longer give students my phone number; at the time, I was trying to make up for being an adjunct by being as available as possible in a pre-email era.

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