If You Give a Student the Internet, Examining the widespread cheating scandal at Harvard

If you were given a take-home final exam for which you were allowed to use both your notes and the Internet (in case you didn’t quite get that the first time, I said Internet), would your first instinct be to cheat and collaborate with others on answers?  Mine wouldn’t be, and I don’t even go to Harvard.

Recently, a number of students – a little less than half of a 279-member class – at Harvard were accused of being a part of a massive cheating scandal on a final exam and were set to have their cases meticulously reviewed to ascertain whether or not they really were a involved  Of the students accused, about seventy students from the class were forced out and asked to leave Harvard. This event is unfortunate for the students and mars Harvard’s otherwise virtually untarnished reputation for academic integrity. At some universities, this might not be such a big story; at Harvard, which typically expels about seventeen students every year for academic dishonesty, it is nothing less than a scandal. And this scandal, in my mind, raises some very important questions.

First, why would they do this?  Second, to what extent are the heads of the class, the professor and the teaching fellows, responsible for the collaboration that occurred? You might think that the answer to that second one is a no brainer: of course the administration isn’t responsible. However, when you look a little deeper, the answer starts to gray a bit.

I’ll start with my first question. When I initially heard about this incident, I was painfully confused. There was no possible motive, in my mind – and I would hope in everyone’s mind – to risk my college education, the culmination of my life’s work thus far, just to do a bit better on a final exam. What’s more, it was a take-home exam. That means you can take it home with you and use whatever resources you want to use, short of your classmates, to take the test. It’s not even as if the professor expected the students to take the exam without any outside help. If that were the case, I might be able to wrap my head around this more easily. But when something is take-home, open notebook and open Internet, there’s no logical reason for someone to cheat. But they still did it, they still thought it was worth it. Why?

I think there may an explanation.  From what students reported to news outlets like the New York Times, the class in question had a reputation for being a relatively easy class where attendance was not essential and there was often collaboration. But last year, students said, the class suddenly and inexplicably became markedly more difficult and test questions suddenly became much more challenging to comprehend.

Now, I do not say this in defense of the guilty students’ actions, but it is definitely worth noting that the class had developed this particular reputation. There are always those courses that are known for being easy A’s or a simple way to fulfill one requirement or another. If a course is branded as such, it will often attract students who are uninterested in the subject or who just want an easy way out. If students taking the class with such a mentality were suddenly confronted with a course that was much harder and intensive than they had imagined, I don’t see it as all that surprising that some would cheat. There is an understandable motive, in that respect. That being said, the act of cheating is still wrong, and the right thing to do would have been to tough it out and deal with the difficult workload, but some people aren’t willing to do that.

There is a second aspect to this scandal that is important to examine closely. Since the questions on the test were reportedly much harder to comprehend than they had typically, students often sought help from graduate students, who served as teaching fellows, to clarify the questions. One student who remained unnamed in a Times article, claimed that the reason for similarities between his and other papers was simply a result of them being at the same session with a teaching fellow, and he was indeed able to produce notes to back up his story, notes that ultimately saved him and others from being expelled. If that is true, and I do believe that it is for some of the students, that seriously calls into question whether or not what they did can truly be labeled as cheating. The test’s directions clearly stated that collaboration was forbidden; however, it did not specify if that applied solely to other students or to faculty as well. Regardless of whom those directions applied to, though, the fact remains that the teaching fellows did hold sessions with some students, which could conceivably have led to similar answers on the exam. That should mean that the investigators had to take this into account when they were determining if a student actually cheated or not.

I do think this means that the teaching fellows, and maybe the professor (though it remains very unclear whether or not he assisted students in clarifying questions), bear some degree of responsibility here. What that degree is, I cannot say with any kind of accuracy, since I don’t have nearly enough information about the event.

So, is Harvard’s administration acting too harshly towards the accused students in this case? I will not give a definitive answer, since, as I’ve said, I am not privy to the details of the investigation and the university has not released much information about it. What I will say, however, is that it is certainly possible that some students were unfairly – and unluckily – removed from the school as a result of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can be sure that there are certainly students who really did cheat: The Harvard administration reported reading answers that were identical but for typographical mistakes in various places, which is clear evidence of either cheating or plagiarism.  But those people, the obviously guilty ones, are not those we should be concerned with.  The real problem lies in discerning how much of the gray area is white and how much of it is black: which of the possibly guilty ones are guilty and which are innocent.

I will say one thing about the people who were caught sharing exact answers to cheat on their Introduction to Congress final exam: if they keep it up, we may make congressmen of them yet. •

1 Comment

  1. A large problem with this issue is due to the increasing pressures of academic success that are placed upon the shoulders of undergraduates in this day and age. A poor grade potentially means parental punishment or could hold consequences for a student further down the road (internships, jobs, careers). Especially at an institution like Harvard these pressures are magnified creating more stress for students. This is not the first nor last time a student was or will be caught cheating at Harvard (Ted Kennedy, former US Senator was caught as well). Kennedy, under tremendous pressure to meet his family’s high expectations, decided it would benefit him to cheat on an exam. Clearly, it is not okay to cheat, but one has to be concerned with the amount of pressure students feel day in and day out during college life. Although you might not fit this assertion Baer ; ) and I’m not sure if I appreciated that last quip about congressmen……..

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