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Should Students who cheated at Harvard be Rewarded or Punished?

Students Disciplined in Harvard Scandal

You may have read last week that Harvard has forced dozens of students to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory but the institution would not address assertions that the blame rested partly with a professor and his teaching assistants. The issue is whether cheating is truly cheating when students collaborate with each other to find the right answer – in a take-home final exam.

Harvard released the results of its investigation into the controversy, in which 125 undergraduates were alleged to have cheated on an exam in May 2012. The university said more than half of the students were forced to withdraw, a penalty that typically lasts from two to four semesters. Of the remaining cases, about half were put on disciplinary probation—a strong warning that becomes part of a student's official record. The rest of the students avoided a punishment.

In previous years, students called Government 1310 an easy class with optional attendance and frequent collaboration. But students who took it last spring said that it had suddenly become quite difficult, with tests that were hard to comprehend, so they sought help from the graduate students who ran the class discussion groups and graded assignments. Those teaching fellows, they said, readily advised them on interpreting exam questions. (It seems to me the actions of the teaching assistants in prompting student understanding of test questions to prepare for the exam were a blatant violation of academic honesty).  

Administrators said that on final-exam questions, some students supplied identical answers, down to, in some cases, typographical errors, indicating that they had written them together or plagiarized them. But some students claimed that the similarities in their answers were due to sharing notes or sitting in on sessions with the same teaching fellows. The instructions on the take-home exam explicitly prohibited collaboration, but many students said they did not think that included talking with teaching fellows.  

The first page of the exam contained the instructions: "The exam is completely open book, open note, open internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others—this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc. (Did the ‘etc.’ mean teaching fellows?).

Students complained about confusing questions on the final exam. Due to "some good questions" from students, the instructor clarified three exam questions by email before the due date of the exams.

Students who spoke to the New York Times said that collaboration was widely thought to be allowed in the course. The class’s teaching fellows—graduate students who graded the exams and ran weekly discussion sessions—varied widely in how they prepared students for the exams, so it was common for students in different sections to share lecture notes and reading materials. The course’s instructor and the teaching fellows sometimes encouraged collaboration. During the final exam, some fellows even worked with students to define unfamiliar terms and help them figure out what, exactly, certain test questions were asking.

Some have questioned whether it is the test’s design, rather than the students’ conduct, that should be criticized. This is a good point because test questions were unclear and needed to be clarified while the exam was in process. This would never occur in an in-class exam. Others place the blame on teaching assistants who opened the door to collaboration outside of class by their own behavior in helping students to better understand the questions.

The Harvard cheating scandal is not black or white from an ethical perspective. One way to evaluate it is by examining the behavior and actions of the stakeholders. The instructor is partly to blame because unclear questions had to be clarified and that would have have promoted collaboration to better understand just what the instructor’s intentions were.

For the instructor, the students’ collaborative work does make it difficult to assess individual performance—because many people’s answers sounded similar, instructors could not determine who really understood the work and who was merely free-riding. As a professor, this is why when I assign a group project I require oral presentations so I can grade individual effort.

It seems some of the cheating students engaged in rationalizations for their behavior. We hear the test was confusing; collaboration was expected in other areas; and the teaching fellows promoted the idea through their involvement in helping to interpret the questions.

I do think the students violated the rules in this case and should be held accountable for their actions. However, there were mitigating circumstances not the least of which was from the teaching assistants who seemed to work with those students who came forward asking for help to interpret information and develop responses to test questions.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the Harvard cheating scandal is we, in academe, need a new approach to evaluating the benefits and potential harms of collaboration. It can be a great teaching tool and mirrors collaborative effort in the workplace. Test questions in a collaborative enivornment can better assess analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills, two skills essential for success in today's workplace.

The level playing field argument is key in evaluating the use and purpose of student collaboration. Academic integrity is at stake. Collaborative effort may impair fairness in the grading process unless collaboration is expected of all students. Otherwise, those who “play by the rules” may receive lower grades because they worked individually while those who shared information may benefit from such an approach.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 8, 2013