Friday, August 31, 2012

Cheating Scandal at Harvard: You are not Going to Believe What the Students are Saying.

By now, you have probably heard about the cheating scandal at Harvard, where nearly half of a class consisting of 279 students have been accused of cheating.  The New York Times has a new article on the scandal, which includes the reactions of students in the class.  Their comments are unbelievable.

Apparently, the students took the course because it had a reputation as an easy course.  After the course was over, the students complained that the class and the exam were not easy.  (Remember, this is Harvard.)

The article states, "Harvard students suspected in a major cheating scandal said on Friday that many of the accusations are based on innocent — or at least tolerated — collaboration among students, and with help from graduate-student teachers who sometimes gave them answers to test questions."   "The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years."  However, "Instructions on the final exam said, 'students may not discuss the exam with others.' Students said that consulting with the fellows on exams was commonplace, that the fellows generally did not turn students away, and that the fellows did not always understand the questions, either."

Similarly, "An accused sophomore said that in working on exams, 'everybody went to the T.F.’s and begged for help. Some of the T.F.’s really laid it out for you, as explicit as you need, so of course the answers were the same.'  He said that he also discussed test questions with other students, which he acknowledged was prohibited, but he maintained that the practice was widespread and accepted."  The students also stated, "The exam instructions said it was “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” Some students asked whether there was a fundamental contradiction between telling students to use online resources, but not to discuss the test with each other."  Finally, one student complained, "'They’re threatening people’s futures,' said a student who graduated in May. 'Having my degree revoked now would mean I lose my job.'”

I have seen this before.  In one of my classes, I caught two students who had turned in almost the same papers on a legal writing assignment.  After the Honor Council found them guilty, they came to see me.  They said that collaboration like this was common in undergraduate school.  They also asked if I couldn't do "something."  I told them I couldn't, that this kind of conduct wasn't tolerated in law school.  The Dean upheld the Honor Council verdict.  The students were given Fs in my course, and they had to take it again.  They also were put on probation for the rest of law school, and they had to tell prospect employers why they had received an F in legal writing for five years.

What bothers me the most about these former students of mine and the Harvard students is that they don't understand what education is about.  The most important part of college and law school is learning--learning about the world, learning how to reason, and learning how to be critical.  Students who cheat may get good grades, but they get little out of their university or law school.  Later in life, they will have to turn to cheating again because they will lack the skills to do their job or make it in life.  I feel sorry for those who do not understand the joys of learning.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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