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Harvard is facing intense scrutiny this week in the face of a cheating scandal that involves at least 125 students (half the class contingent) who are under suspicion for collaborating on a final take-home exam in, of all courses, one on the U.S. Congress.  The teaching assistant found disturbingly similar answers on multiple exams.  Although the TAs graded the exam, the class was taught by a prof who gave a take-home exam that included, in the directions on the exam itself, the statement that students should not collaborate.  The 125 under suspicion may or may not have broken this rule, but certainly there was enough suspicion that the university saw fit to review all the exams in the class.  

Harvard does not actually have an honor code or a similar statement.  I am surprised at this.  My university does not, but we do have a "Student Conduct Code" which does define both academic and social transgressions.  While an honor code such as the one at my undergraduate college does specify more clearly the moral element of "do not cheat" and deals more carefully with "you are responsible for confronting and turning in someone else you know is cheating" it still seems to me that Harvard (just as the military academies) would have students who are capable and not reliant on shortcuts and ones who would be responsible enough to stop the cheating at the beginning, rather than let it fester and permeate a whole class.  It isn't as if half the class got together and said "let's work on this together" but it does seem that no student in the class brought the collaboration to the attention of authorities; it only showed up in the suspicions of the TA.  

That TA is the hero of this story for me; it takes a lot even for a prof to confront a student with suspicions of cheating.  I know.  I have to do it at least once a semester, largely with plagiarism, and it is always an unpleasant thing.  A TA who gets it wrong and accuses students in error would be in big trouble.  

I took self-scheduled exams as an undergrad (you took the exams at set times as you were ready for them) and one take-home.  I remember sitting on my bed working on that awful Psych thing.  I knew nothing about the material after a full semester at it.  But it was my first semester and I was in awe of having an "honor code."  Of course, I don't think it would have occurred to me to cheat anyway.  What teaches a student to cheat?  I do remember lying, to my mother and my Girl Scout leader, as well as to friends.  Never about anything really important, or at least anything that was important to me, that I remember.  But that is to say that I was by no means a perfect child, or even I guess a perfect adult.  

But cheating is something different, to me.  And it never occurred to me to collaborate, even when I was in a different academic setting.  You were not competing, working to learn content, and if you didn't learn it you were failing yourself.  This sounds as if it were a large (250 student) basic required class (the class included both freshmen and final-semester seniors, if the statement by the university that they don't know if they are going to revoke diplomas from graduates is anything to go by).  So perhaps students didn't care about the quality of their work.  I would say they should care about learning something (government!) just for the sake of learning it, that otherwise they are losing the value of an education, but I am realizing that student ideas of what it means to learn are changing, and although there has been cheating since the beginning of time (and Teddy Kennedy was expelled from Harvard for two years for cheating!), I think some of the reasons behind it change.

I wonder if my students value knowing things for the sake of knowing them.  They have their phones (and, just an aside, when a prof says "turn off your phones when you come to class" and you still have your phone on and are texting through class, don't act surprised or as if you are doing nothing wrong when the prof asks you whether you have your phone on!  You were asked to turn it off, so do what you are asked to do -- I have specific guidelines for in-classroom distractions on the syllabus which is the contract for the class... arghhh)...  Where was I?  Oh yes.  They have phones and computers and I-pads.  They can access information at any time.  Why do they need to know it if they know how to access it?  

This is an attitude that is disturbing to me, and it is permeating the teaching literature that I am reading these days.  Our job, it seems, is to teach students critical thinking, sometimes without content to be critical about.  The idea of not really knowing something but rather just how to access something is overtaking some of the ideas of what it means to be an informed adult, citizen of the world, whatever catch phrase you want to use.

This idea that process should be the focus rather than content, and that the product will be just as good at the end, is very concerning to me.  That is why I don't want students to do fifty things at once in the class.  I want them to concentrate on the actual material that is being covered.  Yes, I do believe in the primacy of content.  But the actual content has changed -- I insist that they learn how we know something, and what the questions about that evidence are (yes, to a certain extent, that has been shaped by the calls to "teach the controversy" because I do think that reasonable people will come to the conclusion that evolution, for example, is true if they carefully examine the evidence with an open mind).  So I don't teach just facts, but how we learn these facts, and what assumptions scholars have brought to their analysis and how that has affected their conclusions.  But I don't think that my students will be able to analyse something if they don't have the basic framework to call on, and just look up answers on line.  

I realize I have gotten far away from the cheating scandal at Harvard, but I am always trying to figure out how to make assignments harder for my students to cheat at, and more rewarding for them if they do them carefully and meaningfully.  And yes, I do know that the reasons students cheat are myriad.  They cheat because they don't know the material, are panicked and pressured to get a better grade, because they have too much to do and taking a shortcut is too tempting to avoid.  But all of these come back to not knowing the material.  If the teacher is good, the content is well-communicated, and the assignments are reasonable, there really should be no reason to have to cheat.  I can control for the last three, and I can also punish those who take the shortcut of cheating.  I don't really see punishment as a deterrent for others, but I do think it appropriate for the person being caught.  

Your mileage may vary.  What are your experience and thoughts on cheating?  What do you think are the reasons students cheat?

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Sep 01, 2012 at 12:17 PM PDT.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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