Thursday, August 30, 2012

Academic Dishonesty Cases

I have a bunch of half-written blog posts, none of which I have felt pressed to finish, so the blog has languished over the summer.  But then, something has come up worth writing about.

The Harvard Gazette has an article up about a cheating scandal at Harvard;  apparently, in a large class last spring, a large number of students worked together on the final exam.  The first two paragraphs read:
The Harvard College Administrative Board is investigating allegations that a significant number of students enrolled in an undergraduate course last semester may have inappropriately collaborated on answers, or plagiarized their classmates’ responses, on the final exam for the course.
An initial investigation by the board, the faculty committee charged with interpreting and applying the rules of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the undergraduate student body, touched off a comprehensive review of the more than 250 take-home final exams submitted at the end of the course. That review has resulted in cases before the Administrative Board involving nearly half the students in the class.
This is reminiscent of other past scandals (MIT, Duke) and general trends found in examining academic dishonesty (Stanford, MIT).

There's not much information out there right now on this story -- Harvard has not even released what class is involved.  There aren't that many classes with an enrollment > 250, so it might not be too hard to piece together;  I imagine some newspapers will find out soon enough.  (Update:  The Crimson tweets that the class is Introduction to Congress.)

There are a number of ways to look at this story, and I imagine I might write a few posts on it.  One issue is the fallout for the students.  Harvard has a very tough policy on academic dishonesty compared to other schools, from what I've heard.  A standard punishment is that students are required to withdraw for one year for cases of plagiarism.  "Improper collaboration" is perhaps a bit fuzzier an issue, and I am not sure how the Ad Board will choose to handle it.  But it will certainly be a stressful and trying time for all involved as it gets sorted out, and for those with more severe punishments, well afterwards.  I note that it's not just the students who have to deal with the stress of it all;  it also takes the toll on the administrators who have to administer these decisions.

Are Harvard's remedies for academic dishonesty too strict?  These are the rules of the Faculty, and we could change them.  Is withdrawal for 1 year for standard cases suitable?  I've heard many arguments (generally from students) that that is too harsh a sentence;  on the other hand, it's meant to strongly deter what should be (but doesn't seem to be) a rare transgression.  It's an interesting issue to consider, and I'd enjoy hearing reasoned views in the comments.

Interestingly, there's been a lot on higher-up academic dishonesty of various sorts of late, most notably Fareed Zakaria (Yale Daily Newsone of many Shots in the Dark Posts) and Niall Ferguson (Brad DeLong's blog,one of many Shots in the Dark posts).  So these topics seem ripe for larger-scale discussion.    


Rob said...

My experience is that academic dishonesty is more prevalent at Harvard than my undergrad school. This might be more of a difference of years than universities (or just personal bias), but I think it might also be related to the emphasis put on formal signs of achievement at a highly selective school. It's also true that in a school where the average grade is a B+, minor differences in scores can easily and somewhat randomly shift a grade between a B+ and an A, creating additional pressure to grab at every point.

I don't really buy either that relaxing consequences to cheating or that tightening up rules on cheating will help. Relaxing the consequences just increases the advantages cheaters have over those who don't. And most attempts at tightening the rules make students unnecessarily concerned about citing outside reading, or they stifle discussion between students or between students and teaching fellows.

Maybe the answer is to deemphasize grading altogether, and just move to a pass/fail system with high standards for passing. With grade inflation, it's more or less what occurs in practice anyway: how much actual difference in understanding is there between your B+ and A students anyway? Especially taking into account that some of that difference is due to cheating, or course load, or personal problems, or whatever, I'd guess that those differences in letter grades are close to meaningless.

Harvard used to have a system like this: in 1895, Harvard started grading classes with “"Failed",” "“Passed",” and "“Passed with Distinction."” Maybe it's time to bring it back.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, there was a similar academic dishonesty situation at Harvard. (A few dozen students set up a Facebook group for collaborating during in-class exams, exams where collaboration had been explicitly and repeatedly forbidden by the instructors.) The instructors decided to ignore the issue, though they had collected evidence in the form of screenshots of the entire history of the Facebook group.

The current situation is ideal. Harvard's hardline stance against academic dishonesty is just one side of the coin. On the flip side, individual faculty have the tacit choice whether or not to ignore the issue. If they decide to bury it, they bury it --- if they decide to "bring the hammer down", they do so with the total and active support of the institution. Obviously in the latter case, the transgressing students' punishment must be deterrent (hence very harsh), and also punitive enough to overwhelmingly set the non-transgressing students far ahead of their cheating "peers".