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Feb 06 2013

Harvard Govt. Students Prep for Careers in Congress

A staggering one percent of Harvard undergrads have been caught up in a cheating scandal and forced to withdraw from the university, at least temporarily. But given the subject matter of the class they were cheating in, it seems to me like they aced the final exam:

Approximately one percent of Harvard’s undergraduate body was forced to temporarily withdraw from the College last fall, largely in connection with the massive Government 1310 cheating scandal, Harvard indicated in an announcement Friday morning.

In an email sent to the Harvard community, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith wrote that “somewhat more than half” of cases heard by the College’s Administrative Board last fall resulted in forced withdrawals…

About 125 of the cases heard by the Ad Board last fall were those of students implicated in the scandal, which was unearthed after assistant professor Matthew B. Platt reported suspicious similarities on a handful of take-home exams in his spring course Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress.”

After this initial tip-off, the College launched an investigation that eventually expanded to involve almost half of the 279 students enrolled in the course.

What better introduction could they possibly get to Congress than a cheating scandal? They’re much better prepared for a career in politics than the students who didn’t cheat.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Synfandel

    If they’re collaborating constructively on the exam, they’re not suited to be in Congress.

  2. 2
    Kevin

    How can you cheat on a take-home exam?

    Seriously…I don’t get it. To me, a take-home exam is about demonstrating that you have the knowledge and skills to marshal the appropriate resources to answer the questions appropriately. If that means getting a group of students together from the class to do crowd-source research — well, that to my mind says “YIPPEE!” not “Uh oh”.

    Even if half the class gave a unified answer to a problem or set of problems, that just means that half the class worked together. FSM knows we need more of that “working together” stuff in Congress.

  3. 3
    slc1

    They’re much better prepared for a career in politics than the students who didn’t cheat.

    Tsk, tsk, such cynicism.

  4. 4
    John Hinkle

    I’m going to guess they were all liberals. Conservatives wouldn’t cheat, what with their “values” and stuff.

  5. 5
    Brandon

    How can you cheat on a take-home exam?

    I’d guess (although I don’t know for sure) that the students were instructed to work independently on the test, not collaboratively.

  6. 6
    Modusoperandi

    Hardly.
    If they’d actually learned anything about Congress, half the class would’ve worked together to prevent the other half of the class from accomplishing anything.

  7. 7
    AsqJames

    “I’m going to guess they were all liberals.”

    Not just liberals, they’re obviously East coast, Harvard educated, academic, elitist liberals!

  8. 8
    heddle

    I tell my faculty:

    If you give a take home exam, there is a good chance you will be in my office telling me that you think there was collaboration. That will automatically trigger a process that will consume much time and emotion. So here is a bit of advice: do not give take-home exams!

  9. 9
    d.c.wilson

    Obviously, this particular take home exam was about the House. If it had been about the Senate, one student would have held up the rest from handing in their exams.

  10. 10
    laurentweppe

    What better introduction could they possibly get to Congress than a cheating scandal? They’re much better prepared for a career in politics than the students who didn’t cheat.

    They got caught: clearly, they’re not qualified enough

  11. 11
    Marcus Ranum

    do not give take-home exams!

    I suppose one could give a take-home exam to the entire class and tell them, “collaborate all you like. Since this is going to be a team effort I expect a masterpiece of a response – publication-worthy, brilliant, incisive, and well-written. And, if it’s not, you’re all going to get a D.”

  12. 12
    jamessweet

    I’m sort of with Kevin… A take-home exam can be a valid and good thing, but only if it’s the type of exam (as per Marcus Ranum) that it doesn’t really matter if students collaborate, because they are going to have to demonstrate comprehensive mastery and unique insights. If it’s a take-home exam and the problem is “they all had the same answers”, I think the problem is in the exam format more than with the students..

    (I suppose one could make the argument that students should have the integrity that you can give them a take-home exam and instruct them not to collaborate and they will comply, but I dunno, that just sort of seems like weak tea to me… It’s like saying, “This test is open book, but please do not use the book to find answers.” Um, so why is it open book? And why is this exam a take-home exam? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense…)

  13. 13
    M can help you with that.

    It’s like saying, “This test is open book, but please do not use the book to find answers.” Um, so why is it open book?

    Well, in physics at least, “open-book exam” means “trap set by a sadistic professor for the naive”. Having the information doesn’t help much unless you also have a pretty decent mastery of the subject and just need to fill in a detail. Give me three pages of condensed notes over 500 pages of textbook any (exam) day…

    I seem to have drifted off topic.

  14. 14
    eric

    @2, @5, and @12 – even with a collaborative take-home exam, there are probably ways to tell cheating (i.e. outright copying) from collaboration. Think of the idea of “non-coding inherited DNA sequences” but applied to papers. If two people work together, you would expect their overall content to match but you still wouldn’t expect their exact word choice and typos to match. I had something similar happen to me in college – my lab partner outright copied from my book. Same data? Not a flag, we did the experiment together. Same experimental result? Same – not a flag, completely expected. Same exact wording? Flag.

  15. 15
    monimonika

    Not much to do with cheating, but I once took a course in Chinese Ancient History (so… many… dynasties…!) and the professor gave us a choice of whether to have the final exam as open-book or not. A lot of my classmates were leaning toward open book but I single-handily pressured them to not having the open book. The non-open book questions would be more focused on general memory of events rather than in-depth questions seeking research paper-length answers, I argued.

    My vehemence that day resulted in a lot of my classmates (even the professor!) giving me a wide berth later on. Also, I did well on the final. :-D

  16. 16
    jameshanley

    Eric at 14 has it exactly right. I give take home exams in some classes, and I know I can’t stop them from working out answers together, so I don’t even worry about that. I’m not sure it’s even really a concern, since as monimonika notes, more is expected from a take home than an in-class exam, so I expect them to work harder anyway. But turning in identical work is the kiss of death. Brainstorm together, collaborate in analyzing the question and figuring out the answer by all means; it’s part of the learning process. But write your own answer or I’ll write you up and report you.

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