Saturday, September 1, 2012

Harvard: Where Elites Meet to Cheat?

Ok, we have far too little information about the cheating scandal at Harvard, but that will not stop me us from wild speculation and much fact-free opining.  Just a few thoughts on some of the issues raised:
  • Take home exams.  Apparently, the students may have collaborated over a take home final exam.  
    • Why assign a take home?  Because, depending on the school's organizational skills, having nearly three hundred students jammed together trying to fill up blue books can be a nightmare.  Plus they are often hardly legible, making grading very hard indeed.
    • But students get in a stag hunt situation--they worry in a take home situation that others will collaborate, which will make it harder for themselves to do well, so they jump and collaborate as well. 
    • I used to have take homes in my big lecture class because I didn't want to figure out a way to have 600 students jammed together, scribbling.  I found that the web learning management system allowed for timed tests.  This ramped up the anxiety on all fronts, including about web problems but also about fears that others would cheat.  I ultimately ditched this and went with papers.
    • Ah, but papers can be co-written/copied/etc. as well, right?  Well, yes.  And when you offer a single topic or two for a paper, then the papers will start to look alike.  When you have six or eight teaching assistants (Hah-vard must call them Teaching Fellows to be snooty), you can get students who cooperated with each other being graded by different people, and this can be a problem.
  • Easy class gone hard.  Changing expectations can lead to quite the backlash.  It is one thing to be known as a hardass or that a course is difficult.  It is another to become one or be seen as one after developing a reputation as a softie.  Being less than clear about standards or changing what cheating means might be a problem here.  But, of course, folks who get caught for cheating rarely blame themselves so the truth can be elusive.
  • Blame the Teaching Assistants.
    • Managing a team of TA's is not easy, and the students will always complain that some are easier than others even if you make sure sure that they produce similar averages/distributions.
    • One way to make sure the TAs grade the same is to give them a "rubric" as it is called here in Canada--a clear guide of what counts and for how much.  One key is NOT to give the rubric to the TAs before the exams are returned.  It is not that the TAs will intended to give away too much, but some will and some will not.  That variation will be trouble.  I have had TAs in the past give too much help and that can be as bad as too little or worse.
    • One question: ten discussion sections for a class of 280?  Twenty eight per?  Where is the Harvard money going?
  • The modern age is confusing: open book, open note, open access to net but no communicating among the students?  Well, to me, that seems not that unusual.  You can get whatever information you want but you cannot collaborate.  
Again, we don't know that much and never will.  The conflicting claims will likely remain conflicting.  Are there better ways to handle such a class?  Perhaps.  But the students interviewed here have a bunch of attitudes that suggest that they are the ones that do not get it.  
"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."
Accepted by whom?  If you do something that is prohibited, then you know that you are not supposed to do it, right?  

But, of course, given that this is Harvard, it is natural to take delight in its tribulations.  Perhaps next time someone will pause before saying their school is the Harvard of x.  Or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the students are facing a prisoner's dilemma...