Home / General / “Most institutions do not even <i>have</i> grades of A with multiple pluses after it.”

“Most institutions do not even have grades of A with multiple pluses after it.”


One the one hand, the context provided by this NYT story about the Harvard cheating scandal Rob recently discussed does not…make the accused students more sympathetic:

In years past, the course, Introduction to Congress, had a reputation as one of the easiest at Harvard College. Some of the 279 students who took it in the spring semester said that the teacher, Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government, told them at the outset that he gave high grades and that neither attending his lectures nor the discussion sessions with graduate teaching fellows was mandatory.

“He said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,’ ” one accused student said.

But evaluations posted online by students after finals — before the cheating charges were made — in Harvard’s Q Guide were filled with seething assessments, and made clear that the class was no longer easy. Many students, who posted anonymously, described Dr. Platt as a great lecturer, but the guide included far more comments like “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken.”

In other words, a substantial number of students at one of America’s elite educational institutions expected a gut course, and were appalled when they were expected to learn something and given exams where there was some risk of bad performance.

The other oddity of this case is that I’m baffled why you would make an exam in an intro course with questions this narrow and specific a take-home rather than an in-class exam. I’d be interested to know what other instructors out there do, but I only give out take-home exams in upper-division courses where there are broad essay questions that would make inappropriate levels of collaboration obvious. This isn’t a defense of the students if they did what they were accused of — leaving aside the pathetic sense of entitlement, they violated rules that were clearly specified in advance, and that’s cheating. But it also seems pretty obvious to me that unnecessarily creating rules that are extremely difficult to enforce is going to lead to more cheating than is necessary.

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  • DJA

    Kudos for the Infinite Jest reference.

  • arguingwithsignposts

    more cheating than is necessary.

    Is any cheating necessary?

    I don’t give take-home tests. take home research projects, yes, but a take-home test is just inviting tom-foolery.

    • tdcjames

      I read “necessary” to mean “inevitable”.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Right. It’s hard to eliminate cheating entirely, but there are some mechanisms that don’t make significant amounts essentially inevitable.

        • And there are mechanisms that don’t put people in a confusing position. Exams are high stress; this exam was outside expectations and confusing; the instructions were arguably contradictory. Not good.

  • Bill Murray

    Is the link about narrow and specific questions correct? I get a link to the rules for the test but didn’t see any test questions.

    I only give take-home tests in grad classes, where the problems each take well more than one hour to finish

    • Scott Lemieux

      There’s an image you can click at the Crimson story that contains some of the questions.

      • Bill Murray


    • Hogan

      Click on the image of the rules.

  • ploeg

    Perhaps this is simply another means to the same end.

    1. A course gets the reputation of being easy.
    2. The professor gets called out on it.
    3. The professor devises exams that are nominally more challenging, but makes them take-home exams.
    4. The students cheat.
    5. The professor says, “Hey, man, not my fault.”

    • This was my reaction too. Or, alternatively, in 3, professor decides to make questions actually hard but is not up to the task of distinguishing a legitimately hard question from a “gotcha” question. Either way, Platt does not come off looking very good, does he?

  • tt

    Probably 3/4 of the tests I took in upper division math and science classes were take-home, and they had mostly defined correct answers. I can’t say for sure no one cheated, but the grade distribution for these classes were not suggestive of widespread cheating. I definitely never felt I would be at a disadvantage by not cheating. I don’t know whether this scandal indicates a problem with social science students or with Harvard, but there’s something wrong culturally here that is not universal to elite American educational institutions.

    • greylocks

      I will put to you that the demographic composition, academic/career goals, and average math SAT score of a typical upperclass math or science class bear only passing resemblance to those of a grade-candy first-year poli-sci course.

    • not tellin

      A friend of mine teaching statistics “lets” the student cheats; but if the resulting distribution is fishy, everybody get punished: thus, if the students know how to cheat, he can say they understood the material.

  • Eh…I’m actually a bit more sympathetic. If it was merely a class with a reputation for being a gut and wasn’t, that’s one thing, but if this is true:

    told them at the outset that he gave high grades and that neither attending his lectures nor the discussion sessions with graduate teaching fellows was mandatory.

    “He said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,’ ” one accused student said.

    Then I don’t think that’s right. It’s very important to set expectations correctly at the beginning of a course. I’m not a fan of gut courses per se, but part of being a college student is crafting a schedule that let’s you accomplish what you want to accomplish (reasonably). I recall people who aimed for a balanced schedule between more demanding classes and less demanding classes so that they could usefully focus on the more demanding ones.

    Getting balance across courses is very difficult esp. given the lack of coordination.

    Furthermore, I have to agree that the instructions were confusing at best and confusingly enforced. It’s open everything? Can I pass my from term time notes over? Can I pass my during exam time notes? Can I share my actual answers? (How about if I blog them?)

    Are the teaching fellows included with the “others”? (Evidently, they didn’t feel that way.) If you go to a TF and there’s 10 other people there…are you discussing? Can students share notes from the TF session?

    This is a fairly rare case where I think it’s possible to be honestly confused about whether you were cheating. Throw in questions that were ambiguous or didn’t naturally flow from the presented material and you are designing for train wreck.

    • DivGuy

      If the professor actually said you didn’t need to either attend lectures or discussions, then, yeah, I wouldn’t have much sympathy for him.

      I’m guessing, though, that this is students taking a much more general comment out of context. Maybe the professor made allowances that students might miss a lecture or a section here or there, and said that wouldn’t result in any demerits for your grade. It’s easy for relatively innocuous class instructions or grading principles to get mangled between the professor’s mouth and the Q Guide.

      But I could be wrong, and maybe he really did say that.

      And I agree with the rest of it – the instructions and the exam seem like courting exactly this sort of disaster.

      • Obviously, it all depends on how accurate the quote is and what the context was.

        But if you say that the (large) course is easy and then half the students (or more) are freaked out about the open note/internet exam, then that’s a sign that you fucked up.

        (I’m not necessarily unsympathetic to the instructor, either. It’s just unclear exactly what happened and there are versions of events wherein it’s a mere screw up and versions of events wherein entitled brats get caught. The NY Times article shifts me toward the former, more.)

        • I think I would say that you can always interpret “I gave out 120 As because 120 As were earned and if another 120 As are earned I will give them out”- just stating that 120 As will be given out does not mean no matter what the effort or participation. Also “easy” is subjective. I think this guy may have contributed to a cluster*ck, but those students are pathetic and I have zero sympathy. Exams are stressful, but these kids are not a random cohort of college students.

          • But the students aren’t saying, in so far as I can tell, that they thought no effort or participation was required for an A.

            There’s no indication what the participation levels were that I saw.

            They aren’t a random cohort, sure. But half cheating is prima facie an indication of a several problem with the set up.

            • I don’t know it our plugged in networked undergrads behave that way. I don’t know what the greater meaning is here. Why do things happen in groups very quickly that might not happen with individual students. I wonder if once it seemed like the whole class had broken the seal on the cheating if it was just lemmings over the cliff at that point.

          • Saying he expects 120 A’s in an entry-level poli-sci course with 280 students (if he said it) actually seems to argue against it being a gut course, especially given the notoriously high percentage of A’s given at Harvard. The comment above about a professor trying to adjust after realizing (or being told) he was being too lenient and running into the buzzsaw of a class of entitled Harvard undergrads who thought they were scheduling an easy course rings true.

            • Cody

              It could be construed as indicating how his curve is going to work. I’ve had classes where the professor goes “25 people get As, 50 people get Bs, 100 people get Cs, the leftovers fight between D and Fs”

            • A-

              Apparently, about half the class will receive an A (23.7%) or A- (25%)in courses in FAS. If the prof meant 120 As then it was a gut course assuming an equal number of A-s. If he meant 120 A or A- then his course was graded slightly harder than the average course.

              Even the professor nicknamed “C-” doles out As.

    • LawSpider

      (1) Assuming approximate parity last year in # of students, that means that < 50% received As last year. It may not be a brutal weeder-out course, but the statement was no guarantee of a good grade.

      (2) This is where context matters. Any college student claiming that he/she thought that an "open everything exam" meant that working with or getting specific advice from another student was acceptable is lying. Usually in my open in-class exam, I specifically note that you can't "phone a friend" if I leave the room — but all of my students roll their eyes, because that's obvious. If collaboration is permitted, then it is a "GROUP or COLLABORATIVE project/exam". (See my previous post for the need for Rule 11 equivalent.)

      • Well, what counts as specific advice? Is defining an unknown term specific advice (I’d say yes, but I can see where people might think no)? Is sharing notes or information from a TF session specific advice? (I tend to be legalistic about such things, but I can see people going, “I can get this from the TF but not second hand from the TF? WTF?)

        I agree with the open note in class, but I used to specify that they can use what they bring with them.

        My experience is that people get confused/lie about even very detailed rules.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if some people simply disregarded the rules and are lying about it. But if someone went to a TF session and continued chatting about what the TF said as they left…well? If someone else didn’t go to the TF session and was panicing, would it have been wrong to give my notes from the session or briefly explain what the TF said?

        I’m certainly willing to take a hard line on all this, but it’s pretty unrealistic to think that people won’t work themselves into a confusion in such situations. That may not make it acceptable of course, but I don’t think it’s necessarily as transparently mendacious as you make out.

      • John

        Whether it’s supposed to be a ridiculously easy gut or just a relatively easy class depends on whether “A” means “Full A” or “A’s and A-‘s”. If the latter, then, yeah, that’s not a ridiculous percentage at Harvard. But if it means full A, then, yeah, that’s pretty close to a guarantee of a good grade, given that the 40% doesn’t include an A- (typically, a class has more A-‘s than full A’s) and an A- is certainly a good grade.

  • Jonathan

    I’m baffled why you would make an exam in an intro course with questions this narrow and specific a take-home rather than an in-class exam.

    In all the classes I’ve had with a take-home test that had specific and narrow questions, it was done with the assumption and intention that it was easy for students to pass. Simply put, it was done to go easy on people who couldn’t be bothered to learn. And still they cheated.

    I think at this point it’s clear that 90% of the function of higher education is to delineate who is of high class so they can be given keys to power and others can be excluded. That was less obviously the point of higher education in the past, but the changes that have occurred since those institutions were forced to allow [women, Jews, Coloreds, and assorted Hoy Ploy] into their club have made it indisputable. For example, it’s no coincidence that colleges stopped relying primarly on the SAT around about the time Whites started scoring lower on it than Asians.

    • Jonathan

      *Hoi Polloi

      I really hate auto-correct sometimes.

    • Hogan

      I think at this point it’s clear that 90% of the function of higher education is to delineate who is of high class so they can be given keys to power and others can be excluded.

      For elite institutions that’s true. For everywhere else its function is to teach middle-class kids how to navigate faceless bureaucracies to acquire the means of survival (food, shelter, health care, etc.) so that they’re be ready to deal with work and government. (We can’t let poor people learn those lessons, because then we might end up having to pay them the benefits to which they’re nominally entitled. Either that or stop pretending that we give a shit about poor people.)

      • For decent education of the poor, check your local community colleges. At least in my neck of the woods, the Peralta Colleges (in Oakland and Berkeley) offer, in the main, an excellent education that is more than a little subversive in that dead-end kids are encouraged to participate in local government and business. San Francisco City College (in danger of closing) is similarly set up to get poor-but-motivated students in a position to address power.

      • Jonathan

        For a family of four ~$0-20,000 is poverty, ~$20,000-35,000 is working poor, ~$35,000-50,000 is middle-class, ~$50,000-100,000 is rich, and ~$100,000+ is wealthy. (This is using Chris Rocks definition that, “Michael Jordan is rich; the man who runs Nike is wealthy.”) Considering the average graduate who has to take out loans will graduate with ~$30,000 of non-dischargeable debt at 8-10% interest. even a state school is closed to most people from the middle class down. That’s why only 30% of our country has college degrees. If you’re not in the top 40% of income, you have to take out loans for school. Unless you go to an elite school, you’ll never be able to pay off the debt.

        Also, the matriculation rate from 2-year schools to finishing a 4-year degree is <20%. So community colleges aren't that much of a help. And having a degree from a community college doesn't count for much.

    • JL

      Er, I don’t dispute the history, but at my elite college (where I worked a few hours a week in Admissions for food money), one of the main reasons we didn’t just look at SAT scores was because we wanted to take it into account if applicants faced extra obstacles because of their socioeconomic background, rather than exclude poorly-schooled disadvantaged kids with potential. And, I mean, the people who got the highest SAT scores were often the people who could pay for a a $1k intensive SAT tutoring class and afford to take the very expensive SAT three or four times.

      • Jonathan

        we didn’t just look at SAT scores was because we wanted to take it into account if applicants faced extra obstacles because of their socioeconomic background, rather than exclude poorly-schooled disadvantaged kids with potential.

        And yet, all those groups those rules are ostensibly supposed to help are under-represented and wealthy Whites are vastly over-represented. Either the administrators are all incompetent in ways that all just happen to benefit rich White men or the changes were all consciously made to harm those they were supposedly meant to help.

        • JL

          Or different universities use similar-sounding policies in different ways. Or there’s a genuine problem with getting underrepresented groups to the point where they can compete with the rich white dudes in college admissions because we treat K-12 public school teachers like crap, don’t fund education properly, and pursue economic and other policies that make marginalized kids’ lives harder. Or underrepresented kids have been so beat up by the system by the time that they’re high school seniors that they don’t even bother applying for highly selective schools because they don’t think they have a chance.

  • brent

    a substantial number of students at one of America’s elite educational institutions expected a gut course, and were appalled when they were expected to learn something and given exams where there was some risk of bad performance.

    Perhaps this reads differently to you as an educator but I didn’t take that sentiment from the comments you quoted at all. It seems to me that they were saying that the questions didn’t really seem relevant to the knowledge they were expected to obtain. Obviously, I can’t know what was taught in the class but this certainly seems to me like it could be an entirely fair complaint. I have been out of college a long time but I distinctly remember courses where the exam questions seemed to be mostly unrelated to the class discussions or designed to illicit incorrect answers based upon tricky language. The reason for this approach could almost always be attributed to instructor laziness. None of that excuses cheating of course but I just mean to say that I don’t see much of a reason to be as reflexively dismissive of the student’s complaints.

    • Anonymous

      Or instructor maliciousness. I once had a course which was being cancelled; the prof sought his revenge by making three quarters of the exam on materials which were not in the lectures, not in the materials, and not matters about which we were warned might be on the exam. In short, a deliberate attempt to have the maximum number of students fail a course.

      In the end, there were a shitload of gentleman’s Cs, as it were, handed out simply because the school didn’t want countless lawsuits just because the prof was a vengeful dick.

    • Katya

      I agree; complaining that the questions didn’t match the material covered in lectures suggests that the student went to the lectures and was then baffled because the instructor tested material other than that covered in class. I think it’s a perfectly fair assumption, in a gut class or otherwise, that the material tested should bear a close resemblance to the material that the student was assigned to read and the material covered in class.

  • urizon

    I actually sympathize with some of the student comments. I once took a US government class in which the exams consisted of multiple choice questions that asked things like “of the below, which is MOST correct,” the problem of course being that much of what he was asking was entirely subjective. I told him I found his questions to be intentionally abstruse and that I felt he was trying to trick his students (I suppose I should also have accused him of being lazy, as he never asked for ANY written work from his students). The class was designed to fluff his ego while impacting his personal time as little as possible, This guy is a well-known pollster in the area, very well respected. No one had ever stood up to him, apparently.

    • Anonymous

      Same anonymous as above re malicious prof.

      I had the same problem with a visiting prof at my law school. She was European, very respected and knew her stuff inside and out. Unfortunately, she crossed back over the pond less than a week before the 100% final exam, which was an incoherent mess. We sat there, trying to puzzle out WTF she meant until one student stood up, told the proctors that the exam was unintelligible, and refused to go further until the questions were clarified. The proctors stopped the exam and raced to get Prof.X, an authority in that area and author of one of our texts. He came down, was equally baffled as to what Prof.Visitor meant, and then proceeded to tell us, “answer question 1 as if it means THIS; answer question 2 as if it means THAT,,,” and so forth.

  • DivGuy

    One thing I will say, having a little bit of experience with Harvard FAS, is that departments and schools count on big enrollments in a couple of intro classes, as a matter of funding. (Especially to get sufficient TF funding for grad students). Professors and departments do make sure that their big intro course is easy enough that they can consistently score triple-digit enrollment.

    Now, none of the big courses I worked in ever were nearly as work-light as this course is described, but I can understand the dynamic that could create a course like that. If Poli Sci and the Kennedy school were counting on big enrollment in this class, the professor would understand he wasn’t supposed to drive students away with a heavy workload or risk of B-minuses. Obviously, this course as described goes well beyond “don’t make it too hard”, but the dynamic at FAS enables precisely this sort of problem.

  • LawSpider

    (1) I am teaching a senior-level “Constitutional Interpretation” course to undergraduates this semester, and devising a reasonable mid-term that doesn’t permit/encourage cheating is well nigh impossible. I was strongly encouraged to give a mid-term exam in addition to their first research paper, in order to give students more information on their success (or lack thereof) in the course. But the nature of the material is such that an hour-long in-class mid-term would almost certainly either be ridiculously easy so as to be ineffective (20 multiple choice or short-answer on constitutional interpretation?), or so overbroad/difficult so as to be ineffective (“interpret this provision using the 8 interpretive methods of interpretation discussed” — I might have them pick any 4, but everyone would pick the 4 easiest to apply). So while my syllabus calls for an in-class exam, I had considered switching it to a 24-hour take-home, so they could effectively have 2-3 hours to work on it. (I’ve never had a student complain about a switch to take-home, as long as you give a few weeks’ notice.) But without having every student assigned to a different provision to interpret, the cheating potential seems high. I’m open to a better alternative, if any commenter wants to offer one.

    (2) Not just cheating, but attempting to justify it based on the professor’s exam does reinforce the idea of a generational shift. I’ve had too many students make, straight-faced an absurd /unreasonable excuse to me, just to see if it happens to work. (When it doesn’t, they often shrug their shoulders and acknowledge that they knew it was absurd/unreasonable.) The problem is that there is no mechanism in place in academia to punish the absurd argument — no academic equivalent of Rule 11, for the lawyers out there. I’d automatically suspend for a year anyone who tried to justify any purported cheating that way.

    • I’m confused.

      That the exam was too hard is not a reasonable excuse for cheating. There I agree.

      That the exam and instructions were confusing and the boundaries between permissible and impermissible behavior was not clear (esp. if there are obvious work arounds…you can’t discuss it, but since it’s open internet, can you post your answers? receive counterposts?)

      If you are allowed to share notes, can you ask someone for “all of your notes that are relevant to question 4”?

      Throw in the situation where motivated reasoning becomes increasingly dominent and you can see why there’s a problem. Obviously, there could be in this situation clear cheating behavior (e.g., I passed someone else’s answer off as my own).

      I notice in certain classes of coursework that stringency of rules doesn’t help, so I tend to turn a lenient eye.

      • LawSpider

        you can’t discuss it, but since it’s open internet, can you post your answers? receive counterposts

        I don’t believe that you truly imagine that “can’t discuss” does not imply a moratorium on making your answers (final or draft) accessible via the internet. Honestly, as an attorney I could certainly write using wholly encompassing instructions, with definitions of words like “discuss”. But then the students would complain that the instructions are too cumbersome and difficult to follow.

        To put it simply, every college student and professor that I’ve ever met assumes that the DEFAULT for graded work is that it is to be done, start-to-finish, independently — that is how professors can evaluate an individual’s knowledge and ability. Exceptions to that rule are, in my decade of experience, always stated by the professor.

        This is actually a fascinating discussion (online though it is) to be participating in while I teach Constitutional Interpretation.

        To be fair, the meetings with the TAs do create potential issues about reasonable interpretation. I’m not sure how that problem arose, although of course the professor is ultimately responsible for any misunderstanding by the TAs.

        • I don’t believe that you truly imagine that “can’t discuss” does not imply a moratorium on making your answers (final or draft) accessible via the internet.

          It’s not what I would do…though I could see myself getting to a point where I was pissed off enough that I might try blogging the exam :)

          The internet includes exam writing services. Students have weird, motivated views of such things.

          Honestly, as an attorney I could certainly write using wholly encompassing instructions, with definitions of words like “discuss”. But then the students would complain that the instructions are too cumbersome and difficult to follow.

          Oh yes, I’ve been down this path! I gave increasingly detailed (with diagrams!) instructions for the format of term papers (id in upper right corner of each page; stapled together, no title page, no clear plastic binder, signed on the back of the last page with the honor code statement) and I never, ever, got 100% compliance. Ever. (In 30-50 person classes!)

          I would threaten not to accept non-compliant papers. I would show the Calvin and Hobbes series on the magic of a clear plastic binder. I had diagrams. Someone would always fuck it up, usually more than one.

          This was easy to comply with, no benefit for non-compliance, and yet high stakes. Where there’s trickiness in compliance, high benefit for non-compliance, and high stakes, I would expect more deviation.

          To put it simply, every college student and professor that I’ve ever met assumes that the DEFAULT for graded work is that it is to be done, start-to-finish, independently — that is how professors can evaluate an individual’s knowledge and ability.

          At Manchester, esp. with the wide cultural variance of the MSc students, this doesn’t seem true. At UNC, my feeling was that at home vs. in class stuff came in for different expectations.

          It doesn’t mean it’s excusable, of course! It’s perfectly possible that all these students should be found guilty and punished. But I feel very different about them than I do about someone who snuck in a cheat sheet or paid someone else to write the exam.

          To be fair, the meetings with the TAs do create potential issues about reasonable interpretation.

          Yeah, that’s a key point. Also, I’m still unclear whether it was ok to share notes. Can I share ALL my notes? If I shared them before the exam was out, is that ok? Some services offer notes taken for certain classes…can I use them? That’s where I’m seeing a lot of ambiguity.

        • JL

          To put it simply, every college student and professor that I’ve ever met assumes that the DEFAULT for graded work is that it is to be done, start-to-finish, independently — that is how professors can evaluate an individual’s knowledge and ability.

          Really? For exams, sure, but in most college classes that I took, the default assumption was that on ordinary homework students would work in study groups and such, though everybody of course had to write up their own solution. If professors actually didn’t want that to happen on the homework, they stated that in course policies.

      • Scott Lemieux

        (esp. if there are obvious work arounds…you can’t discuss it, but since it’s open internet, can you post your answers? receive counterposts?)

        With all due respect, this is absurd. To ignore the structural intent of the rule when interpreting it is bad law, and it’s obvious that collaboration over the internet was prohibited. More generally, I don’t agree that the instructions were unclear or contradictory. They were only unclear if you were looking to rationalize cheating, and no language can be clear enough to eliminate that.

        • I think I perhaps took it a bit far, but I don’t think it’s out of many people’s understanding of the internet and the Web that it’s interactive. A lot of people’s primary encounter is interactive (i.e., facebook or forums are the web for them, more or less).

          In any case, we don’t even know, exactly, that they cheated as opposed to having had answers induced by TF sessions, do we? Or whether people were sharing answers or clarifications of the questions.

        • In my original comment, also, I don’t think I’m championing it as correct, just pointing out that esp. in the presence of certain kinds of stress, students can easily convince themselves of this.

  • Sly

    According to the Crimson article, 15 students showed up to a TF’s office hours because they couldn’t understand what a specific question was asking, and alleged that one of the questions (it doesn’t specify whether it was the same one or a different one) used a term that was not used during the lectures or in the assigned readings.

    Now the course had 279 registered students, so 15 might not seem like that big a number. But they likely represent a larger number of confused students who didn’t show up to office hours because (a) the professor cancelled his at the last minute and (b) a lot of students, for various reasons, don’t utilize office hours even if/when they genuinely need to. So they just call up or meet with other classmates.

    This doesn’t excuse the conduct, but I can see how it became widespread.

    • JoyfulA

      I still don’t understand why these confused students didn’t just look up the unfamiliar term on the Internet.

  • mch

    I used to give take-home exams, rarely, and then it was only because I thought students could greatly benefit, in preparing and writing their essay(s), to have access to texts and secondary resources that wouldn’t be available to them in a normal exam setting. (I can’t imagine giving anything but essay questions on such an exam, questions of an open-ended variety.) But now what I do to achieve the same ends: I give out the essay question(s) ahead of time and then students write their actual essays in a regular exam-taking situation.

    My main reason for avoiding actual take-homes isn’t to prevent cheating but to spare students and my fellow professors. Take-home exams seem to take over students’ lives, to the detriment of their other obligations as students. (I especially resent the 24-hour take-homes that my science and math colleagues seem to like to give even during the semester, which take students out of commission in their other courses for a full day, at least.) I am struck in the stories I’ve read about this Harvard story the sheer amount of time the students seem to have spent on the exam.

  • Murc

    No offense, Scott, but you’re going to have to do a lot more work to justify that this:

    “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,”

    means this:

    In other words, a substantial number of students at one of America’s elite educational institutions expected a gut course, and were appalled when they were expected to learn something and given exams where there was some risk of bad performance.

    The former in no way, shape, or form implies the later. You’ve quoted a bunch of complaints that are perfectly reasonable and that reflect experiences students, in fact, experience on a regular basis in a wide variety of courses. We of course have no way of knowing if they’re true or not, as student assessments run the same gamut as any other kind of crowd-sourced reviewing system, but those complaints aren’t on their face ridiculous.

    Professor Platt shouldn’t have been lowballing expectations (honestly, who DOES that?) but the proper response to that isn’t to become confusing and abstruse. That’s just a dick move.

    • Profs can be dicks, but cheating is not the right of the student to deal with a dick prof. Take the exam and make the case that the exam confusing. A lot of these comments can be both true and ad hoc excuses for getting caught cheating. This is not how the argument should go. “I shouldn’t have cheated on the exam. I accept responsibility. Next time, faced with confusing language, I should consult with TF or Professor or make case on the exam why the question was confusing.”

      • Bill Murray

        Not everyone in the class cheated, so where is the evidence that the student in the first quote cheated on the test?

      • Murc

        I don’t believe I addressed the cheating issue at all, and am curious as to why you think I did.

        • I guess that the student comments on the course might be read as defense of one’s own or one’s cohort’s action (so regardless of whether the quote was from a cheater), the statement give was elicited in relation to the reporting of cheating, so it might be viewed as responsive to that. It might also just relate the overall context of the class. If I were writing the article, I think I would have followed up every single question with “and how do you think this relates to the purported or alleged cheating?”

          • Bill Murray

            the statement from the student quoted here was from the Harvard Q Guide. Therefore, the statement was about how the class was run to help inform students thinking about taking this class from this professor in the future.

            Thus, the statements are not necessarily related to the cheating except that they were excerpted in the article about the cheating.

    • dl

      all three of the student quotes can be read as “I didn’t study enough.”

      • dl

        and the example questions on the Crimson site are fairly difficult, but hardly trick questions, as alleged.

        • Bill Murray

          these were the only questions on the test. It is not clear that those questions were abstracted to address the tricky question issue, or to simply give an example of the questions used.

  • The exam does not seem all that obtuse to me, but I suppose I can imagine students struggling with it if there had been no discussion of the concepts it appears to be discussing in the lectures. Maybe. These are supposed to be students who represent some sort of academic elite, and I’d like to think that this means, at a minimum, that they are capable of bullshitting their way through an open book exam.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,”

    I think this is a fairly legitimate complaint, at least taken by itself. I’ve hated programming classes where I’ve had materials on the midterm/finals that weren’t covered on the assigned programming assignments, but were covered in the lectures. Which seems okay, but programming being something you get better at by actually doing rather than reading about, (and having a professor provide feedback on how you are doing) always upset me because it made me feel like I was learning the material on my own, rather than in the context of a college class where I’m turning in graded assignments for feedback.

    • One of my worst exam experience was a take home exam wherein we were supposed to have choice and the choice was “Answer any 12 out of 13 super complex questions that take 2 pages just to get the setup going”. It was for a Plato graduate class and it included detailed crap from dialogues we hadn’t mentioned, much less discussed and one which was all about whether someone was doing a tu quoque (a fallacy that none of us had heard of before then).

      There was no pedagogic need to go beyond the many dialogues we discussed in class (you want us to face a novel bit of text…it’s not like we were exhaustive on the Symposium, or even the Republic), nor did it make sense, afaict, to invoke an argumentative form we hadn’t even begun to look at and was relatively obscure (yes, it’s easy to look up “tu quoque” and it’s easy to understand in a general way, but you aren’t going to want to go into Plato analysis with this level of understanding, esp. if part of the point is to distinguish between tu quoque and other forms of ad hominem; the question was just demoralizing).

      This isn’t to say that nothing novel should appear in the exam, just that they need a lot of care. A lot.

    • djw

      The poor pedagogical technique you describe doesn’t translate to that complaint reading as legitimate, especially in a social science course. I always make clear anything covered in lecture/class discussion as well as the readings is fair game for the exam. I think too little overlap between them is bad pedagogy, at least in most of the courses I teach, but I generally try to include some questions you couldn’t answer by doing the readings but not coming to class and vice versa because I want the exam to cover the whole class, and students who don’t pick and choose which part of the class to bother with to be rewarded. Occasionally, some students who read but don’t pay attention in class or vice versa will complain, but I’ve not yet been persuaded that’s a complaint that deserves to be taken seriously. (And to be forced to essentially treat readings and class sessions as two different delivery vehicles for the same material limits one’s pedagogy in really problematic ways.)

      • Law Spider

        BP: It depends on what the professor indicated how the exam would be written, and/or how the course material would be tested. As long as your professor indicated that method/approach was being taught (not just the specific passages discussed), the exam was fair.

        For instance, in my current Constitutional Interpretation course, I plan to use (and will tell the students well before the exam) a constitutional provision that we haven’t yet discussed and, indeed, that has never yet been interpreted by a court. Because, as the syllabus indicates, the point of the course is to learn how to recognize and apply the interpretive approaches (among other things), not simply to tell me how the courts have applied the methods/approaches before. Mere regurgitation of the material we’ve discussed in class is not what for upper-level college courses.

        • Law Spider

          Dammit: [is not what upper-level courses are for]

        • I’m not demanding regurgitation questions by any means and I didn’t demand it then. It was graduate school. I expected challenging questions. But these weren’t usefully challenging questions, they were dick questions. In an exam of essentially 12, substantive essay question, there’s no need to reach beyond the 10-20 dialogues we discussed in depth to create meaty, challenging, stimulating questions. I’m not sure that there was any pedagogic benefit to having a “while answering 11 other questions, assimilate and analyze a whole new dialogue” question. (What would it have been, actually?)

          We HAD an exam (the MSc exam) which was precisely to take a passage we had never seen and respond to it. Still not sure how valuable a hoop that was, but it was a least clear.

          I’m happy with stuff not being exactly from the lectures, etc. and the readings being fair game, blah blah. But there’s a pretty big difference between that and presenting essentially random material. If someone told me at the beginning of class, “Your exam will contain essentially random material” I’m dropping that class.

  • rea

    As I said in the last thread, if 125 students out of 279 are being accused of cheating, there’s likely something wrong with the way the exam was presented or conducted.

    Asking questions of a TA ought not to be regarded as a form of cheating. Unless you are bribing the TA, you ought to be able to rely on the TA to tell you if you are stepping over some kind of line.

    If you are allowed to share notes during the semester, and you are allowed to consult your notes during the exam, then consulting shared notes ought not to be cheating.

    There is a non-subtle difference between consulting with other students for answers, and consulting with other students because the whole damn exam is so poorly written as to be incomprehensible.

    Exams ought to reflect the course, which means, among other things (1) terminology used in the exam must match that used in the course, and (2) what’s treated as important in the classwork ought to match what’s treated as important in the exam.

    Trick questions are contrary to the purpose of an exam, and ought not to be employed.

    It’s all too easy to gloat–mass cheating incident at Harvard! But I have yet to see anything in particular identified in these articles that legitmately counts as cheating.

    • pseudosilence

      Nicely put. I agree.

      Now, it’s been 15 years since I was in college, and I went to a small liberal arts college with a very strong honor code, but I never personally encountered a single instance of cheating in college. We had take-home finals all the time.

      There were only two instances of confirmed cheating on the campus in the time I was there, with one resulting in expulsion and one in suspension, and I never heard anyone suggest that the penalties weren’t entirely justified. Rumor was that the students on the disciplinary committee had pushed for the harshest penalties much more then the faculty.

      Now look, campus culture varies from school to school, and this was a while ago. But I went to Williams which has very similar demographics to Harvard, and I find the idea that half of the students in the class just flat-out cheated pretty implausible. Look, whatever your background getting into Harvard is really hard. Most students there may be privileged, but I suspect very few of them are either stupid or lazy.

      Which is all to say that I find both the constant slurs on the students and the assumption that of course people will cheat on a take-home very sad, and neither matches my experience.

  • Curmudgeon

    When workers and employers find ways to do their work more efficiently, it’s called productivity growth and is generally a good thing.

    When students find ways to do their work more efficiently, it’s called cheating and is, in the eyes of educators, the worst thing since Hitler.

    Funny how that works.

    As long as access to employment is conditional on exceptional performance in academic work, students are morally justified to use any means necessary to protect their futures from abusive educators. Stealing a loaf of bread isn’t immoral when you’re starving. “Cheating” on an an unfair test isn’t immoral when being evaluated as defective means becoming unemployable.

    • laura

      Yes, if you get a D, it’s clearly the fault of an “abusive educator” and you are clearly justified in cheating so you can get the same jobs after college as the A students.

    • Dave

      Well, duh, their ‘work’ isn’t passing the test, it’s knowing the material. Otherwise, you might as well say the primary route to improved productivity is to bribe the inspector and cook the books…

      And to put Harvard students in parallel with some kind of exploited proletariat… LOL…

    • ploeg

      When workers find ways to do their work so that their work essentially duplicates the work of a colleague, employers tend to, shall we say, eliminate the duplication of effort. It sometimes takes a while, large bureaucracies being as they are, but why pay two people to do the work of one?

      • why pay two people to do the work of one?

        Because that is how person #2 buys food.

        • Anon21

          This isn’t exactly Somalia here. An American worker who loses his or her job isn’t in any real danger of starving to death. You’re only trivializing the very real material and psychological costs of unemployment with this kind of hyperbole.

        • ploeg

          Point taken, but that line of argument typically doesn’t go over so well with management.

          • Anon21

            And I mean honestly, why should it? A government program with the explicit aim of putting people to work, sure, run it inefficiently if that’s what it takes to achieve the primary goal of reducing unemployment. For-profit businesses should not be operated as makework charities.

            • Why not? I mean, they are in many other directions – sponsorship of this or that event – but the guy in charge of staple replenishment MUST GO. Because.

              Meanwhile redecorate the main office.

              • Anon21

                Explicit charity is one thing. Distorting your business operations to keep redundant employees on payroll is not going to help grow a business or contribute to economic prosperity. I absolutely believe that this country should be committed as a matter of policy to full employment, but piecemeal bad management of private companies is not a policy.

                • Well, here we are in the thrall of “good management”. Enjoy!

                • Bill Murray

                  why is it necessarily bad management?

                  neo-classical efficiency is a chimaera built on a huge number of false premises so pretending it is the be all and end all of what a company should do?

                • Anon21

                  Neo-classical efficiency is probably not obtainable or even desirable. But moving our economy to more of an Italian basis (favored insiders reap the rewards of a stagnating economy) will lead to less tax revenue and fewer jobs in the long term.

                • laura

                  You’re completely in the right here. I have no idea why people are being dicks to you about this obvious point (which is that, contrary to this guy’s point, multiple people turning in the same work so as to reduce their own labor is not acceptable either at school or in the work world.)

        • David M. Nieporent

          A job isn’t charity.

          • Hogan

            But from the way job creators piss and moan and threated to take their ball and go Galt, you’d almost think it was.

    • And as long as universities need to protect the supposed value of their degrees as some sort of signpost for academic achievement, your argument would support incredibly draconian measures for detection and prevention of rampant “morally justified” cheating, which of course is not justified when it allows one to be perceived similarly to a colleague who has mastered the material or achieved a particular benchmark, in addition to misrepresentation of one’s own skills. I think it is pretty funny that the crime of an educator misrepresenting or confusing student achievement levels is supposedly rectified by student misrepresentation of their achievement levels. I think the only case you could possibly make would be that students who have OTHERWISE mastered their material are somehow allowed to facilitate the representation of their skills by manipulating a corrupt system. Something tells me that is not what actually happens.

      • Cody

        I thought this is why we made curves.

        I took many classes that I was completely confused by. If I was just dumb/not working hard enough (likely), then the I would be on the wrong side of the curve.

        However, if the class was truly difficult or poorly taught then I’m just competing against other students who are getting the same awful instructions.

  • laura

    It is sort of crazy to expect that students won’t communicate about a take home exam or assignment. Of course they will — telling them not to and defining any interaction as “cheating” is asking for trouble. And expecting them to not communicate about *multiple choice*?

    There are software packages out there (e.g. Turnitin.com) that check similarity among essay-based assignments. Using a program like that and telling students they have to have a sufficient originality score is one way around this problem: they can work together but have to write up their own answers.

    Cheating is a bad thing but defining cheating down is also a really bad idea because it fosters a culture of rule-breaking.

  • Funkhauser

    Assistant professor is not trained to teach at his graduate institution, emphasizing research above all.

    Assistant professor then goes to prestigious institution that provides very little guidance in course design and pedagogy, attaches little value to teaching.

    Something goes wrong. Administrators, students, and faculty are appalled. Bob Bates thinks that something should be done. Students’ parents sue.

    Welcome to Academia, Year 2012.

  • JL

    I don’t condone cheating. Not at all. I sat on my school’s disciplinary committee when I was an undergrad (only a few years ago). Some of the people we saw, I felt sorry for. Some deserved to have the book thrown at them.

    But I will say that it’s a lot easier to understand why people cheat when you’ve rushed to the hospital to see a friend who just attempted suicide because of academic struggles. Or worse, when you’ve picked up the school paper and seen that someone you knew actually completed a suicide because of academic struggles.

    A friend a few years older than me was in the group that kicked in the door in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a friend of his who set herself on fire in her dorm room, a year or two before I got to college. Her academic difficulties had been causing severe problems in her relationship with her parents and aggravating pre-existing mental illness.

    I know I’m probably projecting too much of my own experience here onto a situation that probably doesn’t warrant it. Harvard GPAs tend to be high. Harvard students (right down the road from us) never seemed as stressed about academics as so many of us did. But so many people are so dismissive of the real fears that some college students have around academic performance. I knew people who died, or nearly died, for those fears. It’s not a big surprise to me that some people cheat for them. Actually, what surprised me as an undergrad, given the level of stress that I saw around me, was that more people didn’t.

    • Cody

      Yes, at least one EE student jumps off the garage across from the build I studied in per year. It is pretty mortifying. I find it hard to understand as my personality would never allow me to go to such lengths due to something as trivial (to me) as school, but I fully understand the pressures people feel.

      I assume, but do not know, that most people who have such adverse responses are due to financial issues. If I had failed out of college with $20,000 in loans my life would be over. I could never lose this debt, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for it, and the job I got would probably barely cover my living let alone my loans.

      Suicide wouldn’t seem like a bad option. Question: If you commit suicide, do your student loans transfer to your parents? They generally co-sign.

      • JL

        There is definitely a financial component to the stress. I came pretty close to having a breakdown at one point because if my parents had decided to stop paying my tuition over disappointment with my performance, I would have been stuck trying to get close to 50k/year in loans with no assets, little income, and nobody to co-sign for me. The school won’t consider you financially independent for finaid purposes unless you can document abuse, basically – they’re afraid that otherwise parents would start fake-disowning their kids to get them more finaid.

        There’s more to it than finances and the various ways (failing out with heavy loans, losing a scholarship, parents pulling tuition money, etc) though. Keep in mind that, at least in my setting, these were very smart kids to whom it had been implied all their lives, intentionally and unintentionally, that the reason they were valuable as people (or loved by/a source of pride to their parents) was because they could perform academically. People might not mean to send those signals but I can tell you that those are the signals that a lot of very smart kids receive. Also, because they’re very smart, they also often are not taught by their parents, school counselors, etc, about non-elite career options, and literally have no idea how they are going to provide for themselves if med school or whatever doesn’t pan out. Even without the financial issues that usually contribute, the combination of believing that you’ve lost the thing that made you worthwhile and worth your parents’ love, and believing that you’re going to end up unemployable and starving in the street, is pretty conducive to all sorts of adverse reactions (suicide attempts, breakdowns, sacrifice of integrity) over something that most people would consider relatively minor. Believe me, I spent my undergrad career watching this dynamic play out over and over (and to some degree experiencing it in person).

        It makes it very easy to understand why someone would cheat – if they think that the alternative is that they’ll be thousands of dollars in the hole, their parents will stop loving them, and that they’ll be permanently unemployable, which, however unrealistic it sounds to older adults with more perspective and life experience, is a pretty common belief for an academically struggling 19 year-old at a top college – then cheating on some exam doesn’t seem like a big deal. It screws up the whole educational process, really, for such kids, since everything professors do comes to be seen as an obstacle that needs to be cleared for survival rather than, you know, education. I never cheated, but for some period of my undergraduate education I definitely had a very adversarial attitude toward coursework and exams. What I enjoyed, and learned a lot from (other than my fellow students and interacting with them), was doing research with professors in their labs. I felt relaxed there and was good at it (I’m a PhD student now).

  • Steve S.

    Seems to me that a nearly 50% rate of “cheating” is prima facie evidence of the course being poorly designed/implemented. The alternative hypothesis, that all the cheaters somehow ended up at this particular school (compared with the baseline rate of cheating at colleges in general), has been presented without evidence. And even if the alternative hypothesis is correct then the logical course of action is to design courses and exams that account for the fact that everybody in the room is an entitled asshole.

    • Law Spider

      Your choice-of-2 alternative hypotheses ignores the existence of plenty of other alternatives, such as:

      (1) A couple of unsubtle bad apples who indirectly encouraged (or panicked) other students lacking confidence to cheat “to keep up”. Cheating as steroids.

      (2) More frequent cheating than is reported, but a few particularly careful TAs who caught the cheaters this time.

      I’d guess that at least one (if not both) of these possibilities played a role (if not the only role). I’m sure that there are others that don’t come to mind.

      • Is Steve presenting a choice of two? I don’t think so.

        He has a prima facie hypothesis (which I agree probably should be the prima facie hypothesis). He then says that the alternative presented hypothesis is presented without evidence (which is perhaps a bit strong). This doesn’t rule out that there are other possible hypotheses.

        • Anonymous

          The alternative”, rather than “An alternative” suggests that there are two and only two viable options.

          • Law Spider

            That was me.

  • calling all toasters

    In grad school I had a course where the (50%) in-class midterm bore no relation to the material covered. Frankly, I would have cheated if I could. Sometimes the professor is simply the enemy.

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  • state22

    The REAL</strong> scandal is what was apparently being taught and the (assumed) course materials.

    I clicked on the Crimson article and the sample question. I had an outline of where I would look to answer the questions in 10 minutes and a general sense of the answer. It didn’t seem too specific for an intro take home. For a course where lectures were optional, it seems like the prof wanted to make them do more than a 3 hour final and to have to support their work with quotes and sources – which is just not possible in even an open book/internet exam in a classroom.

    What BLEW ME AWAY was that the idea of “pivotal politics” was apparently largely advanced in 1998 in a book Pivotal Politics: A Theory of U.S. Lawmaking by Keith Krehbiel (Jun 22, 1998)

    The Amazon review says:

    This theory of pivots also explains why, when bills are passed, winning coalitions usually are bipartisan and supermajority sized. Offering an incisive account of when gridlock is overcome and showing that political parties are less important in legislative-executive politics than previously thought, Pivotal Politics remakes our understanding of American lawmaking.

    OMFG. We are doomed. Harvard is teaching this?

  • 4jkb4ia

    Baltimore and FTFY tied!

    That story is the only thing I read about it, although I should probably have clicked the link from Kathy Geier. My dad and I agreed that:

    This entire thing is beneath Harvard.
    Harvard should lose reputation because of this, but who knows?
    The entrusting of dealing with the students to TAs shows that Harvard doesn’t care about undergraduates and hasn’t for decades. I brought up Douthat’s “I wish Harvard had pushed back”.

  • Nicely put, Kudos.

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