You have probably heard that a teaching assistant grading final exams in a large Harvard class noticed suspicious similarities among the responses. That assistant notified authorities, and now a full-fledged investigation is underway—scrutinized by public attention. As someone who has studied college cheating and plagiarism, I find this case, like so many before and yet to come, provocative. Here are some of the things I wish to say about it:
1. Maybe the students didn’t cheat! In my experience teaching, students sometimes divide up material, even for an in-class exam, and then they all memorize the shorthand definitions provided by the one person who had to take that question. After several years of noticing this, I have decided to get rid of my final exam, since I am convinced that nobody learns much of anything this way.
2. What is wrong with collaborating? All the latest research on learning tells us that people learn better that way.
3. Here is a chance for the criers of “ethical violation” and “moral collapse” to sing their songs! This is where people say “In my day….” Or “In the past” students simply did their own work. This is nonsense. The Chinese Civil Service Examination, which sorted (successful) government officials from (failing) poor teachers, lasted 1300 years and was rife with cheating, one form more imaginative than the next. Wealthy Yale students in the nineteenth century hired poor students to write their papers for them. Cheating and plagiarizing are enduring side effects of high-stakes testing and schooling.
4. “Honor Codes will save the day.” Not. There are statistics suggesting that students at schools with honor codes report somewhat lower rates of cheating and plagiarizing, but they certainly don’t eliminate them. One faculty member at a university famous for its Honor Code wanted me to understand that the severe penalties for even the smallest infraction meant that faculty were reluctant to enforce any infractions at all. There is evidence that students completely separate their behavior in class from their behavior in their real lives.
5. It is possible that Harvard students felt entitled to succeed no matter what, but they certainly share this sense of inevitable achievement with students at many highly selective universities.
6. Everybody is happy when Harvard misses the mark.
7. Students everywhere are trained early on to attempt to “get something for nothing”; in this case it is a good grade for little investment in learning material. Students often wish to be “efficient” in getting tasks completed.
8. There is a “teachers versus students” mentality that pervades schooling, in which both sides are trying to psych out the other.
9. If the means of assessing student learning doesn’t matter to students, they will use whatever techniques they can to get it over with. The same is true of material that isn’t genuinely meaningful to them. A huge body of scholarship about “deep learning” and “authentic assessment” could be helpful here.
10. Cheating and plagiarism scandals make for attractive media topics.
11. I’m glad it wasn’t my class.