Harvard Students Accused Of Cheating Respond To Allegations

Some of the Harvard students accused of cheating are speaking out, and making allegations of their own.

Some of the students who are being accused by Harvard University of cheating on a take home exam in an introductory Political Science course are speaking out, and denying any allegation that they cheated while also complaining about the manner in which the class was run:

Harvard students suspected in a major cheating scandal said on Friday that many of the accusations are based on innocent — or at least tolerated — collaboration among students, and with help from graduate-student teachers who sometimes gave them answers to test questions.

Students said they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected. They face the possibility of a one-year suspension from Harvard or revocation of their diplomas if they have already graduated, and some said that they will sue the university if any serious punishment is meted out.

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.”

(…)

The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years.

Dr. Platt and his teaching assistants did not respond to messages requesting comment that were left on Friday. In response to calls to Mr. Harris and Michael D. Smith, the dean and chief academic officer of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the university released a statement saying that the university’s administrative board still must meet with each accused student and that it has not reached any conclusions.

“We expect to learn more about the way the course was organized and how work was approached in class and on the take-home final,” the statement said. “That is the type of information that the process is designed to bring forward, and we will review all of the facts as they arise.”

The class met three times a week, and each student in the class was assigned to one of 10 discussion sections, each of which held weekly sessions with graduate teaching fellows. The course grade was based entirely on four take-home tests, which students had several days to complete and which were graded by the teaching fellows.

Students complained that teaching fellows varied widely in how tough they were in grading, how helpful they were, and which terms and references to sources they expected to see in answers. As a result, they said, students routinely shared notes from Dr. Pratt’s lectures, notes from discussion sessions, and reading materials, which they believed was allowed.

“I was just someone who shared notes, and now I’m implicated in this,” said a senior who faces a cheating allegation. “Everyone in this class had shared notes. You’d expect similar answers.”

The students also claimed that despite the exam instruction that students were not allowed to discuss the exam with “others,” consultation with the Teaching Assistants over the questions on the exam was commonplace and accepted, although some T.A.’s were apparently more helpful with students than others.

It’s difficult to know what the truth is here, that will be what the investigations are for obviously. However, one thing that stands out to me is that this class was obviously viewed as one of those famous “easy” classes at Harvard. All of us who went to universities with large student bodies have experience with these kinds of classes. For me, it was an introductory Astronomy class I took as a Sophomore. There were at least 250 people in the class, which was held in one of the largest lecture halls on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, and it became eminently apparent that one barely needed to attend the class lectures. There were assignments that were due every week or so, but they could easily be completed just be referring to the written material. Since it was a subject that actually interested me, I attended the lectures (well, most of them) but after about a month the number of students in attendance was noticeably smaller once people figured out that there was no penalty for not showing up.

Assuming what these anonymous students are saying is true, then it’s apparent that this “Introduction To Congress” course was viewed by students as one of those “easy” classes at Harvard, and that the Assistant Professor who ran the class pretty much viewed it the same way. It strikes me that this says something rather important about the state of education at our upper-level Universities. I’m not contending that Harvard is an “easy” school, far from it as a matter of fact. However, if the institution that, along with Yale, has produced several of our recent Presidents, not to mention a sizable portion of the Supreme Court, is providing classes like this, then what does that say about what’s coming out of other institutions of higher learning?

There’s been much discussion in recent years about the value of a college degree, especially in light of the skyrocketing costs of a college education and the fact that so many recent graduates remain either employed in jobs where the skills they learned aren’t being fully applied, or completely unemployed. Part of that discussion includes the question of whether students are getting the value of the dollar that they spend for their education, especially in the social sciences. The description of Harvard’s “Introduction To Congress” in this article just adds to that debate.

Please follow and like us:
FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    The point of an exam should be to force the students to spend time grappling with the material and, to a lesser extent, to assess how well they learned the most important lessons of the course. So, the professor should do all he can to encourage students to learn the material outside class, including working together with their peers.

    Take-home exams are just an absurd practice; you’re asking for cheating and, frankly, it’s not clear what constitutes cheating. In lower level classes, I would sometimes give out the exams ahead of time with, say, 8-10 essay questions. I’d tell students that I would randomly choose, say, 2 of them for them to answer in class. And I made it clear that it was impossible to cheat beforehand: they could get together in any manner they desired to study, collaborate on the answers, and so forth. But they’d be responsible for answering the question on their own on exam day.

  2. @James Joyner:

    Yea, as I said in the first post I wrote about this the entire “take home exam” thing seems odd to me. I certainly don’t remember it ever being practiced when I was in college.

  3. @Doug Mataconis: When I was in school, in the 1990s, there were a lot of them; it was after students got computers, but before Google. A reasonably well structured exam was difficult, though not impossible to cheat on. Now, of course, it’s a different story.

    For us, it wasn’t at all unclear what constituted cheating: consulting classmates (or anyone else) about the exam. For that reason, I can’t be too sympathetic to all these Harvard scholars who are saying that they didn’t know what “don’t discuss this exam with anyone else” meant. If someone else dredges through their notes and hands you the relevant sections, or explains the concept to you in light of the exam question, that’s cheating.

    Yes, the professor sounds lazy, and in this day and age take home exams are probably stupid. If a retailer left his goods out with no one watching in the middle of a big city, I’d also say that was lazy and stupid. But I wouldn’t accept that as an exoneration of the guy I caught lifting his stuff. “Don’t discuss the exam with anyone else” seems pretty unambiguous to me.

  4. @James Joyner:

    Take-home exams are just an absurd practice; you’re asking for cheating and, frankly, it’s not clear what constitutes cheating.

    I will quibble a bit here. I think it depends on the format and nature of the exam, as well as the nature of the course. I regularly give take home exams in my Political Theory class, and have for going on 14 years, and it works pretty well in that context. I also have, on occasion, made the essay portion of an exam a “take home” assignment.

    Of course, I do not bar discussion of the questions–indeed, if by giving them a take-home essay makes them sit down with their peers and chat about how Aristotle and Plato viewed the ideal state, so much the better.

  5. CSK says:

    I don’t recall ever bring given a take-home exam in either undergraduate or graduate school, and as a college teacher, I never give one. If the point of an exam is to see how well you can deliver under pressure, then I’m not sure of the value of a take-home. If not, why not just assign an end-of-term paper due on the exam day? (Which, I recognize, is no less vulnerable to plagiarism or unauthorized collaboration, but it always has been.)

    Slightly OT, but amusing: In my experience, the dumbest students only ever say two things in class:

    1. “Will this be on the test?” (Invariably uttered when the discussion or lecture veers off onto some fascinating and thought-provoking, but still relevant, tangent.)

    2. “Can we have an objective test?” (Meaning, can all the questions be multiple choice or true and false, so we can memorize the textbook or lecture and not have to think about anything we learned and, God forbid, have to write a short essay about it?)

    I should add that I did teach (non-tenure track) at the institution currently under fire for quite some time, and no one asked me the idiot questions there.

  6. ElizaJane says:

    It sounds to me like this Assistant Prof. got a slap-down about teaching a course that had become a notorious gut, and was told by his department chair that he’d never get tenure this way. So he switched direction mid-stream and the students did not, understandably, grasp the implications of what the new standards would be. I would never teach a gut class myself (my courses are notoriously difficult) but also, students come into a class with expectations, you define what you (as an instructor) expect from them right at the beginning, and it isn’t right to alter that in the course of the semester.

    People, even students, have mixed feelings about take-home exams, but I don’t think they are a problem in and of themselves. It’s surprisingly easy to separate out the strong from the weak students even on a take-home — it doesn’t really alter your grade curve. I often give a mixed exam (in-class short answers, take-home essay) and students tend to perform pretty consistently on both parts. I think it’s good to see both how well they can think under pressure and how they can synthesize the course’s big issues over a longer period at home. Essays written at home are also much more pleasant to read than desperate in-class scrawls.

    I’ve taught at the institution in question too! But only graduate students.

  7. @CSK:

    If the point of an exam is to see how well you can deliver under pressure,

    Yes, but that is not always (indeed, not normally) the point of an exam, in my opinion. Timed pressure can be part of the exercise, yes, but surely the goal is to force the students, by whatever means, to have to grapple with and learn the material. There are often various ways of accomplishing such, yes?

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Ah, college days. (Well, months. Not years in my case.) I remember them well.

    I remember learning that with a little tinfoil and a pin almost anything could be made into a pipe.

    I remember discussing philosophy in the group shower with the lights off — me, my gay roommate Steve, that Korean girl, that girl with the body, that girl with the unfortunate hair, and Jennifer 1.

    And I recall learning that in a dorm full of stoners you could become pretty popular if you had a Corning hot plate and some blueberry pancake batter.

    Also, learned there was the Cap’n Crunch bin in the dining hall. Weed and the Captain. Talk about your higher learning.

    My major was. . . wait, it’ll come to me. I want to say International Relations. Hence the Korean girl.

    Education, man. Nothing beats a good education.

  9. Jen says:

    I graduated in 1991, and take home exams were exceedingly rare at my college. The handful I remember were essay questions, in upper-level classes with few students (I went to a fairly small college). It would have been readily apparent to the professor had we worked with one another, so we didn’t. (Well, I didn’t, and neither did any of my friends in classes). Also, any time we had a take-home exam, it was only part of the test, we also would have an in-class portion.

    There are so many things that bother me about this situation, from the idea that there are “easy classes” at one of the most elite universities in the country, to the bizarre interpretation of students saying “well, we were instructed not to work with one another, but that’s not standard practice for this class…”

    These are tomorrow’s leaders, folks.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    Take home exams are common enough in physics classes. Trying to design an exam with problems that cane be done in 20 minutes limits the instructors. Giving a take home exams means the problems can be ridiculously difficult. In addition, once an problem takes more than a page or two, copying between students becomes obvious.

    Of course, a couple of years ago, the University of Virginia got caught up in a cheating scandal in what was suppose to be an easy class. West Point and Annapolis have been involved in cheating scandals but they were suppose to be in harder classes.

  11. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Oh, sure. No argument there. No single approach works for every subject. Or every student, for that matter. The best approach–whatever it happens to be–is the one that enables the student to get the most out of the class, not just in terms of knowledge, but the ability to assimilate and analyze it and put it to whatever the best use of it may be. My point was just that, in my experience as a student, tests appeared to be designed to see how well you could think and express yourself under the pressure of time and in less-than-optimal physical circumstances.

  12. JKB says:

    “And Michael S. McPherson, speaking bluntly, puts the matter this way: “Good undergraduate education is not Harvard’s most important product,” compared to its role in fostering world-changing ideas.”

    “His starting point—“Harvard is an institution of truly great teachers”—”

    HARVARD FACULTY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES REFOCUSES ON ITS EDUCATIONAL MISSION | HARVARD MAGAZINE MAR-APR 2011

    Way back when I was in Freshman engineering, a girl in the class, obviously one of those high school over achievers, complained that the tests weren’t like the homework. To which the professor replied, “That’s because I want you to think!”

    It says a lot about the state of education in the US when the complaints are all about the requirement for the student to actually learn the material. But as we see from the quote above, undergraduate education isn’t a priority for Harvard so perhaps the students have reason to complain. But rather than complain it was to hard, they should complain about going thousands of dollars into debt to go to a school that doesn’t value the product they sell but then you do get the name-brand, so learning might not be important.

    Of course, if we are to believe a new book out on “How Rich People Think” then these aren’t the kids destined for riches. Especially since they won’t even learn how Congress works so they won’t be able to make their fortune in public service either.

    Average people think the road to riches is paved with formal education. Rich people believe in acquiring specific knowledge.

    Average people would rather be entertained than educated. Rich people would rather be educated than entertained.

    But I do hear Harvard and most college liberal arts departments are very good at inculcating :

    Average people think MONEY is the root of all evil. Rich people believe POVERTY is the root of all evil.

  13. Davebo says:

    Way more than I needed to know Mike…..

  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Part of the problem for this class was, I am sure, the fact that a) there were four TAs assigned to the discussion sections and b) the TAs graded the exams for their sections. Roughly 1/2 the class “cheated.” I would be very interested to know the correlation between the “cheating” students and the TA who was their primary grader / teacher.

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if different TAs told their discussion sections different things throughout the semester and if they graded exams very differently based on what they told their sections the expectations were on exams.

    My guess is that the Prof had been letting the TAs run the class on autopilot for several years – especially with returning TAs – so that he could focus on his research and his graduate seminars. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he didn’t spot check exams at all so long as the TAs gave him grade reports that fit his idea of the proper grade distribution for the course.

    My gut tells me that when all is said and done, it is the professor who is going to come out with egg on his face, not the students.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, that makes sense. If you’re structuring the exam in such a way that it requires specific reference to class materials—not some generic discussion of, say, the Allegory of the Cave or the Harm Principle—and set up the rules such that they can use whatever resources they want so long as the essay is in their own words, then there’s no problem. Indeed, it’s essentially not even an “exam” in the normal sense of the word but a structured research paper.

  16. Just Me says:

    I think the problem here is the students took a course with a reputation for being easy then got mad when it wasn’t (and apparently cheated). I figure every college is going to be prone to having “bunny” courses even if they are Harvard, but there isn’t a guarantee that bunny courses remain so-seemslike the problem is the students felt entitled to the easy course they signed up for.

    I was in college and grad school in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I never had a take home exam, although I had a couple of graduate level courses where the final was a paper or several short essay questions. I am trying to figure out how an intro course can have a test that Harvard students found so difficult they couldn’t figure out the answers on their own. I just can’t imagine the material would be that difficult and I didn’t score a 2300 on my SAT.

  17. PJ says:

    Students who aren’t rich cheat on home exams by discussing it and working together with other students who aren’t rich either.

    Rich students know that you just have to pay someone else to write the entire home exam for them.

    An essay mill (or paper mill) helps students who seek to buy essays and other written homework and to pass off this ghostwritten work as their own. Educators generally see this as a form of academic dishonesty or academic fraud (see also plagiarism). The typical customers of such a service are university and college students. Universities and colleges may investigate papers suspected to be from an essay mill by using Internet plagiarism detection software, which compares essays against a database of known essay mill essays and by orally testing students on the contents of their papers. However, many essay mills guarantee that a unique essay will be composed by a ghost author and pre-screened with plagiarism detection software before delivery, and as such will be undetectable as an essay mill product.

    While both are definitely, without doubt, cheating, the first option would at least mean that student would learn something. The second only means that you won’t get caught.

  18. Drew says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You know, Michael, you might be surprised at our commonalities and not our differences.

    Oh, and it was aluminum foil. Trust me, I know.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    @Drew:

    I have long suspected “tinfoil” is a regionalism. I don’t think it was every actually tin, but that’s the word that was stuck in my head at an early age, although now I trip over it each time, troubled by the inaccuracy. You have to admit it rolls easier than “aluminium foil.”

    That’s the kind of thing Schuler would know.

  20. @michael reynolds: I believe it actually was made of tin prior to World War II, but it wasn’t a common consumer product until the postwar era.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @Megan McArdle:

    So basically you’re saying I’m just old. Just really, really old.

    Thanks Megan. I. . . I guess I’ll have to find a way to go on. . .

  22. LC says:

    I don’t feel I have enough facts to judge what happened.

    When I was in college (undergraduate & graduate), there were no take-home exams. And no internet either. (Yea, I’m dating myself). I don’t understand the point of an “open book, open note, open internet” but not “open discussion” exam.

    One criticism quoted about the exam was that an important question was unclear, and the Professor had made no provision, or was not available, for clarification. I remember all too many of those kinds of questions and my frustration when I couldn’t get a clarification. (The people who write the questions always know what they are looking for and so, often, develop a blind spot that prevents them from understanding why their intent might be unclear to somebody else.)

    Like Doug, my one gut course was also Astronomy 101. The go-to Freshman course for fulfilling the science requirement for humanity students and football players. The legend was that every exam was a rehash of previous exams, of which dozens of copies were available for review and study. Either the legend was just that, or the Professor had been advised to cut it out because that year the final didn’t have a single recycled question and was extremely difficult – especially since neither the lectures nor the teaching sections were on point.

    I know. Life is unfair. But most of us felt that an unspoken contract between teacher and class had been broken. Didn’t help my GPA at all.

  23. grumpy realist says:

    I remember acting as TA for a professor who forgot that he was reusing exam problems from a few years ago, where exam problems from previous years were available in the physics library….

    Ever try getting a Gaussian distribution out of an M-shaped signal? He had me re-weighing and recalculating exam results for weeks. I seem to remember that in the end he finally threw out two of the questions entirely (the reused questions) and based the final grade off the rest.