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How Group Learning Invites Cheating

The most shocking thing about the Harvard cheating scandal was not that 125 students out of a class of 279 were found to have “committed acts of academic dishonesty” on an exam last spring, or even that the exam was for a course that was supposed to be an easy mark. It was that it happened at Harvard, the elite of the elite, where it is understood that only the smartest kids are accepted. Why would they have to cheat?

As the details became clear (at first, significantly enough, in the sports magazines), it developed that the course, Government 1310: Introduction to Congress, had the reputation of being a cinch to pass. But last spring the exam was harder.  It was a take-home open-book and open- Internet assignment over a weekend, but this time students were expected to write essay answers, not just select answers from multiple choices. And when the papers were graded, more than half were found to have given answers that were the same as another student’s, word for word.

When the facts became public, there was no joy in Cambridge. The stars of Harvard’s outstanding basketball team were among the large proportion of athletes taking the course. It remained unclear what punishment awaited the guilty as it could not be determined whether students had been collaborating on answers or plagiarizing outright from the Internet or each other.

Generosity Was the Excuse

One indignant Harvard student maintained that collaboration was “encouraged, expected.” That attitude also seemed to apply at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s outstanding school, where a similar scandal was revealed. This time 140 students were involved, all receiving help from a classmate using his cell phone to send answers to his friends and those he wanted to become his friends.  The tests (the system was applied to several of them) were the prestigious Regents exams, important factors in college acceptances.  Ironically, the admitted aim of most Stuyvesant students, who face stiff competition getting into Stuyvesant and maintaining high grades once they get there, is to be admitted to Harvard.

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