Blurring cheating and collaboration

graph-dishonesty
Photo by Sophie Gould.

Over the summer, 125 Harvard students and recent alums received notice that they had been accused of unauthorized collaboration on the final exam for “Intro to Congress,” a class they took last spring.

They are scheduled to begin appearing individually before the school’s Administrative Board, which determines disciplinary action, over the next few weeks. If convicted, those who are still undergraduates may be suspended for one year. Those who have graduated may lose their diplomas.

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” Harvard University President Drew Faust said in a statement.

In interviews with national media, many of the accused students claimed they are not at fault. The exam instructions explicitly prohibited discussion of the take-home test with others but permitted use of books, notes and the Internet. Students said they were led to suspect that collaboration would be tolerated, despite the instructions, as they said it had been throughout the class.

The case highlights the problems that can arise from vague course policies such as those used in the Harvard class. But Yale students interviewed said Yale professors, too, can be unclear about expectations.

Dean of Yale College Mary Miller said the news of the investigation at Harvard has prompted administrators to begin brainstorming ways to further combat cheating at Yale.

“It’s paramount in our minds here in the Dean’s Office this week, particularly in terms of the kinds of communications we want to have with faculty and students at the beginning of the semester,” she said last Wednesday, adding that the community should “stay tuned.”

OUTLINING POLICIES

While students may point fingers at instructors’ lack of clarity, the fact remains that Harvard and Yale’s rulebooks — the Student Handbook and the Undergraduate Regulations, respectively — have blanket policies that state students are ultimately responsible for maintaining their academic integrity.

Harvard’s rulebook states that students may assume that collaboration is permitted on assignments if the instructor does not specify otherwise, but adds that “collaboration in the completion of examinations is always prohibited.”

Yale does not have the same policy forbidding group work on exams, but the University also does not allow students to assume that collaboration is acceptable. When in doubt, Yale students must “seek explicit clarification from the instructor,” the Undergraduate Regulations state. Collaboration is only allowed “to the degree precisely and specifically described by the instructor.”

Both schools’ rulebooks stress the role of the instructor in setting the ground rules for group work and require students to abide by the professor’s policies on collaboration as established in the syllabus.

Yale professors who encounter academic dishonesty — which includes plagiarism and other forms of cheating — in their courses should bring the case to the Executive Committee, according to the Regulations. Past ExComm reports show 53 cases of academic dishonesty during the 2010-’11 school year and 50 cases during the 2009-’10 school year.

In deciding penalties, ExComm wrote in the 2009-’10 year that the level of clarity of the rules written about academic honesty in a course’s syllabus is taken into account.

“Ambiguity in instructor’s guidelines on collaboration — or the lack of such guidelines — can influence the coordinating group’s sense of the degree of wrongdoing on the part of the student,” the committee wrote.

Yale expects instructors to be clear about their rules: Since 2007, professors writing course proposals have had to describe how they would define and deal with academic dishonesty in that course, Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon told the News last fall.

To help students avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism, residential college masters go over the rules about academic dishonesty with the freshman class each year. Some professors, especially in introductory English courses, also review the definition of plagiarism with their students.

“In the freshmen ‘fireside chats’ we spend a lot of time on academic dishonesty and go over the nuances of it,” said Branford Master Elizabeth Bradley. “It’s helpful especially for people … who have never been in an environment where there’s such a strict honor code surrounding this.”

FACULTY ROLES

Yale professors interviewed said they have developed their own approaches to curtailing academic dishonesty inside and outside the lecture hall. Yale instructors said they try to be specific about their expectations for assessments at the beginning of the term.

After encountering widespread plagiarism while teaching at Peking University in Beijing in 2007, Stephen Stearns, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said he began using a plagiarism-checking software program that scans students’ papers for familiar passages.

Stearns said he takes time at the beginning of his Yale courses to let students know how seriously he takes academic dishonesty, asking them to visit the Writing Center website to review definitions of plagiarism and warning them that their work will be checked against the software.

“I tell students that I use plagiarism software to check their papers — however, not which software I use,” he wrote in an email.

Other professors said that they have established rules specific to their classes that allow collaboration on assessments.

Ray Fair, professor of economics, who teaches the 140-student course “Introduction to Macroeconomics,” said he allows students to talk about their problem sets with other students as long as they do any needed research themselves and write up the answers on their own. They must also list the names of the students with whom they consulted on their answer sheets, he said.

Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of astronomy and physics who teaches “Introduction to Cosmology,” said she encourages her students to make a “cheat sheet” of crucial equations for exams and work together on problem sets and “concept question” exercises to promote “active learning.” She has never had a case of cheating in her eight years of teaching the course, she said.

Some professors also try to deal with issues of academic dishonesty internally before turning to the ExComm. In 2011, Kurt Zilm, professor of chemistry and engineering, sent an email to his CHEM 115 class reporting that he had learned a group of students had purchased a teacher’s problem set manual and were submitting copied work as their own.

“Until now I had been very proud that this class appeared to be free of any cheating, but apparently I was mistaken,” Zilm wrote in the email.

He asked that each of the students who had plagiarized send him and their teaching fellows written apologies; otherwise, he would refer them to the Dean’s Office. Any future academic dishonesty would be reported to the ExComm, he wrote.

‘WILDLY DIVERGING EXPECTATIONS’

Still, students interviewed said they feel that the policies are blurry.

Markus Boesl ’14 explained that he thinks few students cheat on exams or plagiarize papers, but noted that problem sets and take-home exams can constitute a gray area due to the “wildly diverging expectations of professors.”

Two similar classes can have drastically different policies on academic dishonesty, he said. He described taking a chemistry class in which students got in trouble for copying problem sets from the solutions manual; the next semester, students were instructed to purchase the solutions manual and use it as a reference.

Sanjay Mathur ’13 said “everyone has heard stories” about students forming groups to work together on a take-home test or sports teams sharing study guides.

“Often the professor encourages collaboration,” Mathur said. “So it’s collaboration, but not really cheating.”

Neither Mathur nor Boesl said they believe the University has a severe academic dishonesty problem.

But in 2010, more than 600 of the 1,037 undergraduate respondents to a Yale Daily News survey reported that they had witnessed cheating during their time at Yale, and 15 percent of respondents said they had consciously cheated on an assignment or exam.

The survey also found that 31 percent of respondents did not know that turning in the same paper for two different classes constitutes cheating according to the Undergraduate Regulations. Sixty-six percent of respondents had never read Yale’s policies on academic dishonesty.

MOVING FORWARD

If the University decides to review its cheating policies in light of the incident at Harvard, students and faculty interviewed said it was important that administrators keep the benefits of group work in mind as well as the risks.

“In the real world, you don’t sit at a desk in a classroom with only a pencil and a blue book,” said Zara Kessler ’12, an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View who wrote an opinion piece for the site’s “Ticker blog” last week about the Harvard cheating scandal. Kessler is a former editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine.

Indeed, Boesl called the “culture of collaboration” among Yale students “one of the strongest and most appealing aspects of the Yale experience.”

Students benefit from group work because students have different ways of processing information and can learn from each other, Natarajan said.

“Some of us are more abstract, some are more intuitive, some are more mathematical,” she said. “A group with different sets of skills gets exposed to different ways of thinking and subconsciously gains insight into critical and creative thinking styles.”

But the scandal at Harvard has reminded some that collaboration is more complex today than it used to be.

“Technology is creating all these ways of talking to people and sharing things with people,” Kessler said. “At the same time, teachers are coming up with more creative and looser testing scenarios. Those two things together are blurring the lines between what is and isn’t acceptable.”

For now, Kessler believes Yale and similar institutions should return to in-class, proctored examinations, but faculty interviewed stressed the need for greater transparency rather than denouncing harder-to-regulate methods of assessment in favor of traditional exams.

“I think faculty have to be very clear about their expectations in written form in the syllabus,” Bradley said. “Don’t have any ambiguity at all. Is it okay to share notes, to go to last year and look up case results, or is that not okay?”

Similar cheating scandals have happened recently at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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