Last spring, as students were apparently sharing answers with one another at Harvard, I was finishing up my last semester as an undergraduate at Yale. And though the historic Harvard-Yale rivalry begs me to say otherwise, I'll admit that this cheating scandal could have happened at my alma mater too. It implicates not only academic integrity but also exam integrity.
Harvard hopes that by making the apparent misdeeds known -- on Thursday, the university announced that 125 students are being investigated for cheating on a take-home final exam -- it can incite a broader discussion of academic honesty. Jay Harris, Harvard's dean of undergraduate education, told the Harvard Crimson last week that he wants to treat the incident as a "teaching opportunity." But Harvard, whose brand of academic excellence has surely been tainted by worldwide coverage of the cheating, should take this as a moment to learn as well as teach about how best to examine its students in the Internet age.
According to the Crimson, the instructions for the exam in question read as follows: "The exam is completely open book, open note, open internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others -- this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc."
In my undergraduate career, I was warned against the use of "etc." It's vague and imprecise. It's what you use when you can't -- or won't -- articulate your argument. These instructions use "etc." twice.
Why? Because in the realm of cheating -- and especially cheating on exams like this one -- it would be all but impossible to detail what exactly is, and what is not, permissible. Does "open book" include the scribbles in your used textbook from the student last year? Does "open note" include those notes from a friend when you were sick for -- OK, slept through -- lecture? Does "open internet" allow you to post a question on an internet forum? As one accused student told the Boston Globe about those et ceteras: "If I posted my exam answers on the Internet and you found them, could you then use my exam as a source?"
At Yale, I saw people e-mail essays home to mom and dad for a final edit. They shared notes and study guides and old exams. I pushed my way into sessions with that one teaching fellow whom everyone knew would walk you through the problem set question by question -- and more important, answer by answer.
I'm not trying to exculpate the students who cheated, who should be appropriately punished. Instead, I wonder whether at some point in the summer, as the case grew from 10 to 20 similar exams to about 125 accusations, some students -- who, as subsequent news reports have indicated, did things like sharing notes and old study guides or going to the same teaching fellows for help -- got lost in the fray of vague rules.
So I think it's time -- as some in the blogosphere have also suggested -- for universities to mandate in-class, closed-book final exams. Until professors can itemize those "et ceteras" at the same speed at which the Internet creates new exceptions, it's best just to shut the laptops altogether. Locking students in silence, with teaching fellows serving as proctors rather than accomplices, can test how much students internalized as they worked together on homework or reading notes or study guides. Those who e-mailed every paper home for a final look will struggle to edit. Those who chose bed over class won't remember the diagram the professor drew on the board. And those who tape formulas to the inside of the bathroom stall will still be cheating.
An argument in favor of open-book or take-home exams is that they are meant to mimic "real life," where one solves problems with time, reflection and resources beyond a pencil and a light-blue examination booklet. But these skills can be honed and measured in other ways: research, collaboration, even -- gasp! -- conversations with teachers and other students. Besides, as someone who just recently made the transition from college to real life, I can attest that there is very little overlap.
(Zara Kessler is an editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)
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