Elementary School Cooperation, Pressure, and Harvard Cheating

On Friday the news broke that Harvard University is investigating what may be the largest student cheating scandal in its history. 125 students in a course titled “Introduction to Congress” are suspected of cheating on the take-home final exam. All jokes aside about it being sadly funny that a course about Congress was one which inspired cheating, how did we get here? How did students who are some of our nation’s best and brightest, students who will go on to lead in businesses, academics, and government, either cheat intentionally or fail miserably at understanding the basic social contract behind a final course exam?

The fact that the students collaborated on the exam and that their answers were similar is not under dispute. The students are defending their shared exam work, stating that they felt the professor and teaching assistants encouraged cooperation and collaboration, or tolerated it, or at least did not explicitly state it was against the rules. Some have even said they will sue Harvard if they are punished.

The defense the students are putting forth is that the course was represented to them (apparently by the professor and some other students) as an easy “A”. These students went into the class feeling as though attending lectures and doing the reading was optional. There were take-home assignments and exams during the course that did allow some collaboration. Then they got the final exam. Some felt the final was confusing with trick questions and at least one term that had not been obviously defined in class or in the readings. Students being questioned about cheating chatted about the exam specifics with each other and went to teaching assistants for guidance on how to answer the questions. Given the perceived unfairness of having to work hard for a grade in an “easy” class, deal with ambiguous questions, and think on their own, many students just chose to work together. No word yet on how the other 154 students in the course managed to complete their exam without outside help.

Students are claiming that the exam instructions were confusing and didn’t explicitly ban collaboration. This is a disingenuous argument. If the instructions were confusing, they should have clarified the instructions, not worked together on the answers. The exam instructions, as posted by the Boston Globe, explicitly state that the students may not discuss the exam. An open book, open note, and open Internet exam is not the same thing as a “discuss with your neighbor and write down your combined best answer” exam. Perhaps the students have never had true, in-class, proctored, open-book exams so they don’t understand what that means? Harvard has moved away from traditional in-class exams.

Clearly this extreme form of cheating does not suddenly emerge out of  a vacuum. Harvard graduates have, from time-to-time, spoken out about the culture of cheating occurs when kids used to success and under pressure to achieve high GPAs, start feeling like they might fail. This need to bend ethics and the truth to win is evident elsewhere in society from politics to the Libor interest rate scandal.

Yet the uptick of both cheating and rationalizing that cheating represented in the current Harvard scandal is something new. It is one thing to cheat, it is another to blatantly do so in mass numbers, threatening to sue a university if you are punished. To me this is the sad but natural progression of two trends that are taking over our school systems, starting at the elementary level.

The first trend is the growing worship of shared, group work over individual effort. Many, if not most, elementary school classrooms have desks arranged in collaborative workgroup “pods” rather than in straight lines, facing the teacher. In these pods the students face each other. This increases peer interaction (and distraction), minimizes the authority and role of the teacher in the classroom, and gives burgeoning bullies more opportunities to pick on classmates without getting caught. Teachers arrange their rooms this way to make it easier for students to work together. While everyone agrees that we want our future workforce to be excellent at getting along with each other and working together, is a heavy emphasis on group projects in school the right way to achieve that goal? Actual research shows that individuals perform better than groups.  People in groups tend to be lazy, letting others do more work than themselves. Rather than fostering more ideas, groups tend to create a type of groupthink where individual ideas are suppressed and peer pressure rules. The work and creativity of introverts especially suffers when they are forced to work in groups. By emphasizing group work so early in school we are de-emphasising individual effort and ability. We are encouraging the type of thinking that can lead to students at an Ivy League university seeing nothing wrong with a group effort on a final exam. We are short-changing our kids and their future employers by teaching them that there is no difference between an individual knowing the correct answer and that individual’s peer group knowing the correct answer. We are systematically reducing the numbers and quality of thoughts and ideas in our world just when we need an increase of creativity to find solutions to our 21st Century problems.

The second trend is more obvious and just as disturbing. It is the win at all costs, my child must be the best, of the best, of the best or he/she will be a failure, parenting style. When parents coach their kids to make sure they gain entry to gifted programs and call teachers to complain about test scores, their kids notice. Kids are learning that resources and success are limited and the stakes are so high it is permissible to bend the rules. The idea that your life will be irreparably ruined if you fail a course, in college or even K-12 is widespread. Parents, and therefore their kids, do not seem to believe that America is the land of limitless opportunity anymore. Instead everything matters, everything is life or death, and grades matter more than what you have actually learned. Our school system has created an environment where everyone is accountable, as judged by graduation rates and test scores, not by knowledge. Colleges used to hold the line on true academics, but they too are under pressure to turn out students with high GPAs and amazing resumes, regardless of actual learning. Grade inflation is rampant and frequently it isn’t until the stellar, always above average students gets into the workforce that the gaps in their ability and knowledge are obvious.

Getting into “the right” college isn’t as important and learning how to think and write. Statistics that show the amazing success of graduates of top universities fail to acknowledge that the smart, talented students accepted into those institutions will be successful no matter where they go to school. Parents all need to take a deep breath, stop worrying about the future and start teaching that integrity and hard work will be as important in the future as they were in the past.

3 thoughts on “Elementary School Cooperation, Pressure, and Harvard Cheating”

  1. Wow, just wow. They aren’t even familiar with proctored, in-class open-book exams? What a bunch of cry babies, or idiots, as the final result may be. I managed 10 semesters of college and not once had a take-home exam or even an in-class open-book final exam. Instead, it was no books, rely on your memory. I could have gotten straight As at Harvard under this kind of system. College used to be challenging; no longer, it seems.

    1. I never had a take-home final either. I’m sure back then, just like now, the idea would seem ridiculous. The only thing that came close to an open book exam was permission (sometimes) to bring formula “cheat sheets” into a math exam.

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