Harvard University announced yesterday that it is investigating more than a hundred students in a single section of an introductory Poli Sci course on suspicion of cheating on an open-book final exam. When the news broke I tweeted my suspicion that the structure of the final might have contributed to the temptation to cheat, and a new article in the Harvard Crimson appears to confirm my suspicion.
The final exam in professor Matthew Platt’s “Introduction to Congress” course was designated as “completely open-book, open-notes, open internet,” but students were warned “not [to] discuss the exam with others,” including their fellow students, tutors or anybody else.
The test included what the Crimson describes as “three multi-part short answer questions,” questions that one anonymous student — who is not suspected of cheating — described as “find the answer and basically say why this is the way it is.” Students were apparently confused by at least two of these questions, with one writing in a course evaluation that more than a dozen had descended en masse on a teaching assistant’s office on the day the assignment was due:
“Almost all of [us] had been awake the entire night, and none of us could figure out what an entire question (worth 20% of the grade) was asking,” that student said. “On top of this, one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the TF had to give us a definition to use for the question.”
The professor’s own office hours that day were canceled on minimal notice.
Students have an ethical obligation not to cheat, of course. But faculty also have an obligation not to create situations in which cheating is likely to occur. To give an “open internet” take-home exam in which any conversation with your classmates is defined as “cheating” is — even in the best of circumstances — to establish a context in which some cheating is all but inevitable, and virtually impossible to detect. When you declare behavior that you can’t police, behavior that may be entirely benign, to be cheating, you erase the bright-line distinction between proper and improper behavior that is essential to academic integrity. And when you craft a take-home test that’s potentially confusing and deny students any licit mechanism for resolving their confusion, you place students in an entirely untenable position.