At Harvard University, 125 students are under investigation for possibly cheating on a take-home final exam in a government course offered last Spring.
The investigation began after a faculty member teaching the course noticed similar answers on the final exam. Students were not allowed to discuss the exam with others. Alleged behaviors tied range from collaborating with classmates to plagiarizing the work of other students.
The recent scandal at Harvard brings to mind the Chemistry 31 cheating scandal that occurred at Duke two years ago in relation to a broader culture of dishonesty. Although it is easier to view the Duke scandal an example of straight-up wrong cheating, the Harvard affair is more complex to decipher. Students claim that the professor was disorganized and unclear; there was one highly weighted exam question that many students, left to their own devices, found impossible to decipher.
Thus, the issue at stake is not solely an issue of dishonesty but also the instinctive impulse toward collaboration when faced with tricky or obscure concepts. Although students clearly violated policy by discussing the exam when they were told to avoid collaboration, this incident presents an opportunity to examine the appropriateness of various assessment methods used in college courses.
Currently, major assessment at Duke largely takes place either in traditional proctored exams, essays or collaborative projects. The first is still the best method to test straightforward knowledge, such as simple regurgitated facts like the dates of major World War II battles, or basic skills like finding the derivative of a matrix.
But more complex tasks that involve problem solving and critical thinking are best assessed through collaborative assignments. In the adult world—ranging from fields like academia to art to politics—one’s labor is often filtered through a complicated series of complicated social and professional relationships. In fact, as the Harvard incident demonstrates, students already possess a built-in tendency toward collaboration when faced with complex and unclear issues, even in situations where such collaboration is forbidden.
We support more assessment designed with collaboration in mind, when appropriate. Advantages include enabling students to work with new people and perspectives, gaining interpersonal skills and increasing overall understanding of the material through debate, discussion and discourse.
Potential issues raised by group collaboration can be mitigated through the creation of special policies and procedures from course instructors. For example, the creation of a detailed and intelligent collaboration policy can ease student confusion about acceptable behavior while still allowing room for positive collaborative learning.
Establishing assigned study groups can also be helpful. Students with more friends in the class may have a significant advantage. Assigned study or project groups ensure that all students have roughly equal amounts of collaborative potential they can access. Special procedures for group assignments, such as post-project assessments of one’s group members, can also ensure each student pulls his or her own weight.
Ultimately, students should respect the wishes of the professor and face discipline otherwise. Nevertheless—given the students’ innate tendencies towards collaboration, pedagogical arguments why collaboration is often desirable and the collaborative nature of the post-college world—perhaps it is time to reassess assessment.