Cheating at Harvard — Do Students Always Get What They Pay For?

Some of you may have heard about the cheating scandal at Harvard involving approximately 125 students in a spring 2012 class of Government 1310 – Introduction to Congress. The assistant professor  teaching the course, Dr. Matthew Platt, noticed similarities in take-home exams that the 279 students in the class were supposed to complete independently.

Before I got any farther, I should mention that I never attended Harvard and have never met Matthew Platt. But long, long ago, while an undergraduate at the trade school down the river, I took Introduction to the American Political Process with Dr. Charles Stewart. More recently (2004), Stewart taught Congress and the American Political System I. Platt’s 2011 syllabus for Government 1310 includes publications by Stewart.  Both courses covered similar topics, met for lecture twice a week, and had similar reading loads.

In terms of graded assignments and exams, the courses are quite different. The final grade for Platt’s course was based entirely on four take-home exams totaling 12-20 pages of writing for the entire semester. There were weekly section meetings led by graduate students, and, at least for the 2011 version, periodic voluntary discussions with the professor of 10-20 students at a time, but according to the syllabus these had no direct bearing on a student’s final grade.

Stewart’s course in 2004 included in-class midterm and final exams (consisting of short answer and essay questions), a 12-15 page term paper,  and two problem sets. Participation in class discussion contributed toward the final grade.

I don’t think the alleged cheating is the most important issue here. Some, many, or most of the students in Platt’s course probably thought going into it that it would be an easy A. They then discovered to their horror that exam questions required creative application of ideas from readings, which maybe they did not look at until the night before the exam was due — even though they had a week to complete each exam. So they began discussing possible answers among themselves. We’ve probably all seen this scenario play out before, if only on a smaller scale.

What I find more significant is the infrequency with which students in the Harvard course were required to actively engage with the material in comparison to students in the MIT course. For the former, a student could in theory never attend lectures, section meetings, or discussions, and his or her grade would not be affected — put together a three-page essay with sufficient references to reading assignments four times in the semester and you’re done. For the latter, in addition to sitting for exams and writing a term paper, students had to complete problem sets, participate in weekly round-table class discussions, and make an end-of-semester presentation.

Both universities are prestigious institutions that charge high prices for attending. Yet in this particular example, learning outcomes were likely to be very different. Maybe one doesn’t always get what one pays for.

One thought on “Cheating at Harvard — Do Students Always Get What They Pay For?

  1. A classic example of the importance of aligning your provision with your assessment: if it’s important to attend, then that should be reflected in the assessment. Students are rational enough to work out what’s needed and what’s not, so signpost that.

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