Monday, September 24, 2012


The cheating scandal at Harvard which could involve as many as 125 students in a single class has gotten extensive publicity. And the impression given is that this is an unusual event. For example, as quoted in the New York Times, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education noted that this cheating incident at Harvard “is unprecedented in its scope and magnitude.” This may be correct, given that it involves almost half of the class, but cheating and academic dishonesty are not unusual events and the “scope and magnitude” of what happens nationwide is certainly disturbing.

Mr. Harris, in the same New York Times article notes that “the enabling role of technology is a big part of the picture.” He continues by stating “It’s the ease of sharing. With that has come, I believe a certain cavalier attitude.” True enough but there are two other factors that I believe are an important part of this equation. First, and this was not the case at Harvard, faculty are often reluctant to bring cheating to the attention of their administration preferring instead to administer their own justice for incidents of academic dishonesty. This justice varies widely for the same infraction from faculty member to faculty member. I understand the faculty mentality and respect it, and I also understand the reluctance to follow a cookie cutter approach in determining penalties or grades. But what is lost in this approach is that repeat incidents of cheating need a stronger response but if an incident is not reported to administration, there is no way to ramp up the penalty for the next incident. As a faculty member, I might be lenient on a first infraction on the part of an undergraduate. I certainly wouldn’t be lenient regarding any infraction by a graduate student and I wouldn’t be lenient toward any repeat offense. We need to coordinate our efforts regarding academic dishonesty. Cheating is a nationwide problem. It will not disappear quickly and only a response that is both resolute and yet understanding of faculty prerogatives can work to moderate the problem.

Cheating doesn’t just start in college. It starts much earlier and is equally pervasive in much of middle and high school education. It actually starts earlier in elementary school and unfortunately parents may be playing an enabling role in the cheating that is going on. We all recognize that parents play a critical role in the education of their children and that teachers together with parents are key factors in the success of children. But where should parents draw the line in helping their kids. My wife and I both read to and listened to the reading of both of our kids when they were very young. I hope we helped them read earlier and more fluently. But we have never felt that their homework was our homework and we never hovered over them until their assignments were perfection. And we never have felt that their grades are our grades and that we had to help them in any way possible to get the highest grade possible.

Homework is to be the results of the students’ efforts, not the results of the students’ efforts plus substantial help from your parents or others. Take home exams are the results of the students’ efforts not the result of the students’ efforts plus the help of others. Grades are based on the work done by the student, not (under usual circumstances) by a group. At every grade we need to reinforce the importance of the students’ efforts and at every grade we need to reinforce the penalty that will be paid if that effort turns out to be the result of someone else’s intervention. And the penalties need to be much harsher for any repeat offense.

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