At Harvard University, more than 100 students are being implicated in a cheating scandal after they were caught writing nearly identical answers for a final exam, a set of take-home essay questions. While the exam directions forbade collaboration with other students, many students claim that group work with both other students and instructors was normal in the class. Though the students were entirely in the wrong — academic honesty should be expected from all — the policies were unclear, and defining what constituted misconduct was difficult at best. Universities should work to define explicit cheating policies and punishments, and professors should reinforce these guidelines in individual classes, in hopes of avoiding similar scandals.
If the students are found guilty of cheating, the university suspend the students for a year if found in violation. The diplomas of the students who graduated in 2012 will be revoked. According to The New York Times, some families of students are threatening to sue Harvard should these sanctions be enforced.
It’s impossible to move total blame to the students if they are unsure of what constitutes cheating. While the course was assisted by graduate student instructors, their teaching methods varied between class sections. Several instructors essentially gave answers to the students. If an instructor was actively assisting students on the exam, it’s understandable that students would think collaboration was acceptable. The take-home exam was also “open note, open book, open Internet,” etc. This policy allowed students to use a multitude of resources — though the exam directions clearly stated that the examinees were not to use each other.
Professors must be wary of too few explicit guidelines defining academic honesty. As professors control the course, they shouldn’t pass on grades entirely. Still, the responsibility lies on the graduate student instructors teaching the courses and grading the exams in a discussion class – as it does on the students who took advantage of an “open book” exam. Though ignorance or confusion regarding rules is not an adequate defense, it remains that universities such as Harvard should employ a clear zero-tolerance policy for academic dishonesty.
Many work environments are pushing for team based efforts, which rely heavily on workplace collaboration. College students should be learning to collaborate effectively with peers to better prepare for whatever happens after graduation. Students should be encouraged to work together as an effective study tool.
To avoid future scandals, universities should work to ensure plagiarism and cheating policies are completely transparent. Punishments for these actions should also be made clear by clarifying what is and is not academic honesty in written, oral and online form. These rules and consequences need to be transparent enough that all involved understand the university’s policies.