The course affected by the cheating — Government 1310: Introduction to Congress — had a reputation as an extremely easy class, where students were supposedly allowed to collaborate on their work and share lecture notes. According to the students, the professor promised 120 A’s in a class of less than 300 and declared that attendance at both lectures and discussion sessions was completely optional. Grades were determined solely by four take-home exams, which were seemingly designed to be as painless as possible — the instructions for the final exam stipulated that it was “completely open book, open note, [and] open Internet” — and consisted of short answer questions that asked about very specific facts. The students could merely look up any information they needed. Not even rote memorization, the first step toward understanding, was required in any way. The course’s design facilitated and possibly even encouraged mere regurgitation of information instead of actual learning.
All in all, it seems as though the course was intentionally set up to be easy as possible, yet the Harvard students still cheated on a spectacularly large scale. I would posit that they did so because their academic integrity standards had already been lowered so much that they were taking an exam where looking up information on the Internet and using their notes during the test — behaviors that would usually constitute cheating — were perfectly acceptable. In a large body of students, a few will always be tempted to cheat if the opportunity presents itself, but if surreptitiously glancing at a fellow classmate’s test or your own notes is already considered blatant cheating, almost nobody thinks of doing what the Harvard students did. However, because the usual prohibited behaviors were allowed, the format acted as sort of gateway to more extreme methods of cheating.
Moreover, the very idea of an “open Internet” take-home exam is irreconcilable with honest learning in general; even the idea of “open note” take-home exams seems somewhat flawed, as a student could conceivably copy down information verbatim without actually comprehending any of it. There are several courses at Princeton that have take-home exams that allow students to use their course materials, much like the exam that was given at Harvard. These take-home exams, however, are largely essay-based and, therefore, require the synthesis and understanding of information rather than simple regurgitation, an important distinction. I am not against the idea of take-home exams — in fact, I think they allow professors to give much more intellectually challenging questions than in-class exams would — but they definitely should not serve as a method of giving easy tests, which includes absurdities such as the “open Internet” exam that the Harvard students took.
The main issue with the course at Harvard was not that the students were given a take-home exam, but rather that all their exams — in fact, all their grades for the entire semester — were based solely on open note, take-home exams. I think that if a take-home exam is to truly assess how much a student has learned in the course, it should have a time limit of some sort — three hours, six hours, even 24 hours, but certainly not a whole week — and perhaps be limited to open book only. Even if take-home exams are given, students should be required to take some sort of timed, in-class assessment — especially in large introductory classes — to ensure they are learning the course material. Perhaps the best compromise is to allow a take-home exam for the midterm but not the final, or vice versa.
In any case, integrity and honor are, unfortunately, not qualities that colleges can screen for during the admission process. In fact, by making the admission process so competitive, colleges might not be receiving the students most interested in learning. Instead, they end up with the most competitive students, who, when faced with an achievement-centered higher education culture, are tempted to find a shortcut, as with those involved in the Harvard cheating scandal. Many students are all too willing to take classes simply for the grades and have little desire to actually acquire any new knowledge. We should not encourage them by having courses with primarily “open note” exams.
Spencer Shen is a freshman from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.