Harvard and the politics of large-scale cheating

Dan Ariely's picture
Rank: Monkey | 39

Harvard is known for many things, its rigorous academics, its crisp New England campus, its secret societies, and now, what may be the most extensive cheating scandal in Ivy League history. A total of 279 students are now under investigation for collaborating on a take-home exam, with the threat of a year's expulsion hanging over their heads if found guilty.

Matthew Platt, professor of the course in question (Introduction to Congress), brought the tests before the school's administration after noticing similarities on a few of the exams, and the investigation mushroomed from there. Students were not permitted to work together on the exam (officially), but now there's a lot of talk about the instructions, the expectations, and the questions themselves being unclear. I would bet that there are a number of aspects to this situation that led to such a widespread web of cheating.

In general, lack of clarity in expectations is a great instigator of dishonesty, after all, when no one tells you what you can and can't do, it becomes much easier to decide for yourself what probably is and isn't okay. For instance, it might seem that asking a peer what he or she thinks a question means if the wording is unclear is pretty reasonable. Then, naturally, that discussion of intent might lead to what the answer could be. In this case, the instructions seem fairly clear, stating that "students may not discuss the exam with others." However, it appears that the professor cancelled his office hours before the tests were due, which would make it a lot more difficult to clarify any questions. This makes for easy justification.

Also, the subject of the class was Congress, which is itself an institution shot through with ambiguity and famous for its lies and liars. Extensive discussion of corruption could easily engender more dishonest behavior in those taking part (in psychology we call it priming, where we expose participants to a stimulus that alters their behavior as a result, for instance, asking people to do math problems when we want to induce logical thinking). It's hard to imagine a better primer for dishonesty than a class on Congress. Maybe one on modern financial institutions.

Moreover, people generally agree that cheating in the social domain is often acceptable--we call them little white lies. Like when a friend asks how she looks in something and you say "great!" when you really should say "passable"; that's often excused from the realm of dishonesty. Or another friend asks what you think of his new girlfriend, and you say "she seems nice!" instead of "she seems boring and self-centered!" We tell these little lies to keep the peace. Yet we generally deny that this is acceptable in the business domain. If you ask your accountant how much money is in such and such an account, giving a number twice as high to make you feel better would be inexcusable. We need to consider that for students, the social and professional circles vastly overlap, which makes it more difficult to separate what's permissible and what isn't. This is not to absolve students who cheat, but it's something to consider. Students often live in the same place they go to class, which is essentially their workplace. Their friends are also their colleagues, and their "bosses" (professors and TAs) are often their friends. All this blending makes can make lines of conduct a bit more indistinct.

None of this is meant to make light of the problem of cheating, or to imply that it's excusable. But if we want to prevent such things from happening again, we need to think about not just the students, but also the system in which they live and operate. Thus, professors need to work on being crystal clear in instructions. Telling students, for instance, "speak to no one other than the professor or your TA about any aspect of the exam" leaves no gray areas. All that said, it will be interesting to see how things at Harvard shake out ...

http://danariely.com/2012/09/05/harvard-and-the-po...

Comments (29)

Sep 5, 2012

This just in today: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2198932/Mo...
"Federal investigators have found that a Harvard University psychology professor who resigned after being accused of scientific transgression fabricated data and manipulated results in experiments."

Sep 5, 2012

Yale is the school with the secret societies.

IlliniProgrammer is doing everything he can to resist the urge to take potshots at the Ivies right now. Given that the Big Ten has the most prestigious schools in the country, making fun of poor Harvard or Yale in the backwater Ivy League would make him a douche.

Sep 5, 2012
IlliniProgrammer:

Yale is the school with the secret societies.

yeah you going to join skull and bones?

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Sep 5, 2012
AndyLouis:
IlliniProgrammer:

Yale is the school with the secret societies.

yeah you going to join skull and bones?

I'm not at Yale, and I would never join a club that would have me as a member.

Ok, ok, on a more practical level, the last time I showed up on the Yale campus and tried to join, security had my rusty honda towed before I even made it to the front door.

Sep 5, 2012
IlliniProgrammer:

Yale is the school with the secret societies.

IlliniProgrammer is doing everything he can to resist the urge to take potshots at the Ivies right now. Given that the Big Ten has the most prestigious schools in the country, making fun of poor Harvard or Yale in the backwater Ivy League would make him a douche.

At least they aren't protecting child molesters

Sep 5, 2012
petergibbons:

At least they aren't protecting child molesters

I hope they aren't.

Sep 6, 2012
IlliniProgrammer:

Yale is the school with the secret societies.

IlliniProgrammer is doing everything he can to resist the urge to take potshots at the Ivies right now. Given that the Big Ten has the most prestigious schools in the country, making fun of poor Harvard or Yale in the backwater Ivy League would make him a douche.

No , not really. To be a real douche , one needs position or power or cachet of some kind and then needs to be smug about it in some way. Since I can't remotely associate Wisconsin , Indiana or UIUC with power - (sorry buddy , solid eng programs tho ) , you can't really be a douche. You would be an intelligent , arrogant nerd.

Now on the other hand , if you were to wear a tux , cradle a martini and talk about your time at Princeton , we'd have a really strong contender here!

Sep 5, 2012

I'm sorry, but what did you expect from a take home test?

Everyone is going to share answers and help each other out. If the professor really didn't think that would happen, he should be fired for stupidity

Sep 5, 2012

Let's be honest here. There is cheating in all the universities of the world. I personally did not cheat myself. For some reason I was very dedicated to my studies. But I remember taking a class in which there was some cheating at the final exam. The professor allowed students to bring notes, books, whatever to the test. After all, it was an engineering test which required lots of formulas. No way we could memorize them. The problem was that some student somehow got the questions that were coming in the exam. So naturally, they had the problems solved, step by step and brought that paper to the test. But not only he brought it, almost all the class brought it. And the morons just copy pasted the answers. The professor saw the same answers in 90% of the class and you know what ensued. They were lucky that only have to retake the test again. I went back home ;)

Sep 5, 2012

As you said OP, cheating in an Intro to Congress class. Why am I not surprised.

Best Response
Sep 6, 2012
MonkeyWrench:

As you said OP, cheating in an Intro to Congress class. Why am I not surprised.

The ones who didn't get caught must have already taken the Advanced Techniques of Congress class.

    • 2
Sep 6, 2012
SirTradesaLot:
MonkeyWrench:

As you said OP, cheating in an Intro to Congress class. Why am I not surprised.

The ones who didn't get caught must have already taken the Advanced Techniques of Congress class.

Clever, quick, spot on. SB for you Sir.

if you like it then you shoulda put a banana on it

Sep 6, 2012
SirTradesaLot:
MonkeyWrench:

As you said OP, cheating in an Intro to Congress class. Why am I not surprised.

The ones who didn't get caught must have already taken the Advanced Techniques of Congress class.

Bravo, I'd SB if I had one.

Sep 6, 2012

My guess is that whatever justifications these students are using will be refuted by the fact that the front page probably had an honor code sign off saying that you would work alone, etc. on the exam. At the same time I don't think they will suspend the kids for a year, maybe just fail them all.

Sep 6, 2012

Just noticed this, but I have a problem with the OP creating an account just to paste his blog articles as forum posts. Not cool bro.

Sep 6, 2012
av8ter:

Just noticed this, but I have a problem with the OP creating an account just to paste his blog articles as forum posts. Not cool bro.

This is a syndication I set up and posted with his permission

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Sep 6, 2012

I assume this is an introduction to the legislature , and not to the more enjoyable type of congress

Sep 6, 2012

This doesn't surprise me at all...I once saw a kid have a seizure during the final from dehydration/not sleeping (felt horrible for him) but when the paramedics where there and the TAs were pre-occuppied I watched 90% of my class cheat and talk openly with each other. Cheating and being an opportunistic a-hole is something so many college kids are associated with. I prefer to sleep soundly at night but some people will do anything for an A...funny thing is only 3 kids got an A on the final (yours truly was one) so the lesson here is cheating doesn't work if everyone has no idea whats going on

Sep 6, 2012

Yes, ladies and gentlemen...professors can be fooled.

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Sep 6, 2012

With the power, money and influence of the alumni (who send their children their in droves) Im sure this will clear itself up in no time and the endowment will announce a nice pop in Q4.

Sep 6, 2012

Why give a vague, open ended assignment in the first place? Especially for the final exam. Like you said op, only opens the door to dishonesty, making it that much easier to justify to oneself. Similar to claiming ignorance of the law (not a viable defense).

Sep 6, 2012

When I was in grad school (econ phd), we always dreaded take home tests. The professors were too aware of the bad incentives that come with typical take home exams (the honor code at the school was terrible in dealing with cheating, we studied it in game theory). So they would even let us work together and use any source we wanted for the exams. The problem was that they would give us cutting edge problems which nobody had been able to solve yet, or worse yet, unsolvable problems. In fact, 99% of the exams I took were written with the explicit intention that nobody could actually finish them.

This basically resulted in spending even more time to finish these than if we had to study and take an in-class, proctored exam. I honestly preferred in-class exams without being allowed to bring in a formula sheet.

I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.

Sep 6, 2012

If you're not cheating you're not trying

Test banks were very popular at my super non target. I'd say 30-40% of the kids in my class had test banks. The kids who didn't have a test bank would cheat in a heartbeat whenever the opportunity arised (copying asian guys answers, extra notecard of formulas, notes in lap, etc)

Work smart, not hard

Sep 6, 2012

I agree with Liljon to a certain degree. Its honestly on the professor to make a cheat-proof test (which can be easily done). Professors just get lazy when it comes to teaching duties, especially when they're trying to "earn" some more grant money.

I believe that if the professor insults their students' intelligence so much to use an old exam or one posted on the internet from another source (this actually happened once to me), then they should deal with the consequences of the students whose objective is to maximize their score.

I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.

Sep 6, 2012

Mike Ross in the house?

Sep 7, 2012

Cheating is rampant at top schools, no question about it. I was once proctoring an exam in undergrad and caught two people comparing answers not once, but TWICE. Obviously notified the professor by pointing out the perps and...he did nothing.

Sep 7, 2012

A guy I know at my school had a light course load last semester and his roommate was paying him upwards of $100 (per paper) to write it for him. I go to a decent school and the guy being paid wasn't even taking the class that he was writing for.

Sep 7, 2012
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Sep 7, 2012

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