Thursday, September 13, 2012

Another Casualty of the "Cheating Scandal"

5pm update: The Bureau of Study Counsel has fixed its broken link and the excellent collaboration guide is now accessible.

It would not be surprising if confusion and fear about collaboration prevailed among Harvard students this fall, due to the large penumbra cast by the investigation of the Congress course. The investigation involves not just students who had cut-and-pasted but others who report that they had talked to each other, or talked to their TFs in a group, or worked in study groups prior to the exam, etc.

Just out of curiosity, I went to the Bureau of Study Counsel web page to see what guidance Harvard offers students about appropriate and inappropriate forms of collaboration. I recall, for example, that studying in groups is one of the things that students from less fancy schools had to be taught to do here--they are more likely to sit by themselves and stare at their notes and text books. Various studies, including Dick Light's very widely read Making the Most of College as I recall, cite group study as one of the keys to success. I knew a couple of students who always watched the videos of my lectures together rather than coming to class, because they found it better to stop and back up the videos and talk to each other about what I was saying than to listen to me lecture or interrupt me if they didn't understand what I was saying.

I was pleased to see that the BSC page on Handouts and Resources has a link labeled "What Do Teachers Mean by 'Collaborate'?" It seems to me perfectly symbolic of the present state of affairs that when I click on that link, my browser responds, "The file you are looking for may not exist."

I do not believe there is a culture of cheating at Harvard. But it would not surprise me if a culture of fear of cheating developed--a fear that extremely useful educational practices should, just to be safe, be avoided. The biggest victims would be the very students who would most benefit from working together.

At some point, faculty should be told that academic freedom notwithstanding, they actually cannot run their courses however they want, or that if they do, the College will not round up and punish the alleged offenders of their ill-considered practices.

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