Physics Exam Repeats Problems

Prof unaware of past exam posted online; exam will count less towards final grade

A final examination given on Wednesday morning left some students crying foul, with a letter to the course’s professor calling the integrity of the test “severely compromised,” when it was learned that some students in the course had brought already-completed answers to several of the questions on the exam. These accusations prompted the course head, Professor of Physics Mikhail D. Lukin, to make the final exam count less towards the students’ final grades.

The exam in Physics 153, “Electrodynamics,” allowed students to use their course notes and textbooks.

According to a student in the course, Elizabeth R. Shope ’09, a “rumor” circulated in the class that a small group of students, after receiving a tip from a friend, completed the 2004 edition of the test. They were then able to take advantage of the fact that four questions from that version reappeared on Wednesday’s exam, which featured a total of six problems, of which students could choose five to complete.

Shope said that according to the rumor, a student who took the course last year informed a group of students that, from his own experience, “it would be helpful” to complete the problems from the 2004 final exam, which is posted online by Harvard.

Lukin said that he was unaware of the availability of the 2004 exam to the public. “I never gave anyone a permission to publicize an old exam from two years ago,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Crimson.

In an e-mail sent to the class after receiving complaints about the allegations, Lukin announced that he would take steps to address the issue.

Reminding his students that the goal of “this class was learning and not getting good grades,” and calling the situation “unfortunate,” he announced that he would be adjusting the value of the final from 40 percent of the total course grade to 30 percent.

“This is a high level class and I assumed that only those who wanted to learn the subject matter would take it,” Lukin wrote in the e-mail to the Crimson. “The academic honesty was assumed.”

“It’s fair in that everyone technically had access to the exam, but [Lukin] has to somehow remedy the system,” Shope said.

In an e-mail response written under condition of anonymity, one of the students, who was part of the study group that completed the problems on the 2004 final exam, wrote that working on old exams was “a standard finals period ritual.”

The group “realized that there was a strong correlation between the old exam questions and the otherwise tangential topics discussed in the review section,” the student wrote.

But the student said that after completing the 2004 final exam, “some friends of the study group who had previously taken the class in 2005 confirmed” that the 2004 exam also shared similar questions with the 2005 final exam.

After completing the final, Heather E. Carmichael ’09 said she was surprised to overhear a student say he had little trouble with the test and had done the past exam posted online.

“I wasn’t happy about my performance on the exam. I definitely felt it would have been a huge advantage to have seen the problems beforehand,” said Carmichael, who said that she “personally didn’t realize there was a final posted online for the class.”

Despite her personal disappointment, she insisted that she did not hold the students in question accountable. “It was an advantage they acquired by means that weren’t cheating,” she said.

Shope agreed, saying “I completely don’t fault the kids.”

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Barry Kane did not return a request for comment.

—Staff writer Nicholas A. Ciani can be reached at nciani@fas.harvard.edu.