Faculty Members Defend Take-Home Exams Despite Scandal

Following Harvard’s announcement last week of a large-scale investigation into alleged cheating on a final in an introductory government class, several faculty members who have similarly offered take-home exams say that they are not yet convinced that an end to the practice is merited.

Numerous courses at the College utilize out-of-class finals to test understanding of class material, from Social Studies 40: “Philosophy and Methods of the Social Sciences” to English 157: “The Classic Phase of the Novel.”

And despite last Thursday’s revelation that more than 100 Harvard undergraduates may have plagiarized on a take-home final examination in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress,” some teaching staff members contend that a take-home exam remains a valuable tool.

“It allows students to synthesize the concepts and to actually use them in ways beyond just regurgitating things they’ve learned in lecture,” said Harvard Kennedy School Professor Timothy Nelson, who gave his students in Sociology 43: “Social Interaction” a take-home final this spring.

This semester, Nelson’s Sociology 155: “Class and Culture” will have both a take-home midterm and final.

In the spring, United States in the World 30: “Thinking about the Constitution,” taught by Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, also administered a take-home exam.

“We saw no reason to disadvantage people who might not think as quickly but whose understanding is superior,” said Joshua A. Matz, the course’s head teaching fellow. He added that it is still uncertain whether a take-home final will be given when the course is offered again in the spring.

Both Matz and Nelson said that, although they considered the possibility of student cheating, it did not deter them from giving a take-home exam. And at the end of the semester, none of the exams for either class raised issues of academic dishonesty.

But both also admitted that the absence of any suspicious tests does not mean that students did not discuss the prompt amongst themselves.

“I would imagine that it would have been fairly easy for students to cheat in at least some ways, like the sharing of information at a very general level in ways that it would have been impossible to detect,” Matz said.

In fact, Nelson said he even encourages collaboration on take-home finals leading up to the actual process of writing.

“Once you send a question in a take-home, [students] are going to talk about it.  To expect them not to is unrealistic,” he said.

Chad Kia, the professor of Islamic Civilizations 105: “Culture and Society in Contemporary Iran,” said he will continue to give his students the freedom to write their final exam papers outside of class.

“If they collaborate, I don’t consider that plagiarism,” he said. “The nature of the exam or the final paper, it’s that they have to really engage with the text and come up with solutions,” a process he said is often best achieved through discussion.

“The work has to be their own,” he said.

Kia added that the small size of his class--only 32 students took the course last semester--allows him to familiarize himself with student writing and catch plagiarism earlier in the semester.

But he was not overly surprised at the allegations, calling academic dishonesty a “cultural” phenomenon that may be a consequence of high pressure at institutions like Harvard.

“There might be a tendency to think that because these are elite institutions it doesn’t happen,” he said. “But I would argue that of course it happens.”

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at kwu@college.harvard.edu.

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