Harvard cheating scandal? It could be bad teaching.

Several theories try to explain alleged cheating at Harvard University, but they omit the most obvious explanation: poor teaching. Students are more likely to cheat when they feel disengaged from a class. Universities cheat our kids by placing a low premium on teaching.

Brian Snyder/Reuters/file
Harvard's seal sits atop a gate to the athletic fields at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University is investigating allegations of undergraduate students cheating on a spring take-home final exam. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes: 'Teaching is mostly unrewarded, which is the biggest scandal of all. Across every kind of school...professors who give more time to research tend to make higher salaries; meanwhile, the ones who devote themselves more to teaching tend to earn less.'

In 1998, a self-described con-man named Bob Corbett published an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek manifesto called “The Cheater’s Handbook: The Naughty Student’s Bible.” Boasting that he had paid someone to take his high school Advanced Placement tests, Mr. Corbett provided helpful and often hilarious hints for producing crib sheets, digging up old exams, and much more.

But he dedicated his book to his 11th grade English teacher, who “did such a wonderfully engaging job that he destroyed any shred of desire I may ever have had to cheat in English thereafter,” Corbett wrote. “If all teachers brought such passionate energy to their classrooms,” he added, “perhaps this book would become obsolete.”

I thought of Corbett as I read about the cheating scandal at Harvard, where almost half of the 279 students in a course last spring are under investigation for allegedly collaborating on a take-home final exam. Trying to explain the episode, news reports and commentaries named the usual suspects: crazy-competitive college admissions have made students even more grade-conscious, the internet has made it easier for them to cut and paste, and universities have stopped trying to instruct them about what’s right and wrong.

There’s something to these theories, but they omit the most obvious explanation: poor teaching. As educational researchers have repeatedly demonstrated, students are more likely to cheat when they feel disengaged from a class. If you think your professor doesn’t care whether you’re learning, you probably won’t care – or learn – very much either. And you’ll try to pull one over on her or him, in any way you can.

That seems to be what was happening in professor Matthew Platt’s “Introduction to Congress” course at Harvard last spring. An anonymous student in the class told Salon.com that Dr. Platt began the course by announcing that he didn’t care if they attended his lectures or the discussion sections with his teaching assistants. So students frequently skipped class, sending friends to pick up copies of Platt’s slides.

Platt, who brought the suspected cheating to the attention of Harvard authorities, has also acknowledged that the course was “one of the easiest classes at Harvard,” one student told the Boston Globe. That’s why it was popular with student-athletes like Kyle Casey, the top scorer on last year’s Ivy League champion basketball team, who is reportedly sitting out next season rather than risk losing a year of eligibility if he suits up and is later suspended. “I gave out 120 A’s last year,” Platt told the students on the first day, according to one student, “and I’ll give out 120 more.”

So students were surprised when their exams included terms and concepts that had not been covered in the class or course readings. “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” one student wrote in Harvard’s “Q Guide,” a student course-evaluation site. “The exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all.”

Put these two things together – what appears to be indifferent teaching and unclear assignments – and you have an almost perfect formula for cheating. In a 2007 survey of undergraduates at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, educational psychologist Gregory Schraw and his colleagues found that students’ perceptions of instructors' effectiveness was the factor mostly likely to decrease cheating.

“If you really like the teacher and they teach really well then you’re not as likely to cheat,” one student told the investigators. But when students think the instructor “doesn’t care,” another student added, they try “to get [the teacher] back by kind of undermining what they’re trying to do.”

So they cheat. And so do many of our college faculty, in their own way, by giving the students a meager gruel of disconnected lectures and irrelevant tests.When our students cheat, it’s called plagiarism, fraud, or academic dishonesty. But when we the professors do it, it’s considered business as usual.

And our teaching is mostly unrewarded, which is the biggest scandal of all. Across every kind of school, from big research universities to small liberal-arts colleges, professors who give more time to research tend to make higher salaries; meanwhile, the ones who devote themselves more to teaching tend to earn less.

And when it comes to tenure, as per the cliché, it really is publish or perish. That’s why – in my capacity as a department chair – I’ve sometimes advised junior colleagues to spend less time preparing for class, grading papers, and meeting with students. For all I know, Matthew Platt’s chair told Platt – an untenured professor – the same thing.

Until this scandal struck, nothing Platt did in the classroom was likely going to matter in his own career trajectory.Now it will, probably in a negative way, and that doesn’t seem quite fair either. As best we can tell, his class wasn’t very good. But he didn’t really have a good reason to make it better – any more than his students had a real incentive to attend it.

Let’s be clear: Nothing justifies their alleged cheating. If the students are found to have shared answers, on a test that expressly warned them against doing so, Harvard should penalize them swiftly and strongly. But our universities are cheating these kids, too, by placing such a low premium on teaching. And nobody should kid themselves otherwise.  

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and chairs the humanities and social services department at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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