Cheating, Facebook, Clickers, and More – Problems in a Harvard Life Sciences Course

I’ve been following the coverage of the alleged mass cheating in Harvard University’s Life Sciences 1b course. The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, ran a story about the course last week titled “LS1b Staff Investigates Cheating on Facebook.” Students in this course formed a Facebook group called LS1b that eventually had over 300 members. Everyone seems to agree that students used the group to gripe about the course, but there’s less consensus over other uses of the group. Apparently, some students came to the teaching staff and told them that other students were using the group to cheat during in-class quizzes. The teaching staff then let all the students in the course know that they had been alerted to this alleged cheating, then they changed the grading scheme for the course so that the in-class quizzes no longer contributed to students’ grades.

Reading the stories and comments posted on The Crimson website about LS1b, it’s clear to me that this course has a whole mess of issues. Here are a few that jumped out at me:

  • Cheating – It would appear that at least some cheating during in-class quizzes was happening in this course. What’s not clear is how that cheating took place. Did students compare answers by whispering to their neighbors? Showing their neighbors their answer sheets? Sharing answers on the Facebook group? Googling answers for themselves? Given the teaching staff’s concern about cheating, I can’t imagine that many students had their laptops open during these quizzes, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t accessing Facebook or Google on their phones.
  • Fear of Technology – Of course, it doesn’t mean they were, either. I think it’s a fundamental attribution error to assume that students in a Facebook group for this course were necessarily using it to cheat. Students were using technology to connect with each other on a scale not possible without that technology, but that doesn’t mean they were somehow less ethical than students in the past. They just have access to new tools for communication and collaboration. In fact, students might have been less willing to cheat on Facebook than they would in person since their interactions on Facebook were more likely to be observed or recorded.
  • Large Class Size – It’s not clear from The Crimson articles how many students are in this class, but I would guess it’s over 200 given the size of the Facebook group. It’s particularly hard to catch cheaters in a class this large, even with teaching staff patrolling the aisles during quizzes. Large classes also make it more difficult for instructors to create rapport with students, which is unfortunate, since some level of rapport helps greatly in tense situations like the one in LS1b. Here’s a comment on The Crimson article to that effect: “If the course were taught in smaller groups, and enough individual attention to students was available, these problems would not have occurred.”
  • Unclear Directions – Not only were students accused of cheating on quizzes, but they were also accused of cheating on clicker questions, called “breakouts.” Students were actively encouraged to discuss some of the clicker questions with their peers (in classic peer instruction style), but preceptor Casey Roehrig “explained that collaboration during breakouts was encouraged for discussion-based questions only. But some breakouts were meant to test solely the students’ understanding of the material.” If certain clicker questions are meant to be answered independently by students while others are to be answered in groups, that needs to be made very clear to students. From the outside, it’s impossible to know if the directions given by teaching staff were unclear or if some students misinterpreted the directions they were given. (There’s a “fear of technology” issue here, too. If students were encouraged to collaborate on some clicker questions, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so online though a Facebook group?)
  • Unhappy Students – As I mentioned above, it’s pretty clear that the Facebook group was used by students to complain about the course. Venting to friends about a tough test, poor lecture, or frustrating grading policy is certainly fine, but venting to 300 friends about these things in a Facebook group has a potentially larger effect. Sometimes online forums can foster mob mentalities, in which small problems perceived by a few quickly snowball into complaints from many. On the other hand, sometimes online forums can help participants realize that what they thought was just their personal perception is actually a viewpoint shared by many. In the former case, the LS1b Facebook group might have contributed to student unhappiness. In the latter case, however, the Facebook group might have just made more visible unhappiness that was already there. In either case, it’s probably in the best interests of the students and the course for the teaching staff to respond in some way to student complaints about the course.
  • Changing the Grading Scheme Midstream – The result of the allegations of cheating has led the LS1b teaching staff to change their grading scheme with only a few days left in the semester. The “breakout” clicker questions will now contribute only 1% to the overall course grade, and the in-class quizzes won’t count for anything at all. I certainly understand the need to respond to the allegations of cheating, and reducing the impact of the assessments during which cheating might have occurred is one way to go about this. However, this seems somewhat unfair to the students who didn’t cheat but did work hard to do well on those quizzes. Had they known those quizzes would end up not counting, they might have spent the time studying for the quizzes differently, perhaps preparing for graded assignments in other courses. While I don’t approach the syllabus as a contract to the extent that some instructors do, I’m certainly cautious of changing course policies midstream.

The story of Life Sciences 1b is a fascinating one, in part because it brings up so many issues that I see and hear in other teaching contexts regularly. What are you thoughts? Have the teaching staff responded appropriately to the allegations of cheating? Is there a “fear of technology” embedded in their responses? Are the students not taking adequate responsibility for their behavior in this course?

Image: “tangles,” Lisa Bruce, Flickr (CC)

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