April 23, 2020

BETTEZ | Forget the Honor System, Eliminate Closed Note Testing

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As stated by Martha Pollack, our transcripts for this semester will be noted with: “During the spring 2020 semester, the COVID-19 pandemic required significant changes to coursework. Unusual enrollment patterns and grades reflect the tumult of the time, not necessarily the work of the individual.” That’s right, according to the school, your grades don’t necessarily reflect the work of the individual. While this statement is likely true to some degree any given semester, the outright acknowledgment by the university that these grades are essentially invalid for determining the learning and competence of the individual makes it clear what a mess this semester is shaping to be academically.

As classes stretch into their fourth week since their return after our unexpected three-week break, it becomes increasingly clear that the most equitable choice would have been universal satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading. However, it seems the time for that debate has passed, and the administration has chosen opt-in with little room left for argument. I’m more concerned with the extreme reliance on so-called honor codes, where students are trusted to work alone on online quizzes, labs and exams. While a lovely idea in theory, it’s an in-practice disaster. Honor codes hurt the students who adhere to it the most, especially in a university setting where many classes are graded on a curve.

In this current academic setting, students, even those who otherwise never consider academic dishonesty, are faced with a choice: to cheat or to fall behind in the curve, especially in exam, or pseudo-exam, situations. Unless an assessment is entirely open-book and open to discuss with others, there is no way to make it truly fair for all students. Online, there is essentially no way to enforce any kind of academic honesty, and from my three years here, I know the vast majority of my peers aren’t opposed to some light cheating, especially if everyone else is doing it.

I would like to make it clear that I don’t believe this vast majority are terrible people — the students admitted here at Cornell simply know the name of the game: to stay with or above the curve. If everyone else is doing something to get an advantage, it’s a disservice to your own academic achievement to not follow suit. If your biology class filled with pre-med students is all collaborating with each other to get the correct answers on an online quiz, you could be hurting your own chances at your doctor dreams by risking lower grades. Just opt-in S/U you say? Actually, Cornell Career Services recommends keeping letter grades so as to not hurt your chances of medical school admission. Nice try.

Through creating academic situations that rely on academic honesty, professors unwittingly force students to make that awful choice between their grades and their conscience. And the more they choose to rely on academic honesty, the tighter of a spot they force their students in, and the greater degree to which they are penalizing their students who stick to their values and refuse to cheat.

In a time where its students are scattered across the world, the only windows we can find into strangers at Cornell is on the internet, at places like r/Cornell on Reddit. A user, who requested to be identified only by their username u/2-butoxybutane on the subreddit and whose profile identifies them as an Arts and Science freshman, vented on Cornell a few days ago. In a rant, they expressed their frustration with the current grading system:

“Mondays tend to be the absolute worst because I have four assignments due out of which 1 is a quiz which is a hefty part of the grade. I had been doing fairly well in the class but yesterday I figured that literally everyone has been cheating and it literally broke my heart because I had been putting so much effort into them ~4 hours while others would just collaborate and get it done with in [sic] much less time. I was up until 1 doing the quiz…”

In a later section in the comments, they added: “how would the profs protect those who aren’t cheating in terms of grading?” The truth is, they really can’t. Could you honestly tell this freshman that the grades they’re receiving relative to the rest of the class are fair? Could you say that the professor is doing the best they can to create an equitable situation for them? No.

Let’s face what we already know — an individual, honest assessment of a student’s knowledge independent of others is pretty much out the window at this point, as it has been since Cornell canceled classes. Professors need to, instead, focus on actually teaching the students the material. By lessening pressure on grades and allowing for collaborative, open-book work that allows students to actively engage with the material in order to learn it will cause students to use their peers as a resource for support. Students would no longer be pit against each other and a more healthy work environment will be created. Let’s take this time to bring Cornell and higher education back to its core purpose — to teach and learn. By eliminating closed-book assignments for the semester, we can better reflect student understanding of course material and foster a sense of togetherness in the process.


Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mbettez@cornellsun.com. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.