Trust and collaboration

Why do most elite colleges and institutions of higher learning (including law schools) resort to proctors and complex rules to prevent cheating on exams? Why don’t we trust our students to do the right thing, like they do at Caltech? (*) According to this fascinating report, for example, undergraduate exams at Caltech are regularly taken at home and are never supervised or proctored.

Caltech’s “Honor Code” is short and simple — “No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community” — and Caltech students are routinely given 24-hour access to labs, workshops, and other facilities on campus.  Moreover, Caltech tells its undergraduates from day one that “collaboration on homework and other assignments is not just encouraged, it’s practically essential for success.”

The report mentioned above also features some interesting remarks by Markus Meister, a professor of biology at Caltech.  According to Professor Meister, “The expectation is that students will follow the rules without being proctored. Proctoring is not part of the repertoire — many of the finals are take-home.” Professor Meister was himself a Caltech student 30 years ago, and he remembers the huge degree of trust placed in him and his fellow students.  “I took a lot of take-home exams – it is a challenge to complete stuff in three hours and usually you don’t finish, so you draw a line and say ‘this is where I got to in three hours’ and then you continue.  The teaching fellow might only give you credit for what you did in the three hours.”

Are the students at Caltech graded on a curve?


About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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6 Responses to Trust and collaboration

  1. shelbynfla says:

    After attending an on-line law school which did not resort to proctors for end of year final exams and then now attending a brick-n-mortar school which does have proctors– I have found 1) the amount of study the same; 2) scores similar on exam finals; and 3) both schools require the same BAR exam at the end to obtain a license… So I believe the concept to be futile and antiquated. However I do not know if I can be a sample of the typical student. As there are school rankings and funds based on BAR passage rates – I do not are a change in any near or distant future.

    • enrique says:

      Great observations, and you are totally right about the importance of the Bar. But shouldn’t this looming threat, so to speak (i.e. the Bar), be enough incentive to take law school seriously, without resorting to cheating? Why even have grades?

      • shelbynfla says:

        It is my understanding that the Ivy League schools do not have grades. I think the Bar requirements require grades for lower tiered schools. I think there are always those that will cheat and ultimately hurt themselves. It reminds me of the theory introduced on my first day of torts class regarding the theory of luck. Some will never be caught, pass the bar and have the fanciest personal injury billboards in the state; while others will have a horrid ending to their career when caught cheating or multiple bar failures. I just have to believe that karma is real and will still work hard for my grades (as unnecessary as they are) just in case it is.

  2. enrique says:

    Fair enough, but what about my larger point about trust and collaboration at Caltech. Why won’t this model work in other schools? (Or why won’t we give it a try to see if it, in facts, works?) Of course, some fraction of a given population will always resort to cheating when the short-term benefits outweigh the probability and expected costs of getting caught (sound familiar?), and karma alone may not be an effective deterrent, especially when people tend to discount long-term costs to their present-value … so we must either increase the probability or severity of getting caught (hence all those proctors and rules) or find a better way of screening and weeding out cheaters!

  3. shelbynfla says:

    When measuring the burden of developing ways to distinguish the people that would cheat; it seems as though it would be extremely high and difficult. Cal-Tech, it appears, completes work in group settings, where songs like “The Age of Aquarius” are playing in the background. Whereas in other higher learning institution environments, there may be an additional factor where people “compete” for status, which creates a need for a more rigid structure. This factor may increase the probability of cheating. If so, then comparing a low burden to acquire proctors or even add more (at the California ‘FYLSE’ Bar Exam in Pasadena, there were also bathroom proctors); along with an extreme punishment, to ensure that the cheating will not occur; the fear of Bar Passage; then it seems highly probable that testing with the use of proctors and punishment will probably (and should) remain the same. I know that mixing up Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold because of a cheat sheet that was created incorrectly and not even used, was embarrassing enough when questioned by my teacher in 5th grade. The further punishment explaining that I was also cheating myself out of the right of that knowledge was immeasurable.

  4. enrique says:

    Excellent points … here are my “quick takes” on each: (1) It’s not just science that is a highly collaborative and social enterprise, so is law in practice; yet legal education, especially during the first year of law school, continues to be largely based on an individual and distinctly anti-collaborative model. (2) Are there more funky “Age-of-Aquarius” types in law or in the sciences? That is an empirical question, but I would imagine the fraction of hippies in both fields is low. (3) I would respectfully disagree with you about the costs of extra proctors and the costs of detecting cheating generally (I think these costs are high, not low). I suspect these costs are especially high at the margin. That is, I suspect that the additional cost of one extra proctor reduces cheating by a small or negligible amount, although I could be wrong on this. My main point is that the rigors of the Bar Exam should be enough incentive to not want to cheat on law school exams, but at the same time, the looming threat of the Bar might be too down far the road when one is considering whether to cheat today (look up “hyperbolic discounting” to see what I mean) …

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