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Editorial: Practice makes perfect

The news from the recent Herald poll that over 17 percent of undergraduates have cheated during their time at Brown has raised questions about the University's academic integrity.

As Professor of Computer Science Andy van Dam told The Herald last week, when students present a Brown diploma, "people see that and assume they've learned something." But when it comes to the University's reputation for rigor, we're concerned more about the students who play by the rules than about the students who break them.
Consider this scenario: a student walks into an exam. He has seen most of the test questions before, word for word. In fact, he spent a few hours last night studying them in detail. All he has to do to get an A in the class is regurgitate the answers.

Sounds like cheating, right? Wrong. In far too many classes at Brown, this is simply the way professors help students prepare for exams. A number of professors give out practice tests before exams or distribute exams from previous years to help students study. This is not always a bad thing; practice tests are often helpful, giving students example problems and highlighting the most important material. But we've taken exams in which more than two-thirds of the questions came verbatim from the practice tests. We've had exams like these that were open-book, so students didn't even have to put in the effort to memorize answers from practice material.

If this behavior were not sanctioned by the professor, we would certainly call it cheating. After all, viewing the test questions before the test is an easy way out, a way to fly through a course without actually engaging with the material in a meaningful way. True, when it's done surreptitiously, it is also a serious breach of the academic code. But that's essentially the only difference. Legal or not, looking at test questions before an exam lets students walk out of a course with an A on their transcript and a woefully superficial understanding of the subject at hand.

It's useless to focus on cheating as the only threat to the University's academic integrity when the line between cheating and due academic diligence is so blurred. Only 2.3 percent of students admitted in the Herald poll that they had copied answers off another student's quiz, test or exam this semester. But hundreds of students take classes in which professors sanction what is essentially cheating. In both cases, students complete their coursework without truly learning. Granted, students who attend lectures, read the textbook, complete their assignments and study diligently will gain knowledge no matter what format the exam takes. But most students have other exams to study for and other papers to write, and they are more than happy to clinch an A by studying practice test questions and reproducing them in a bluebook.

For a university like Brown, this is disgraceful. If we're truly concerned about graduating intelligent students and preserving the meaning attached to the Brown diploma, we need to address the University's institutional rigor before we crack down on individual behavior.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.


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