Harvard Courses Turn to Monitored Exams, Open-Book Assessments, and Faith in Students As Classes Move Online


As Harvard students dispersed by the coronavirus pandemic complete their first week of online classes, faculty say they have faith in the College’s Honor Code to guard against the temptation of mid-exam Googling.

Several instructors have chosen to shift remaining exams in their course from closed-book to open-book, allowing students to consult textbooks and notes during the assessment. For example, the final exam in the course Statistics 171: “Introduction to Stochastic Processes” is now open-note and open-book.

Economics professor Christopher L. Foote said he decided to administer solely open-note assessments for the remainder of his course, Economics 1010b: “Intermediate Macroeconomics,” due to the technical challenge of asking his approximately 240 students to install exam proctoring software on their computers.

“Aside from the technical challenges of making sure that that software ran for everybody on their home computers no matter where they are, I just didn’t think it was appropriate to sort of introduce that level of intrusion of technological intrusion into the test taking process,” he said.


Foote added that he chose to rely on the College’s Honor Code in trusting students not to consult with others about their exam answers.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Robert N. Stavins similarly said he decided to change the final exam of his course Economics 3116: “Seminar in Environmental Economics and Policy” to a three-hour-long open-book exam.

“In my experience, the vast majority of students at Harvard demonstrate very high levels of academic integrity, but making the exam closed-book at remote settings, without opportunities for monitoring and enforcement, could lead to inequities among students,” Stavins wrote in an email to The Crimson.

Instead of instituting format changes, some instructors have chosen to proctor their online exams. Government professor Stephen Chaudoin wrote in an email that his teaching team supervised an online, closed book exam via Zoom for his course Government 40: “International Conflict and Cooperation”.

Chaudoin said more than half of his students had already taken the exam in person when it was originally scheduled on March 10, less than two hours after the College’s notice to evacuate. For that reason, he felt it was most equitable to give the remaining students a similar, closed book exam.

“I would consider doing another closed-book, online exam. I thought it went pretty well,” he wrote. “In International Relations, when people talk about arms control, they sometimes say ‘Trust but verify.’ The same applies here. We have to trust the students, and the online exam tools give us a partial way to monitor things.”

Chaudoin said he used an online proctoring protocol developed by the Office of Undergraduate Education. Spanish 20: “Intermediate Spanish: Language and Culture in the Hispanic World” will also use this protocol for closed-book exams, according to its updated syllabus.

“If you feel a closed-book, timed exam is important in your course, you can hold one in Zoom,” the protocol reads. “Students will set up their webcams to give you and your teaching fellows a view of their workspace while they work on the test.”

The OUE, however, generally discourages online proctored exams, according to the document.

“It is the recommendation of the OUE to try to adapt your assessments to use methods that do not require a closed-book proctored exam,” the protocol begins.

Molecular and Cellular Biology professor Robert A. Lue, the faculty director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, said he thinks it is essential for faculty to exercise trust in students.

“I have urged every colleague that will really listen to me — and the Bok Center has made this explicit — that we think it’s better at this sort of specific moment in time to focus on the Honor Code and not get bogged down in what can be rather complicated proctoring scenarios,” he said.

As courses have transitioned online, other instructors have echoed their faith in the College’s Honor Code, which asks students to sign a statement affirming their commitment to academic integrity.

Foote said he believes professors’ “default setting” should be confidence in students’ ability to conduct themselves with academic integrity — even during crises like the current coronavirus pandemic.

“Do I think that some students in the United States higher educational system have cheated? Yeah,” he said. “But I also think that professors should trust students to do the right thing and it improves the learning atmosphere for everybody involved.”

David Dockterman, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Technology, Innovation, and Education program, said emphasizing individual growth rather than competition is key to helping students maintain integrity.

“You’re trying to do a quick culture shift that has a higher focus on learning and learning how to learn in a new environment, rather than on competing for grades,” he said.

Despite course changes and exam supervision experiments, at least one aspect of the College’s cheating enforcement will persist: the College’s Honor Council — which adjudicates Honor Code violations — will continue to hear cases.

Allison J. Piper ’20, a student academic integrity fellow, said the dispersal will not significantly impact the Council’s work.

Honor Council voting member Taimur M. Kouser ’20 agreed, adding that, while the council will have to adapt its in-person outreach activities, its members remain dedicated to promoting and enforcing academic integrity.

“The Harvard community is dispersed, but it’s still intact,” Kouser said. “And so our commitment to the educational mission of the College and the values that we hold when pursuing that knowledge — being academically honest in our work even beyond just education — remains the same.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.