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Students Cheated Their Way to Quiz Bowl Wins

The school was just stripped of four quiz bowl championships, after evidence surfaced that some of its students might have sneaked a peak at the questions before hand

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Harvard students are smart, right? Well, if you measure intelligence by number of quiz bowl wins, then they totally are. Except that they might have cheated. The school was just stripped of four quiz bowl championships, after evidence surfaced that some of its students might have sneaked a peak at the questions before hand.

At Inside Higher Ed, Zack Budryk writes:

According to the , one of these writers, Andrew Watkins, of Harvard’s “A” team (many institutions split their teams for tournaments), had accessed “questions-by-writer” and/or “category” pages directly prior to the NAQT Intercollegiate Championship Tournament in 2009, 2010 and 2011. This gave Watkins, who graduated in 2011, access to the first 40 characters of upcoming tournament questions. Although there are blocks in place to prevent accessing questions even in part, Watkins was able to circumvent them.

The trick was that some of these students also wrote questions for quiz bowls held in middle and high schools. That gig gave them additional access to the database of questions.

For those who don’t play quiz bowl, this might not seem like a big deal. But at Sidespin, one writer, tries to explain just how important this cheating scandal is:

There’s not really an appropriate sports analogy here, which makes sense, because quizbowl isn’t even remotely a sport. Imagine if Calipari won three national titles in a row, only to have them all stripped because it was revealed he was using the Monstars from Space Jam.

Harvard’s opponents weren’t exactly pleased about the revelation. Here’s Inside Higher Ed again:

“If you can see the questions ahead of time, it’s not just having an advantage, it’s like having the answer key to the test,” said Andrew Hart, a member of the University of Minnesota’s team, in an interview. “ was already one of the best teams in the country, so I think that gave them the push they needed to get over the top. They were able to win these tournaments based on… cheating.”

One cheating quiz bowler, Andy Watkins, had this to say about his misconduct:

I regret my breaches of question security. I am gratified that NAQT acknowledges that there is neither direct nor statistical evidence that I took advantage of my access; thoughhough I know everyone will make their own judgments, I did compete in good faith. My memories of my four ICTs in particular, and my time with the Harvard team in general, are my fondest memories of quiz bowl and some of the fondest of my time as an undergraduate….

The NAQT also released a statement as part of their 2013 Security Review Update that said it would be “reviewing its server logs on a weekly basis for suspicious access related to its upcoming championships. But as the Sidespin writer explains, cheating at quiz bowl is not exactly a high-reward activity:

One of the amusing things about this whole thing is that, strictly speaking, there is no real reason to cheat at quizbowl. Quizbowl is a very tightknit community around something that doesn’t matter very much, like lots of weird things on the Internet. There are no cash prizes for winning quizbowl tournaments. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a trophy and maybe a dog-eared book .

Basically, all that’s at stake is here is glory and self-satisfaction, which cheating sort of negates anyway.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Can We Excuse Cheating If It Supports a Good Cause?
The Future of Cheating in Sports

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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