Sunday, February 2, 2014

Portland Pauline Poses a Sunday Thirsty on Honor Codes.

I am relatively new to teaching, but not a complete novice, but have run into a situation I find completely bizarre and I'm mostly trying to see if it really is as crazy as I think. I am teaching for the first time at a school with an explicit honor code. Each student must hand write the honor code on each assignment, and all exams are self policing. No proctor at all. Whatever I think of this policy, I am certainly in no position to fight the system.

Now this seems to be a receipt for disaster, the one saving grace being that it is paired with a policy that limits the number of A grades available to a given class. So students can be expected to turn in cheaters, because someone cheating their way to an A diminishes the chance that Keener Karen can get an A. The students usually don't understand the grade policy very well, but in this case their perception that it is completely inflexible supposedly helps honor code enforcement.

At some point in my education I did attend (a different) institution that had a "hand write the honor code" requirement on major assignments. I am aware that there is supposedly research that says it prevents some small acts of dishonesty, but that an honor code does nothing to stop a student intent on cheating?

Q: Assuming that we all know that the students lie and cheat, no matter what, does any one have an experience with these codes? Does any student take them seriously? Is there any serious evidence behind this stuff or is it all wishful thinking?


  1. I attended a high school like this, and I briefly taught at a college with a set-up that was similar (though not exactly the same). The up-side is that most students are actually relatively honest, in my experience, with or without an honor code that has to be written down. If nothing else, writing it down reminds them of the punishments for getting caught. The down-side is it doesn't take more than a couple of blatant cheaters to destablize that equilibrium and cause cheating to become the "new norm." My advice would be to give, if possible, tests that are effectively impossible to cheat on - a lot of in-class substantive conceptual analysis, rather than recitations of fact. But that's not feasible in all fields (I'm lucky it is in mine).

  2. Our school honor code is like that cited, but without the stick of a strict curve.

    In my experience, any students who cheat don't usually seem to be doing themselves much good, as grades aren't any different from places I've been that use proctors. Also, I give exams that aren't multiple-choice, so it's pretty easy to catch someone copying from someone else. I caught someone last year who brazened it out all the way up the chain, and the Honor Court (staffed by students) has no tolerance at all for cheaters. The court handed this student hir head, nicely tied up with a ribbon and fancy wrapping paper. It was most gratifying.

  3. I attended a school with an honor code.

    Regardless of whether or not the school has an honor code, some students will cheat.

  4. We don't have an honor code, but my feelings are basically that if it's easier for them to do it, they will cheat (heck, they cheat and lie without an honor code) and no honor code will stop that.

  5. I worked at a school with an honor code, and rates of cheating were about the same as anyplace else I've worked.

  6. I look at it from the standpoint of students who have never cheated, but wonder whether they should start. "It appears easy to cheat and get away with it, and I'm probably not the first to notice that, so people must already be cheating, thus to not be disadvantaged, I must do it as well." When class rank has a direct effect on what comes after graduation, it takes someone of very high moral fiber to resist this temptation, honor code or no.

    The institution and students have a joint responsibility to keep this mindset from pervading. So we can trust, but like the highway patrol with their radar guns, we must also visibly verify, and occasionally prosecute and convict. When students have some confidence that others aren't gaining unfair advantage, they have an easier time choosing the honorable path themselves. But that's just my opinion.

    One thing I can say is that even with an honor code, you can balance the cost of institutional vigilance against the cost of investigating student-generated accusations. I've seen that less of the former can lead to more of the latter.

  7. Every school I've worked at has had an honor code, though the severity of the penalties, the systems for enforcing them, and the presence or absence of a duty to turn in other students for cheating (as opposed to just abstaining oneself, and having the option of turning others in) have varied. I've had only limited opportunity to observe cheating on exams, since I don't give a lot of those (though I did have one case of somebody copying from somebody else on a take-home final, back in the days when such things were done on paper, and I had them turned in, without being sealed in an envelope, to my office mailbox -- yes; I know; dumb), but I've had a lot of experience with plagiarism, and I can't say that the honor system in place has had any effect on that, either way. I see no problem with requiring honor statements on papers and exams (we had them in high school); they're no panacea, but the reinforcement can't hurt. I do think that, in the present coddling/high competitive/highly litigious climate, mandating too-severe penalties, especially for first offenses, can backfire, since administrators are then reluctant to actually impose the penalties, and end up arguing that the offense didn't really take place as a way of getting around them. I do believe that a centralized system of dealing with, or at least reporting, offenses is valuable, since it helps to identify repeat offenders, and to reinforce the idea that objections to plagiarism are not just a single teacher's idiosyncrasy. I also suspect that it is unrealistic to expect students to turn each other in, and that that, too, is likely to result in people ignoring the actual requirements of the honor code while pretending to follow it, which is, to my mind, worse than having a more realistic code that people actually follow.

    And while I'm all for efforts to reduce grade inflation, I don't think a set percentage is a good idea.

    On the other hand, I don't see any problem with self-proctored exams (which I've dealt with in two places, both with strong honor code cultures). They probably reduce the amount of effort cheaters have to put into cheating, but I suspect that they also reinforce non-cheaters in not cheating, and encourage those on the fence not to cheat, precisely because they put the responsibility for deciding whether to cheat or not squarely on the student. There's no longer any battle between an authority figure and a late adolescent (assuming traditional-age students); instead, the authority figures have said, "yes, indeed, you're an adult, and you're responsible for acting like one," and have literally walked out of the room, leaving the students alone with their consciences (and each other). That's powerful stuff, or at least it was 20-30 years ago. I'd like to think it would be even more powerful for today's helicoptered, constantly-surveilled students, but maybe not? Maybe they haven't developed internal moral compasses?

    Still, I'd argue that it's the physical absence of the instructor, or any other monitor, from the exam room (even as (s)he remains in close enough proximity/contact to answer questions -- a reminder that (s)he could be there, and chooses -- or the institution chooses for hir -- not to), far more than any statement written on exam papers, that most strongly reinforces the honor code. While I'm not for the most extreme version of an honor code -- the one that requires students to turn each other in (except maybe at the military academies) -- I am very much in favor of the no-proctoring model (at least in face to face exams; with take-homes and/or online exams, it's sort of a given, which diminishes the power of the situation, at least until/unless the online exam surveillance systems I'm now seeing touted become standard practice).

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  10. My first job was at a U with an honor code; I had to leave the room when they were taking exams. I had never been a student at a school with one, and had no idea if the students took it seriously. But it wasn't difficult to set things up so it wouldn't matter, I just had to: (i) make sure they understood there would be no credit for answers given without justification, even if correct; copying a proof or a development is harder. (ii) Include enough questions so as to fit tightly the time available; cheating takes precious time away from working on the questions. I never had the impression cheating was a problem, and anyway chose not to worry about it. My general feeling about this is that localized cheating here and there may happen, but it is unlikely (when the grade is based mainly on tests) to be so successful as to change a student's grade from failing to passing, or even from a B to an A.

    I think placing caps on grade levels (which is almost like having a mandated "curve") is a terrible idea.


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