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Hot on Campus | September 12, 2012

Are honor codes the antidote to cheating?


Harvard University proposes an honor code to help hold students to the school's standard of academic honesty

Pedestrians walk through a gate on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. Dozens of Harvard University students are being investigated for cheating after school officials discovered evidence they may have wrongly shared answers or plagiarized on a final exam. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

At the end of the spring semester, 250 Harvard University students got a take-home test for their final exam. The professor told them to do the work on their own and bring it back. The test probably seemed laughably easy, not one many of the students would still be talking about months later.

But that final exam may end up becoming the most talked about test in Harvard's history. It certainly will be unforgettable for about half the students who took it. The graduate student placed in charge of grading the exam found overwhelming similarities between many answers and identical word clusters in many others. The similarities indicated that about half the students collaborated on the exam, a violation of the professor's directions that amounts to cheating.

"These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends," Harvard President Drew Faust said in a public statement about the investigation into what happened.

In the wake of the cheating scandal, Harvard administrators are contemplating adopting a formal honor code, something the school never deemed necessary before. Harvard officials hope a code would discourage future scandals and emphasize the school's commitment to truth and honesty. But critics say nothing the school puts in its student handbook will change the attitude of students who value grades over learning.

Jay M. Harris, Harvard's dean of undergraduate education, sees the scandal as a wakeup call to work harder at academic faithfulness: "We do think it's an opportunity to really put out before the community how much we value integrity."

Although only about 100 schools have formal honor codes, those who do report a marked decrease in plagiarism and cheating. This is mostly the case with smaller universities who take academics seriously. For these students, it is liberating to know their classmates are not cheating.

But Donald McCabe, an expert on academic cheating at Rutgers University, says the liberating culture permeating the schools with honor codes may take generations to establish. While codes may be helpful for smaller Ivy League campuses, a bigger university may not respond well to an honor code, he said.

"The more selective the school, the better chance it'll work because students will be more responsive to the danger of being thrown out," he said.

Even though Harvard is a larger school, McCabe believes its high value for academics should provide a good environment for an honor code. But some Harvard students are less than optimistic.

Anne Maguire, a freshman from Westfield, N.J., thinks it is a shame students cannot seem to abide by the motto of the school - "veritas," which means truth. "But if people want to cheat, they're going to cheat. A code isn't going to change that," she said.

Teddi Fishman, director of Clemson University's International Center for Academic Integrity, agrees that simply throwing together an honor code may not be what Harvard needs to decrease cases of cheating on campus. She sees Harvard's problem as something ingrained in students since their high school and middle school years. It is more about the way they were taught to learn than the rules put in place over them.

"The students who make it to us (and especially the ones who end up in schools like Harvard) have learned exactly what they have to do to succeed, and sadly, that often has very little to do with becoming educated," Fishman told Inside Higher Ed in an article last week. "Instead, it's almost solely about figuring out what will be asked (in papers, tests, and other assessments), learning that material long enough to produce it when necessary, and then moving on to the next thing."

This method of material regurgitation makes it hard for honor codes to be effective. Students who do not put a high degree of value on their academics may not be willing to accept such a code of ethics. Schools that do have honor codes seem to have had them since the college's inception or sometime during its early years.

Davidson College, outside Charlotte, N.C., has required its students to abide by an honor code for more than 100 years. The small campus of 1,800, attempts to track students who want a highly academic atmosphere, allowing them to take exams without being proctored by a professor, said Dr. Clark Ross, vice president of academic affairs.

"Students appreciate the trust we have in them," Ross said. "It's not just the question of having an [honor code], but a question of getting the students committed to it."

Taylor White, a senior at Davidson, leads the school's honor council. The honor code is liberating for students, enabling them to focus on academics and not worry about others cheating, she said: "We all sort of feel that there's an instant respect when you meet any student in any class, and also a trust."

The trust on Davidson's campus has been earned over years of tradition and practice. For Harvard to initiate a similar honor code may take years of work.

"I think Harvard should explore this possibility while remembering that it requires history and tradition to fully develop a strong Honor Code," White said.

But White's praise of the honor council is not shared by all. Emily Zmak, a junior from Trinity Western University, in Vancouver, Canada, views a student-run honor council as destructive toward community. Establishing a few students over the majority of students breaks the classroom hierarchy and undermines the student equality, Zmak said.

Finding college students in today's culture who would be willing to turn their classmates in for cheating will be very hard, Zmak said. Initiating an honor code on Harvard's campus may not work if there is a strong sense of community that binds the students together and causes them to stick up for each other, Zmak said.

Fishman agrees that simply initiating an honor code may not solve Harvard's problem.

"Ideally, discussions about integrity to should occur in a number of different settings and become part of the culture on campus," she said. "When that happens and the students see integrity as something they are invested in, that has greater effect, in my opinion, than whether or not a school has an honor code in place."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.