Can We Trust School Honor Codes to Prevent Cheating?

To combat cheating, most universities and high schools rely on an honor code, founded upon the belief that students are mature and responsible enough to regulate themselves. Yet students do not always display the most honorable behavior. As such, is placing the regulation of cheating in the hands of students truly an effective practice?

As a middle school teacher, I became keenly aware of the commonality of cheating as well as the need to teach young students the appropriate use of Internet resources — particularly that, no, Google is not a source. The question becomes: How can we most effectively address these growing holes in the academic system?

There is no doubt that academic cheating is on the rise. Of 14,000 college students polled, two-thirds admitted to some form of cheating; of 4,000 high school students, one-in-three admitted to using the internet for plagiarism. Engineering and business majors take the lead for most frequently reported cheating; business school students reported the highest rates of admitted cheating — 56% — among graduate students. While studies support that males and students with lower GPAs tend to cheat more frequently than their classmates, contextual differences, such as social norms on a campus, were found to more significantly impact cheating behaviors than individual differences. (McCabe et al., 1997; 2001.)

With advancing technology and tech-savvy students, these numbers should not come as a surprise. Smart phone use during exams was not a concern of the past, but we now live in a world in which internet use is of second nature and the boundaries of plagiarism start to blur at very young ages.

At my own university, I remember being resentful, yet fearful, of the strict, student-run honor code. A year’s suspension is standard punishment for behavior ranging from working on problem sets with others to outright plagiarism. After enrolling in post-bacc classes where this culture was lacking, however, I have come to strongly support and respect the potential significance of an honor code.

Based on his extensive work in academic dishonesty, Professor Donald McCabe of Rutgers University has found that honor codes are most effective at combating cheating, particularly when the code permeates campus culture. It is imperative for both faculty and students to actively work to enforce these standards; opting out weakens the system, and an ineffective system is worse than none at all. Peer-pressure is one of the most influential forces in a student’s life, across all ages, and using that to create an atmosphere of academic integrity is a powerful tool.

Honor codes are intended to teach responsibility, self-respect, and ultimately, integrity. An effective honor code should create an environment where social norms serve as strong deterrents for cheating and strict consequences outweigh risky benefits. Combating cheating takes addressing it at a preventative level — starting young with ethics classes, providing students with tools to deal with potentially tempting situations, and building pride in ownership of one’s own work. Our education system needs to address these issues at even younger ages than previously anticipated, and honor codes need to upgrade to account for advances in technology.

For the majority of students, an honor code should aim to instill lasting impressions in terms of ethics and morality; lessons that reach beyond isolated incidences of plagiarism.

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