AI makes university honour codes more necessary than ever

Evidence suggests that honesty pledges make cheating less pronounced than it otherwise would be, say Thomas Gift and Julie Norman

二月 7, 2023
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So far, the response within higher education to the launch of ChatGPT has been predictably administrative or technical.

Some academics are moving from typed research papers to in-class and/or handwritten essays and even oral exams to prevent students seeking the help of the next-generation chatbot, with its stunning ability to produce text on any topic in any style in seconds. Others are adopting AI-detecting tools such as ZeroGPT. Others are toughening up plagiarism rules to include AI.

All of these remedies have merit. But they also make a regrettable assumption: that universities can’t curb the basic urge of students to cheat. With AI and other technologies making that temptation ever greater, academics should reflect not just on how to treat the symptoms of tools like ChatGPT, but also on curing the underlying problem.

THE Campus collection: AI transformers like ChatGPT are here, so what next?

Most institutions of higher learning have academic integrity codes that prohibit cheating, plagiarism and other misconduct, but for many they are something of an afterthought, focused on penalising rule-breakers. 

Yet there’s another side of honour codes – one that focuses less on punishment and more on infusing students with a sense of dignity, virtue and respect for themselves, their work, their professors and their peers. It’s hard to create this kind of deep-seated culture or tradition of honour. Yet it’s crucial if we want students to think reflectively about their personal, academic and professional obligations. 

There are pockets within higher education that can serve as models. US schools such as Washington and Lee University, the University of Virginia and Haverford College are just some exemplars in maintaining strong, student-run honour codes. A common thread is immersing students in a setting that discourages them from thinking about honour merely in terms of compliance to a set of black-letter rules.

Schools can start with simple measures. Requiring students to sign an honour contract during orientation is foundational. So is writing an honour pledge on all assessed work, asserting that the work is the student’s own. The goal should be to instil a sense of moral obligation in students and to reinforce its importance over time. 

The best honour codes, however, aren’t confined to activities inside the classroom. They foster a climate of integrity that pervades every aspect of campus life, from the sports field to Greek life. Their essence is ensuring that students won’t lie, cheat, steal, mislead or behave in ways inconsistent with broadly accepted social values.

Schools can complement academic initiatives with co-curricular programmes, discussions and workshops on ethics in education. Washington and Lee, for example, recently launched the Mudd Center for Ethics, with a stated mission to “advance dialogue, teaching, and research about issues of public and professional ethics”. Similarly, Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics serves as a “home for faculty, students, and staff dedicated to understanding the moral challenges of our time.” 

Sceptics argue that honour codes may not be enough to stem academic dishonesty, or that they should be ditched altogether if they work imperfectly. Students are bombarded with pressures from every angle: to gain admission to top graduate programmes, to land high-paying jobs, to succeed in other aspects of their social and extracurricular lives. All this makes taking shortcuts much too inviting for an abstract pledge to discourage. 

Empirical research on cheating in higher education suggests that the problem has grown in recent decades, aided by technologies that enable deception. Indeed, even schools with well-established honour codes can fall short. The US Naval Academy, for example, was rocked by a widespread cheating scandal in 2021, leading to the expulsion or resignation of 18 midshipmen. 

We’re not naive enough to think that creating, or reaffirming, a commitment to honour codes will completely eliminate dishonesty and foil the advances of tools such as ChatGPT. Still, there’s also sound evidence that strong honour codes make academic dishonesty less pronounced than it otherwise would be.

Honour codes are a first step to reframing how we think and talk about academic integrity on college campuses and to preparing students for grappling with the complex moral dilemmas they’ll face after receiving their diplomas. Amid technological advances, their value is part of a multifaceted approach that colleges should consider as they seek to foster and maintain communities of trust.

Thomas Gift is associate professor of political science at UCL and director of the UCL Centre on US Politics. He is currently a visiting fellow at Yale University’s Center for the Study of American Politics. Julie M. Norman is associate professor of politics and international relations at UCL and co-director of the UCL Centre on US Politics.



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Reader's comments (1)

Honour codes are, much as Captain Barnaby's says in Pirates of the Caribbean, "more guidelines than rules." They often have penalties if not adhered to (and caught doing so, which when it comes to cheating is increasingly difficult to prove beyond gut feeling and circumstantial evidence of "similarity"). But these penalties are often so scaled that when they are used they're effectively meaningless. They go on your academic record, sure. But that's not a record any employer (or even most academics teaching these students, as the information actually accessible to us of any student you're responsible for or putting your good name to is roughly equivalent to a school report card stuck on your fridge) will ever see, so why would the student care? Plus more strict adherence to them would mean higher resit/retake workloads or panel convenes or slower progression rates, which surely disincentivises the staff and the institution? Then there's the issue of genuine not knowing. We introduce, repeat, reiterate, nigh-bombard students with teaching on referencing, appropriate sources, academic integrity and so on. We explain the rules and assessment briefs and boundaries and constraints so many times, yet there is always "poor scholarship" on the basis is misunderstanding or stress or circumstance (basically, "bless your cotton socks you weren't to know - you're only 18-21, and we only told you 14 times and ran three tutorials on it with an extra online drop in that you showed up to none of."). Heck, I genuinely overheard a student this week say to their mate, as we crossed paths past a car with a parking ticket on campus grounds, "Nah, I never pay those things. What's uni going to do? They don't clamp it or tow it so it's basically free parking." I'm just saying, honour is important. Crucial even. The honourable thing to do is a big part of what I try to instil in my own children. But honour codes at universities never have enough bite or importance beyond proof of being able to say that we did warn them about something when they have ultimately done the thing. "Can't say we didn't warn you," so to speak. And as always for these types of things, they exist for the minority of students as we can largely trust the majority to do the right thing anyway. But much like agreeing to check their emails and attend classes by having registered, unfortunately nothing really happens if they don't do any of those things.