Inside Higher Ed: Dishonourable conduct?

By Allie Grasgreen, for Inside Higher Ed

September 10, 2012

Officials at Harvard University were quick to condemn the behaviour of 125 students suspected of collaborating inappropriately on a take-home exam.

"These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behaviour that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends," Harvard president Drew Faust said in a statement.

Harvard officials, who declined to comment for this story, say they plan to revisit their academic integrity policies and possibly create an "honour code". It's not the first time they've raised the idea - for at least two years now, administrators have recognised the potential need for a makeover. In 2010, undergraduate dean Jay Harris told The Harvard Crimson that academic dishonesty there was "a real problem".

Harvard's official handbook says students should "assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is prohibited unless explicitly permitted by the instructor". The university apparently created a voluntary academic integrity pledge that students could sign last year, the Globe reported, but scrapped it this year.

One idea that administrators have floated publicly is an honour code. But experts say the whole situation is indicative of systemic issues that will be hard to address simply by throwing such a code together.

Perhaps the main reason for such behaviour, experts say - one that is ingrained deeply in college students today, particularly at elite universities such as Harvard - is the idea that the main objective should be to pass, not to learn.

By the time students get to college they have internalised messages "mistakenly conveyed to them" by both society and the educational system that the experience "is simply a means to an end", said Teddi Fishman, director of Clemson University's International Center for Academic Integrity.

"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," Dr Fishman said in an email. "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."

Mollie Galloway, an assistant professor of education and counselling at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, conducted research finding that 93 per cent of students at a group of affluent high schools had cheated in one way or another - be it copying answers, using electronics in class or plagiarising. Singling out the juniors and seniors, she found that 26 per cent had cheated in 7 or more of 13 different ways.

Many of these students say cheating is the only way they can keep up with their work, Professor Galloway said: it's cheat or be cheated.

"We really live in a society where getting ahead of the next guy is a primary value. It's what defines success in our country," she said. "They feel caught up in this system where it requires them to sacrifice their integrity or do whatever they can to get ahead because that's the system we've created."

In the days after news of the scandal broke, students in the class started speaking out, saying the course and instructors were so confusing and inconsistent that students had no choice but to collaborate, and in some cases did so in the presence of teaching assistants. (Granted, some of the students also complained that they got into trouble for behaviour that would have been tolerated in years past; the course apparently had a reputation of being easy.) In course evaluations, The New York Times reported, they said the exam questions did not cover material taught in the course and that questions "were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material". Some said the teaching assistants assigned to help the students gave everyone the same answers.

Those who are under investigation - half the students who took the class, or 2 per cent of the entire undergraduate population - face possible one-year suspensions, and some of those who have already graduated and might have their diplomas revoked are now threatening to sue the university.

Some have defended the students, noting that in professional situations, collaboration would be encouraged rather than condemned.

Anonymous contributors to a political science blog and job board (the course in question was on introductory government) have been less forgiving. "The existence of an environment where one might cheat is not an excuse for cheating," one wrote. Another commented: "These spoiled brats seem to be turning on their professor to protect their diplomas." (Others took greater issue with the professor and class format than the students.)

If Harvard does go the honour code route, it could help to create a culture where students and professors are more trusting of one another and cheating is less likely to occur.

Honour codes vary in form and are relatively rare, with probably fewer than 100 around, said Donald L. McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University, who has conducted research and surveys on student cheating for more than two decades. Honour codes generally include at least one of four components: a pledge that students sign to affirm that they won't or didn't cheat on an assignment; a non-toleration clause in which students promise to turn in students they see cheating (these are rare); a judiciary board controlled evenly or mostly by students; and unproctored exams.

Professor McCabe's surveys have indicated that honour codes do reduce rates of cheating but by how much varies. In three surveys of about 30 small- to medium-sized liberal arts colleges, slightly concentrated in the East of the US, fewer students at colleges with honour codes than those without reported copying exam answers from one another. Of those at schools with codes, 13, 19 and 8 per cent reported cheating, compared to 31, 32 and 14 per cent at schools without. The surveys are from the 1990-91, 1995-96 and 2005-06 academic years.

"I'm a great believer in honour codes, and if I were [Harvard] I would look at how I might be able to implement an honour code," Professor McCabe said, adding that faculty and administrators who resist honour codes - as seems to have been the case at Harvard - tend to do so because it means surrendering control to students via a student judicial board or unproctored testing.

The honour code at Bryn Mawr College - one of the best codes in the country, as determined by Professor McCabe - not only reduces cheating, it creates a more trusting campus culture because it teaches students about academic integrity right off the bat and all through college, said Tyler Garber, vice-president of Bryn Mawr's Self-Government Association.

"It's not about the grade here at school because of the honour code - I think it's about your own learning process," Ms Garber said, adding that one component of the integrity education is discussing the line between collaboration and cheating. (Students are encouraged to discuss and share ideas inside and outside class but when it comes time to write they should do so independently.) "We kind of harp on that with students right when they get to school....People understand what's cheating, what's not cheating here, and it's also a really good community at school."

Regardless of what route Harvard takes, Dr Fishman said, it's essential that students are actively involved in - or lead - the effort.

"Ideally, discussions about integrity should occur in a number of different settings and become part of the culture on campus - as integral a part of scholarly activity as such things as the scientific method or documentation methods," 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 honour code in place."

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