Friday, August 31, 2012

Honor Codes?

A further interesting question that has come out of the as-of-yet alleged cheating scandal at Harvard is whether Harvard should have an honor code.  The question is particularly interesting since Harvard attempted to institute a voluntary "freshman pledge" last year, that met with "controversy" (see here, here for example).  Harry Lewis wrote a detailed opinion of the pledge on his blog at the time.  Indeed, Harry Lewis in fact has spoken consistently on this issue for some time -- here's a 1996 Crimson article where he is quoted:
"Our understanding is that in registering at Harvard students agree to abide by the rules of the community they are voluntarily entering. It is not clear why a special signed agreement of another kind would be needed, or would add anything."
As if often the case, I agree with Harry's opinion above.  Also, I'd much rather have students discussing the issues and coming to grips with what are sometimes challenging ethical questions rather than signing a pledge.   

Come to think of it, I'm not sure if freshmen are to be asked to sign the pledge again this year.  (The pledge is not an honor code per se, but has been called the "kindness pledge".)

But back to the question.  Should Harvard have an honor code?  Why?  What would it add?  More empirically, do honor codes actually reduce bad behaviors, like cheating?  Is there evidence of it?  I note that many cheating scandals have occurred at schools with honor codes -- like the Naval Academy and Duke -- though apparently some researchers suggest an honor code could reduce cheating.

A natural question:  should punishments be more severe for cheating if cheating is part of an honor code?

Clearly, the question of whether we should have an honor code is going to arise at Harvard this year.  Any opinions in advance?


Anonymous said...

I think our problem with cheating is we have made the punishments too severe, and have been forced to do so because receiving a poor mark in a course carries too severe a penalty, too. I would guess that the majority of Harvard students have cheated in some fashion during their career, but even when faced with examples of it we are at a loss for what to do. What punishment can we mete out to these students that is not going to cause irrevocable harm to their future careers?

We have developed the absurd expectation that teenagers and early-twenty-somethings (for the most part) can know in advance which courses to take and that they can excel in each of them. Although Harvard provides reasonable opportunities to excuse yourself from courses, there are still cases where students make mistakes and are in danger of receiving a "low" mark, like a B-. That a single B- is perceived as capable of causing substantial harm (and it certainly is to many in the college) to one's future career / life demands an appropriate response, and that is likely cheating. It is a calculated risk.

Not all cheating may be a response to "desperate circumstances," some may occur out of convenience, too. But if we are to address cheating reasonably, we must begin by lowering the perceived cost of "failure" and adjusting our expectations about student performance to be reasonable. I would suggest that if instead of grades students were evaluated, like art students are today, on projects and actual results, then we would see a significant decline in cheats of convenience and cheating as a response to a perceived threat.

Jeff Erickson said...

_ receiving a poor mark in a course carries too severe a penalty_ — [citation needed]

Rice, my undergraduate institution, had an honor code, which was instigated by the students many decades ago, not by the faculty, and it shows. The honor code allowed activities that earn me stares of disbelief from my colleagues. For example, my undergraduate algorithms class had a timed, closed-book, take-home exam, in which the three-hour closed-book exam period started not when I opened the exam, but the first time I started _writing_ after opening the exam. After opening the exam but before writing the current time on the exam booklet, I was explicitly permitted to read anything I wanted, but not write anything else or talk to anyone else about the exam.

Did some students abuse this trust? Of course they did; even Rice students are human beings. But the vast majority of students took the honor code very seriously, and the trust placed in the students themselves was incredibly empowering.

Or maybe I'm just weird.

Anonymous said...

Harvard has such high standards for admission that only students who appear to be top caliber can get in.

The two categories of students that will get in are cheaters and elite students.

If late in the admissions process, students were made to take a monitored test and write a short essay, that should help to weed out the cheaters.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how much of a difference an honor code makes, but I think it is important to treat students like the adults they are. I went to Harvard many years ago, and appreciated that about the school. At the school I teach at now, every syllabus has to have some boilerplate text about what constitutes cheating. I imagine some lawyers decided it was required, but the shear idiocy of it I think must encourage cheating.

(It is like the famous story of what happened when the Israeli day-care center started charging parents for picking their kids up late; it changed a moral issue into a financial or, in this case, a legal issue.)

I like Harvard's policy of kicking the students out for a year. To have students like this mixing with the rest of the class can corrupt the entire student body---because it puts honest students at a disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

shear -> sheer

AnonGeek said...

I agree with Jeff Erickson. I went to a school with an honor code, and I felt it was empowering. It's not the specific details of the words on the page; it is the symbolism.

The honor code carried a powerful message. The message was: we trust you. We will trust you to do the right thing, and we expect you to live up to it. That made me want to live up to the trust that was put in us, and made me feel more respected.

The message was conveyed in subtle but memorable ways. For instance, our instructors made a point of leaving out the exam room after handing out the exams. They were not there to be proctors or to detect cheating; we were trusted not to do things like that.

It may sound silly and unnecessary to you, but it resonated with me in a subtle, quiet, but memorable way.

Glenn Brown said...

"No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community." Worked for us. .