Do University Honor Codes Work?

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Ed Felton has an interesting post in light of last night’s discussion about the ethics of Turnitin.com and class requirements to submit papers. Felton responds to a string of comments to a post by Rick Garnett on a popular “blawg” (blog for lawyers and law professors) based on his experience at Caltech and as a facutly member at Princeton. His assessment is that honor codes require enforcement if they are to survive. Students will support the code if they believe that the system is fair, unbiased and adequately enforced. However:

One has to wonder whether it makes much difference in practice whether a system is formally honor-based or not. Either way, students have an ethical duty to follow the rules. Either way, violations will be punished if they come to light. Either way, at least a few students will cheat without getting caught. The real difference is whether the institution conspicuously trusts the students to comply with the rules, or whether it instead conspicuously polices compliance. Conspicuous trust is more pleasant for everybody, if it works.

My own experience with strong honor codes at two institutions suggests that they are much more effective at helping manage the level of cheating on exams than they are in helping control plagiarism for papers outside of class. One of the touchiest parts of many honor codes is the expectation that students will turn in their peers who cheat. As an undergraduate at Hamilton, I can still remember the moral dilemma when my roommate fell asleep in the middle of our first Government hour exam. Was waking him up considered “giving assistance on this exam” and therefore a violation of the honor code? I did wake him up (roommate loyalty code trumps honor code), but I can remember at least a few days of worry that some one would report me.

2 thoughts on “Do University Honor Codes Work?”

  1. I have always felt honor codes were reminders of the accepted and expected behaviors of students. In the business world, honor codes are replaced with Code of Ethics. Do either eliminate all the infractions that occur? No. They do help remind those that might slip.

    The situation you describe about waking up your classmate and I think represents a positive use of the honor code. Another professor at our Saturday seminar shared another in which she missed her exam by entire hour because she wrote it down wrong. The ATs had to consult with the powers at be – the student really did a make a mistake and was able to take it. I see this situation just like your classmate who had fallen asleep.

    I was going to mention last night in class that honor codes remind me of the speed limit signs. They are there to remind everyone but not everyone follows the limits; those that do not follow the rules may get caught and fine.

  2. I was going to mention last night in class that honor codes remind me of the speed limit signs. They are there to remind everyone but not everyone follows the limits; those that do not follow the rules may get caught and fine.

    Then Turnitin is like the radar trap that everyone has to go through and only the guilty get caught?

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