Last semester, 279 Harvard students were given a take-home, open-book, open-notes, open-Internet final exam for the government class, “Introduction to Congress.” Now, 125 of those students are currently under a case-by-case investigation for alleged “inappropriate collaboration” on the exam due to similarities in the students’ answers.
In the wake of this cheating scandal, Harvard is giving “renewed consideration” to the idea of a college-wide honor code, according to the Associated Press. But does the implementation of an honor code really reduce cheating?
“I really hope it does,” said Alyssa Hager, Chief Justice of Virginia Tech’s honor system student panel. “This is kind of like a full-time job for me.”
The Effects of an Honor System
Donald McCabe, a professor of business at Rutgers University, has devoted many hours of research to the topic of academic student integrity. The bulk of his research has shown that the existence of an honor code at a college or university does in fact reduce cheating.
In regard to the recent bout of cheating at Harvard, McCabe said that it’s possible the students were unaware that collaboration on that particular test was not allowed.
“Sometimes faculty are at fault as much as students for giving inappropriate instructions that are not detailed enough,” he said.
If any of the students involved in the Harvard scandal are found guilty of collaboration, they could face a one-year suspension from the university.
“I don’t think there’s much question that the students did something wrong, but whether they did enough to get thrown out of school or not is really the question,” McCabe said. “It had to be obvious that it was an exam and that you shouldn’t just copy somebody else’s (answers.)”
Although Tech has a fully developed honor system, Hager said situations similar to what happened at Harvard occur at Tech as well.
“We do get some take-home tests that have been collaborated on,” she said. “As a student, I kind of overhear other students saying, ‘Hey, do you want to get together and work on this take-home test?’ I definitely think it does happen here as well as Harvard, even though we do have an honor code statement.”
Art Buikema, an alumni distinguished professor of biology and chair of the Tech honor system’s faculty review board, also agreed that collaboration is a type of cheating that occurs at Tech.
“The most common types of cheating are plagiarism and cheating off someone on an exam,” he said. “Periodically, we also get people who collaborate together.”
What stops students from getting away with inappropriate collaboration at Tech? Hager said that Tech’s honor code requires professors to take precautionary measures to ensure students are clear on what is not allowed during an exam or assignment.
“Here, if a teacher gives an open-book or open-notes exam, they have to specify either in the syllabus or on the test itself that you cannot work with other people, or else we don’t consider it an honor code violation because it’s really ambiguous,” Hager said. “A lot of students think that if you can use a book, you can use each other, because you’re all using the same resource anyway. So we have teachers really specify that here.”
Hager concurred with McCabe on the fact that some students do not realize that collaboration is prohibited if the professor does not specifically announce it.
“In my experience, we do get a lot of kids who mean to cheat, and do deserve to be brought before the honor court,” Hager said. “But then we also see a lot of students who make mistakes and they honestly didn’t know that what they were doing was an honor code violation.”